The Sweet Smell of Success: How Understanding Your Customer’s Unconscious Motivations Can Help Build Your Brand

There is a great article in Forbes discussing how P&G revived the Febreze brand, bringing it back from near-death status to one of the company’s leading money makers.  It illustrates very well how critical it is to understand the unconscious factors that motivate customer behavior.

Febreze, if you’re not familiar, is a specific kind of air freshener that can be used to treat upholstery, carpeting, and other items that can’t be washed.  P&G tried to market Febreze as an odor eliminator. That effort failed, in part because there were not many customers who thought that their lives were all that smelly.

When P&G changed their efforts and marketed using Febreze as a rewarding experience after you’d cleaned a room, sales went through the roof.  When we stop to think about it, this makes a lot of sense.  Who are P&G’s best customers? (The people we call Brand Lovers?)  By and large, they’re people who do a lot of cleaning. A clean, tidy home is important to them. They’re not people who are going to eagerly proclaim  that they have bad smells in their home—in fact, many would find that type of admission very shameful.

Positioning Febreze as a reward for something that P&G’s best customer’s were already doing (cleaning the room) was a transformative exercise.  No longer was using Febreze a tacit admission that your housekeeping efforts just didn’t cut the mustard.  Instead, using Febreze was a sign of a job well done; a pleasant sensory experience that you could enjoy as a reward for your efforts.

Unconscious Factors That Guide Customer Behavior

If we were going to reduce the Febreze situation to it’s simplest terms, we have this: in one mode, using Febreze made the customer feel like a failure. In the other situation, the customer feels good about using Febreze—it’s a treat to be enjoyed and savored. The emotional impact of the two scenarios are very different.

We gravitate toward emotional experiences that make us feel good.  We want to be happy. We like to be rewarded. To be told we’re doing a good job—especially in scent form, for olfactory cues are some of the strongest emotional triggers—is a powerful thing.

Identifying the Emotional Experience

It’s essential to identify the emotional experience that your customers are seeking. P&G initially marketed Febreze in a way that provoked a negative emotional reaction: no one enjoys feeling shamed and inadequate. By identifying a different emotional reaction that is more in keeping with what P&G customers were seeking—a feeling of pride, satisfaction in a job well done, the sense of being rewarded—it became possible for the customer to enthusiastically embrace the brand.

Up to 90% of customer behavior is unconsciously motivated. Many times, customers are oblivious to what leads them to choose one product over another.

You’re not going to see people standing in the cleaning product aisle saying, “Hmm, this provokes deep, uncomfortable feelings of shame in me, while this one makes me feel good about myself, virtuous, and hard-working.”  But that conversation is happening on some level in your customer’s mind.  Companies that understand that can position their products to occupy the more desirable position, and that’s why they win.

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