Innovation, Febreze, arm-slashing

Cathy asks:  what is innovation?  Should we assume it’s good?

I was thinking of just this question the other morning.  Charles Duhigg was on NPR talking about the air-freshener Febreze — more or less covering the same ground as pp.4-5 of his NYTMag article, or this blog post from the CEO of Innovative Disruption.  Proctor and Gamble had a big problem with Febreze; it worked fine, but people weren’t buying it.  P&G’s market research quickly identified the issue.  People with smelly houses were fine with the way their houses smelled.  Undaunted, the marketers zeroed in on those few consumers who actually liked the product, and found a new angle.  They could sell the idea that your cleaning wasn’t done until you’d spritzed some Febreze around the house — even if your house already smelled fine.  This was a huge success.  People are always receptive to the message that what they’re doing isn’t good enough, and that everybody else is doing it a little better.  Anxiety is a unit shifter.

On NPR, Duhigg said that this innovative strategy made $50 million in the first year.  But in what sense did it really “make” $50 million?  Shouldn’t we say it transferred $50 million from other people to Proctor and Gamble?  To be tendentious, why wouldn’t you say the innovative disruption cost Americans $50 million?

Here’s a truly innovative marketing strategy for Band-Aids; hire a bunch of unemployed people at minimum wage to run around town slashing people’s arms with penknives.  Presto — an unmet demand for sidewalk Band-Aid kiosks!

That’s not how Proctor and Gamble would describe what they’re doing.  They would say that people already wanted to lengthen their housecleaning routine; they just didn’t know they wanted that until P&G’s marketing team alerted them to the opportunity.  If they didn’t really want Febreze, they wouldn’t keep buying Febreze!

This is not, to me, a convincing story about what people really want.  Then again, I don’t really think Febreze is a pure exercise in arm-slashing.  It’s a mix.  The point is simply that its success can’t be judged purely by the amount of money it transferred to its originators.

(P.S.  I contend that a company called Innovative Disruption is very unlikely to be either innovative or disruptive. Discuss.)

Update:  Innovative Disruption blogger sticks up for marketing in the comments at some length — click through!

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15 thoughts on “Innovation, Febreze, arm-slashing

  1. J says:

    I think there could be some truth to the idea that people did not realize they wanted Febreze. For instance, when I or my spouse clean our home, we are sometimes disappointed if the other fails to notice. But if you spray some Febreze around, certainly the odor will be noticed, and then the spouse will likely notice that the house is clean. Using Febreze gets your housework noticed! (This is hypothetical; we do not use Febreze.)

  2. Jason Starr says:

    … I misspelled my name in that last comment.

  3. Jason Starr says:

    My original comment did not make it up (although my reply did). As devil’s advocate: home cleaners could be using Febreze to insure that their housework is noticed (the odor of Febreze is more noticeable than shiny linoleum). So the P and G marketers might have found a legitimate niche, rather than simply manipulating consumers.

  4. Fergal Daly says:

    See also earthquakes/trainwrecks/wars/epidemics as GDP boosters.

  5. choncan says:

    Another way to look at it is that it’s not always inducing anxiety, it may be giving people the idea that here’s a way to be better than everybody else, which people eagerly pursue once it is offered.

    I think it would also be a popular opinion in many quarters to say, “Isn’t it unnecessary and frivolous to be doing new mathematical research in all of these obscure directions when so much of the population is innumerate and we can’t go a day without hearing how inadequate math and science in our schools are? Shouldn’t all these people be more profitably redeployed into direct education of young children and research into teaching methods? What use are new facts on the furthest horizons when 90%+ of people have no conception of the useful basics?”

    I think it’s easy to make what other people do sound ridiculous or unnecessary, and it’s a temptation best avoided.

  6. JSE says:

    Last sentence of this comment is extremely correct and I hope it is a temptation I avoided in this post. Although I should say that people do, in real life, ask the question you ask about mathematical research, and mathematicians should be ready and willing to answer it from time to time, just as advertisers should.

