From Sinking Product to $1B Gem

In the mid 90’s, Procter and Gamble stumbled onto a new air freshener innovation that they were certain would be an instant best seller.

This was like no other air freshener.

Other products on the market were designed to mask the air with perfumes — some successful, some not. P&G’s innovative emulsion was designed to actually absorb bad odor molecules.

I want to make sure you understand this.

The Febreze molecules absorb the molecules producing bad odors, so the smell actually disappears.

Game changer!

In technical terms, the product is an uncomplexed cyclodextrin in an aqueous solution.

Blah blah blah.

Fortunately, P&G understood the value of a good name. They dubbed it Febreze — a name derived from the words “fabric” and “breeze.”

Even better: The product was colorless, odorless, cheap to manufacture and wouldn’t stain fabrics.

It had everything going for it.

It was the product that every marketing or advertising team would kill to get their hands on. Everything about this product was innovative, effective, value-added.

In their minds, Febreze was a sure-fire winner. With the patent secured, the P&G marketing team went to work.

As a rule, P&G does an excellent job of testing and research to make sure their marketing campaigns are successful.

They thought they understood the market.

They thought they had accurately identified the benefits for the consumer: If you want to get rid of a bad odor — and not just temporarily mask it — use Febreze.

The team created a TV ad that showed women who wanted to eliminate cigar smoke or pet odors from their clothing and furniture. They ran the ad (featured below) nationwide, high-fived each other and waited for the numbers to roll in.

The first sales came in small.

They were stunned, but patient.

And then revenues took a nosedive.

What the…?

Management was dismayed. At P&G, failed products rarely get a second chance.

Their surefire product was now in danger of getting the axe.

The Marketing Team Scrambled

Did they really understand the market? Were they operating under the right value proposition? They decided to research what they had done incorrectly.

The team worked with researchers to conduct in-depth, in-home interviews.

During the course of those interviews, they hit on something interesting.

The team visited a woman who lived in Phoenix — a self-proclaimed neat freak. She took them on a tour. The home was clean and organized.

And then they entered the living room.

Where nine cats lived.


One of the researchers actually gagged because of the overpowering odors.

As they talked with the woman, they asked, “What do you do about the cat smell?”

“It’s usually not a problem,” she said.

“Do you smell it now?”

She said, “No, isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all.”

This conversation played out again and again across the country.

The people with the worst smells in their homes didn’t actually smell them.

These consumers had become “noseblind” (a term later coined by Febreze and run in subsequent ads). They had grown accustomed to the smell and could no longer detect them.

Febreze had been suggesting to consumers that when they smell the bad odor, it’s time to use Febreze. But most people didn’t smell the bad odors in their homes because they had grown accustomed to them. Nothing triggered them to actually need the product.

In effect, Febreze was not reaching the people who needed it most.

The marketer’s dream had turned into a marketer’s dilemma.

They understood what was not working about the original ad, but they still had no idea how to fix it.

Back to the Data

P&G needed to figure out a new way to reach people. A new way to help them understand how Febreze could add value to their lives — even when they didn’t realize they needed it.

P&G went back to the data. They studied hours of video footage watching people clean their homes. They found nothing.

They conducted more interviews.

And then they had an a-ha moment.

They visited a woman in Scottsdale, AZ. (Lots of a-ha’s coming from that part of the country, right?)

This woman had a pretty clean home. No obvious odors. No pets. No smokers. And to the surprise of the research team, she claimed that she loved Febreze.

They couldn’t understand why.

“I use it every day,” she said.

“What smells are you trying to get rid of?”

“I don’t really use it for specific smells,” she said. “I use it for normal cleaning. A couple of sprays when I’m done in a room.”

They followed her around the house and watched her clean. She made the bed and then sprayed the comforter with Febreze. She vacuumed and then sprayed the carpet with Febreze.

Then she added, “It’s nice, you know. Spraying feels like a little mini-celebration when I’m done with a room.”

All kinds of light bulbs turned on!

