THE CRAVING BRAIN – How to Create New Habits – Part 4

After their disastrous interview with the cat woman, Drake Stimson’s team at P&G started looking outside the usual channels for help. They began reading up on experiments such as those conducted by Wolfram Schultz. They asked a Harvard Business School professor to conduct psychological tests of Febreze’s ad campaigns. They interviewed customer after customer, looking for something that would give them a clue how to make Febreze a regular part of consumers’ lives.

One day, they went to speak with a woman in a suburb near Scottsdale. She was in her forties with four kids. Her house was clean, but not compulsively tidy. To the surprise of the researchers, she loved Febreze.

“I use it every day,” she told them.

“You do?” Stimson said. The house didn’t seem like the kind of place with smelly problems. There weren’t any pets. No one smoked. “How? What smells are you trying to get rid of?”

“I don’t really use it for specific smells,” the woman said. “I mean, you know, I’ve got boys. They’re going through puberty, and if I don’t clean their rooms, it smells like a locker. But I don’t really use it that way. I use it for normal cleaning—a couple of sprays when I’m done in a room. It’s a nice way to make everything smell good as a final touch.”

They asked if they could watch her clean the house. In the bedroom, she made her bed, plumped the pillows, tightened the sheet’s corners, and then took a Febreze bottle and sprayed the smoothed comforter. In the living room, she vacuumed, picked up the kids’ shoes, straightened the coffee table, and sprayed Febreze on the freshly cleaned carpet. “It’s nice, you know?” she said. “Spraying feels like a little mini-celebration when I’m done with a room.” At the rate she was using Febreze, Stimson estimated, she would empty a bottle every two weeks.

P&G had collected thousands of hours of videotapes of people cleaning their homes over the years. When the researchers got back to Cincinnati, some of them spent an evening looking through the tapes. The next morning, one of the scientists asked the Febreze team to join him in the conference room. He cued up the tape of one woman—a twenty-six-year-old with three children—making a bed. She smoothed the sheets and adjusted a pillow. Then, she smiled and left the room.

“Did you see that?” the researcher asked excitedly.

He put on another clip. A younger, brunette woman spread out a colorful bedspread, straightened a pillow, and then smiled at her handiwork. “There it is again!” the researcher said. The next clip showed a woman in workout clothes tidying her kitchen and wiping the counter before easing into a relaxing stretch.

The researcher looked at his colleagues.

“Do you see it?” he asked.

“Each of them is doing something relaxing or happy when they finish cleaning,” he said. “We can build off that! What if Febreze was something that happened at the end of the cleaning routine, rather than the beginning? What if it was the fun part of making something cleaner?”

Stimson’s team ran one more test. Previously, the product’s advertising had focused on eliminating bad smells. The company printed up new labels that showed open windows and gusts of fresh air. More perfume was added to the recipe, so that instead of merely neutralizing odors, Febreze had its own distinct scent. Television commercials were filmed of women spraying freshly made beds and spritzing just-laundered clothing. The tagline had been “Gets bad smells out of fabrics.” It was rewritten as “Cleans life’s smells.”

Each change was designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug. In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine. Most important, each ad was calibrated to elicit a craving: that things will smell as nice as they look when the cleaning ritual is done. The irony is that a product manufactured to destroy odors was transformed into the opposite. Instead of eliminating scents on dirty fabrics, it became an air freshener used as the finishing touch, once things are already clean.

When the researchers went back into consumers’ homes after the new ads aired and the redesigned bottles were given away, they found that some housewives in the test market had started expecting—craving—the Febreze scent. One woman said that when her bottle ran dry, she squirted diluted perfume on her laundry. “If I don’t smell something nice at the end, it doesn’t really seem clean now,” she told them.

“The park ranger with the skunk problem sent us in the wrong direction,” Stimson told me. “She made us think that Febreze would succeed by providing a solution to a problem. But who wants to admit their house stinks?

“We were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”

The Febreze relaunch took place in the summer of 1998. Within two months, sales doubled. Within a year, customers had spent more than $230 million on the product. Since then, Febreze has spawned dozens of spin-offs—air fresheners, candles, laundry detergents, and kitchen sprays—that, all told, now account for sales of more than $1 billion per year. Eventually, P&G began mentioning to customers that, in addition to smelling good, Febreze can also kill bad odors.

Stimson was promoted and his team received their bonuses. The formula had worked. They had found simple and obvious cues. They had clearly defined the reward.

But only once they created a sense of craving—the desire to make everything smell as nice as it looked—did Febreze become a hit. That craving is an essential part of the formula for creating new habits that Claude Hopkins, the Pepsodent ad man, never recognized.

-Charles Duhigg

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