  7. Wait, does that mean I shouldn’t judge pimps or people who traffic sex slaves either, because I wouldn’t want to make them sound ridiculous or unnecessary?

    I’m sorry but there are people who just manipulate the system and us, and the Febreze guys are those guys and know it; They are just really glad they’re so good at it. But it was a mistake for them to say out loud exactly how they figured this out, because now they’ve outed themselves.

    Mathematicians manipulate us in a totally different way.

  8. Jason Starr says:

    Cathy, how do mathematicians manipulate us? I admit that I do politely ask, cajole, beg, etc., to get my students to read their textbooks. However, I get the impression that is not the maniuplation you had in mind.

  9. Nice rhetoric Cathy, but I’d expect more logical thinking and analysis from a “math babe”. And, it would be good if you got your facts straight, rather than twisting them to suit the purpose. Mathies aren’t supposed to distort the truth, just tell you what it is.

    re: the role of marketers. I can tell by your tone that you believe marketers are evil. That their purpose is to sell us things we don’t want and create ridiculous “needs” or leverage human insecurities to persuade us to buy things that are useless or that we don’t really want. Everything from labeling “behavioral researchers” as marketers, to the nonsense analogy to arm-slashing to create demand for bandaids, to the apparent dislike of people who like to make money to your final contention that I’m neither innovative nor disruptive (which is a bit silly, even you have to admit, since you don’t know me, my business, or what I do) suggests disdain for marketers. Admittedly, there is a very small percentage of professional marketers who are that cynical, but the best and most effective marketing is telling the truth. The role of marketers is to reach the right people in the right places to make them aware that products exist and what their purpose is — what needs they address. It’s actually quite a noble profession, and one that our society couldn’t exist without.

    re: my article (thanks for the link, by the way). My point was to use a non-obvious example to illustrate how “new market” disruptive innovation works. Not to make a value judgment about Febreze or the initial marketing strategy. In other words, I’m neither defending nor attacking, simply showing how it fits the theory — something that is necessary because 90% of the people who use the term “disruptive innovation” misapply it, or don’t understand how it creates value.

    re: selling Febreze is like slashing arms to push more bandaids. I get that you believe Febreze is a waste of people’s money and solves a non-need, but perhaps you should step back a second and look at the facts. The Febreze product line is one of a very small number of P&G products that sells more than $1B annually. Many people have disagreeable odors in their homes. You don’t sell $1B worth of anything that doesn’t address a real need that people have (a quick fix to mask odors, or to enhance with a pleasant perfumed smell). I don’t use it, but I completely understand people that feel the need to. Anything from bad food smells, a recently flushed toilet, wet animals, smoke, mildew/moisture smells, body odors or a host of other long or short term problems can cause bad smells in the house. Smell is thought to be the strongest of the senses, and for many, there is nothing more offensive than bad odors. I certainly notice when I visit someone whose house stinks, and will avoid going back if I don’t need to. No doubt there are some who are insecure, and overuse the product (maybe a lot of their customers are in that boat), but it really isn’t your place to judge whether people have the need or desire for this product, or to assume that the $1B sold annually is simply a massive transfer of wealth — an exchange of value for non-value, or duping of the public. You must have a very dim and cynical view of the world if that’s what you believe.

    re: how P&G would describe what they’re doing. You really believe that P&G would say there was a latent need to lengthen the house-cleaning routine? Really? Most of us would prefer to do none at all. Which is perhaps why there is a real need for Febreze. Duhigg’s purpose in telling this story is to talk about the power of habit formation. I don’t believe that he represents P&G’s intent, but rather is trying to use this as an example of how inserting yourself into daily routine makes you much harder to dislodge. P&G was simply trying to understand why some people were using the product a lot, yet at the same time their product messaging was a flop and they were in rapid market decline for the first 6 months after its introduction. They didn’t set out with an ulterior motive, but they did uncover a real market need, whether you agree with it or not. There’s nothing hidden, deceptive, illicit or “arm-slashing” about it — it is what it is. If there was no need, this product wouldn’t sell 100s of millions of units annually. This isn’t like Winston trying to persuade kids to smoke and get them addicted to a poisonous drug — i.e. to kill themselves with a truly useless product.