A Turning Point

The researchers went back to the video footage and watched people clean. Then they saw the interesting phenomenon that they had previously missed. After people finished cleaning, they looked over what they had done and gave a little smile.

A little mini-celebration. It was a reward for a job well done.

The insight was seemingly minor. So much so that every one of those researchers had missed it again and again.

In reality, the insight was powerful.

And pivotal.

And not only saved Febreze from the scrap pile, but turned it into the surefire success they all suspected it could be.

The marketers realized they needed to position Febreze as a reward at the end of their cleaning ritual. The trigger to use Febreze was actually the cleaning routine — rather than smelling bad odors.

They went to work.

First, they made changes to the product. The original product had no scent. They added a proprietary perfume to the formula to give it a distinct fresh-smelling scent — like a breath of fresh air.

Then, the new ads came out.

They showed people finishing various cleaning tasks, spritzing the room or the bedspread or the furniture, and then taking a deep whiff and smiling. They subtly positioned themselves as the end of a successful cleaning routine. The final touch to get out any lingering odors.

The product, which had been designed to completely absorb bad odors, was now positioned as an air freshener to use when things were already clean.

Within two months, sales doubled.

Febreze earned $230 million the next year.

In 2011, Febreze hit the $1B mark.

Years later, P&G now positions the Febreze technology as an odor-blocking capability and has included the technology in its laundry detergents, such as Tide and Downy.

Febreze remains a top-selling brand throughout the world.

So What Do You Do With This?

As a Marketing and Insights Consultant, this is the kind of work I do for clients every day. We frequently visit consumers in their environments, video record them doing common tasks, and then pour over the details of those videos looking for those precious opportunities for our clients.

We focus on the functional, emotional and social “jobs” that people are trying to accomplish through their normal tasks, routines and behaviors. This theory comes from Clayton Christensen. If we understand those “jobs” to be done for customers, then we know how to design solutions, value propositions and messaging to appeal to the target audience.

The answer is simple:

Design for the appropriate jobs.

In the case of Febreze, the marketing team thought the primary job to do for customers was functional: Eliminate bad odors.

The actual primary job to do was emotional: Make consumers feel good about their cleaning routines.

By positioning Febreze correctly, P&G was in fact doing that job on behalf of consumers.

The consumers rewarded P&G with $1B in annual revenue.

How Do You Make Sure You’re Watching for the Most Important Moments?

In my ten years of consulting experience, I can tell you that the answers you seek are always in the details.

You just have to learn which details are most important.

In this case, when originally watching the video footage, the researchers glossed over the mini-celebration. They hadn’t even noticed it. They had focused so much on the cleaning actions of the consumers, they had missed the most important moment — that fleeting moment of pride in the work.

Finding those key moments requires keen observation, sharp listening, and reading between the lines.

Stalking skills work to your advantage too.

Or hire a good Marketing and Insights Consultant. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

The effort requires you to focus on the consumer’s entire experience and body language.

A Word of Advice: Study the details from different perspectives.

A change in perspective is an effective way to open your mind to new ideas.

Look with New Eyes at Your Dilemma

In the business world, you can discuss in the boardroom what you think your clients’ jobs to be done are. But that won’t get you very far. Remember, P&G thought they knew the job to do for consumers.

  • Don’t jump to conclusions.
  • You must observe your customers.
  • Talk to them.
  • Listen to their stories, their experiences.
  • Look at how they do things.
  • Study their body language, their facial expressions.
  • Pay attention to what really matters to them.

Then you will have the right starting point from which to identify the primary jobs to do and ideate solutions to help them.

It’s Time to Do Something!

Get my FREE eBook and work on your creative-thinking skills today:

5 Exercises that Will Make You 10 Times More Creative

It will help in your work, your relationships, your art. I use these with my clients. I can vouch that they work. I’ve witnessed some boring accountants become pretty creative.

Follow me on Facebook.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 277,994+ people.

Subscribe to receive our top stories here.