How Market Research Saved Febreze | Consumer Behavior Case Study

Febreze. A product with strong brand reputation, one that has extended into multiple product categories, and has essentially become a household name in the past few decades. But even the biggest of brands often go through bumps in the road before they reach the top. Febreze was no different for Procter & Gamble as it was almost pulled off the shelves in the late 1990s as a result. If not for clever observational findings through market research and a complete revamp of its marketing, Febreze would have become an epic failure for P&G.

How Market Research Saved Febreze | Consumer Behavior Case Study

First the innovation.

P&G first patented the odor neutralizing absorbing spray technology in its new Febreze product. The product was initially placed in test markets in the early to mid 1990s with a supporting marketing campaign. Using television commercials, the campaign educated consumers on the new technology used in Febreze which could be sprayed on fabrics, carpets, furniture, and other items in households to neutralize and dissolve all odors. This non-scented spray seemed to carry great appeal internally and P&G thought they were going to watch sales of this product take off thanks to this new patented innovative technology.

The initial results?

Sales were drastically lower than market estimations. After months had passed and sales continually declined, P&G had come to the conclusion they had an official flop but couldn't understand why? As written by Charles Duhigg in The New York Times (author of the book titled The Power of Habit), he explained the issues surrounding the marketing of the product and reasons why it sat on shelves. P&G and its marketing team could not understand why no consumers wanted this odor-neutralizing product.

Enter market research, which Duhigg further goes on to explain.

P&G's marketing research team conducted IHUTs with consumers who did not purchase Febreze and were not likely to purchase Febreze for their home. Ultimately, the marketing team wanted to find out "why?" On one IHUT in particular, a team of two market researchers sat with a female homeowner in her living room. This home was particularly unique because of the 9 cats that were roaming throughout the home when the researchers arrived, all 9 of which decided to "sit-in" on the interview in the living room. One researcher remembered the cat smell being so overpowering in the home that he had reached the point of gagging on a few occasions.

Soon after, the golden nugget of research information the marketing team was looking for came about through a conversation:

  • Researcher to Homeowner: "What do you do about the cat smell?"
  • Homeowner: "It's usually not a problem."
  • Researcher: "Do you smell it now?"
  • Homeowner: "No. Isn't it wonderful? My cats hardly smell at all."

Marketing a product that neutralizes odors to a consumer base that inherently believes no odor exists in their own home is impossible.

This simple research interview and observation created a colossal shift in both the innovation and marketing of Febreze. Through other research interviews, the marketing team learned that many purchasers of Febreze didn't buy the product and use it to eliminate specific smells but rather used it after normal cleaning (e.g., spraying a carpet after vacuuming a room as further confirmation of "clean").

The Febreze innovation team went back and added specific refreshing scents to the odor neutralizing technology. The new spray would serve as positive reinforcement for Febreze users, with the pleasant scent serving as almost a reward reminder or what neurologists would define as your dopamine. Dopamine is the neurological part of your brain that controls your brain's feeling of reward for doing something. P&G eventually found its dopamine hook, albeit a few years late and after some wasteful spending on marketing.

All the more reason that simple market research and exploration research into consumer minds can pay huge dividends and completely revamp marketing campaigns. Even for products like Febreze that involved failed multi-million dollar launches.

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