    re: disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation is simply a theory about why some innovations come from nowhere to defeat market incumbents. The “David vs Goliath” pattern has distinct characteristics that enable prediction of success or failure, and which can be deliberately created by startups who want to take on the world and create change. Disruption is neutral about morality. The theory can apply to good things and bad things. It’s for all of us to judge the benefit of the telephone replacing the telegraph, the airplane enabling us to get to Europe same day rather than taking a month by boat, the computer changing every facet of society, or Febreze coming from almost certain failure to market dominance. The reason I talked about this story had nothing to do with Duhigg’s habit formation theories — I could care less about that. I was simply showing how this precisely fit the theory of disruptive innovation, and how it was by accident. P&G did not set out to create a disruptive innovation, but rather in trying to save the product from market withdrawal fell into the right process and right attributes that create market disruption. I help companies (startups primarily) understand and apply the theory to business strategy on purpose. That does require a great deal of non-intuitive, contrarian, and innovative thinking, and indeed many would label me as disruptive to the point of being disagreeable on occasion.

    re: what is innovation and should we assume it’s good? Well, let me answer a dumb question with a dumb answer. Innovation is simply the process of creating new things. Cigarettes were an innovation. Nuclear bombs were an innovation. Putting human growth hormones and antibiotics into cattle feed were innovations. Are they good? Polio vaccines, indoor plumbing and chairs (instead of rocks) to sit on were innovations. Are they good? Innovation is neutral without context. You should never assume that innovation is good, anymore than you should assume that it’s bad. Simple.

    Now, how about some math questions for you. How many good paying jobs are created by products that sell $1B annually? How many happier consumers are there because this product exists? How much tax revenue is generated for public goods and services by big-selling products? How many retailers and associated jobs are supported through these sorts of products? How many people can you identify that were hurt by this product? Are there any negative externalities that you can quantify?

  10. Richard Séguin says:

    My house smells like people, dogs, food, and a little bit of dust, and I like it that way. If I visit a house that reeks of artificial scent, I’m inclined not to return. The scent wars (scented garbage bags, paper towels, hand lotions, air fresheners laundry products, people who you can smell from twenty feet away, etc.) has gotten out of control. A lot of this stuff is not good for your respiratory system, especially for those with asthma and sinus problems. We’re not robots. We’re organic. Get over it.

  11. The point, Richard, is that I couldn’t ever be in your house. Those smells would have me gagging, and frankly, I’d be far more allergic to your dogs and dust than to mildly or non-perfumed air fresheners (which was the innovation of Febreze — masking the smell without perfume). We are all entitled to live the way we prefer — your choices don’t affect me, and mine don’t affect you. No one forces you to use a product you don’t want, and you don’t have the right to tell anyone not to consume something that they find beneficial as long as it doesn’t affect you.

    I do agree about people you can smell from 20 ft or farther away, but that is a violation of the principle of not affecting other people. Women that wear perfumes like that are desensitized to it, just as some people with really horrible body odor have no clue they smell that bad. Sometimes, you just need to speak up if something is offensive to you, and you’re always welcome not to go into other people’s houses.

    I also defecate. I don’t want to live in it, and I doubt you do either. We are indeed organic, but that doesn’t mean cleanliness and tidiness aren’t good and desirable things to most people.

    Some people like a squirt of Febreze (and don’t have to have their arms slashed to enjoy it). Get over it.

  12. Fergal Daly says:

    Another example of the contrast between productive money-making and destuctive money-making

    Depending on your viewpoint, 1930-onwards is lost culture or pre-1920 is lost royalties. Given that copyright has already been retroactively extended backwards, the lost royalties crowd are for real.

  13. Tom Nevins says:

    Since nobody else has mentioned: well-done reference to “Coffee Talk!”

  14. JSE says:

    At last, someone noticed. I’m a little verklempt.

  15. [...] everyone’s convinced by the Febreze story. Some good debate here: Innovation, Febreze, arm-slashing ( Share [...]

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