How ‘Design Thinking’ transformed ‘Febreze’ into a $1 Billion Brand

One of the P&G’s scientists accidentally discovered a chemical, that would draw scents of any object into the chemical’s molecules. He sprayed the chemical over the smelly fabrics, used socks, carpets and was pleasantly surprised to see that the unpleasant smell was gone when the mist dried. P&G saw a huge potential in the chemical, with an opportunity for wider applications

The P&G team observed that people who visit bars were leaving their jackets outside to avoid the smells due to smoke, alcohol. The market research confirmed that there was an immense requirement to mask pet smells in homes.

P&G named the product as “Febreze” and launched in a test market to validate the research and assumptions — They came across a user, whose job profile was “Park Ranger”, her job was to trap a lot of skunks. Due to her job profile, everything in her life smelled like the skunk, be it the clothing, curtains, bed, socks, room — Owing to this, She did not have any love life. She had tried all kinds of cure — special soaps and shampoos, unfortunately, the problems persisted. After using the Febreze, she almost cried and thanked the team for helping her love life. The skunk smell was gone.

The story was so inspiring that the P&G team felt that the product would be a huge success — A colourless, odourless liquid that would wipe out any foul odour without any stains.

So, P&G team positioned Febreze as a product that would allow people to rid themselves of embarrassing smells. They ran advertisements showing how people could mask their pet smells over home furniture -

“Sophie will always smell like Sophie, but my Sofa does not have to smell like Sophie?” — The advertisement message

P&G launched the product, ramped up production, distributed samples, stacked up containers in all stores to provide a visual trigger, spent a lot in advertisements.

Sales never picked up — the sales dwindled day by day and Febreze team were looking at a bleak future after 6 weeks of launch. So, why the product failed? How did they overcome?

In-Depth User Research

Steve jobs “I have always found is that you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out what to sell. I have made this mistake probably more than anybody else. I have got the scars to prove it. So we started with: what incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?”

As a designer, whenever we come across a need or pain, we try to classify the need as People Problem or Situational Problem. The trouble with a situational problem — The user may not feel the need or pain if the situation changes and designing a product to meet just one situational problem would result in failure. The “Park Ranger” scenario was a Situational problem and not many users would face that type of scenario.

Pet problem — People love pets — If there is a need here for ‘Febreze’ product, then we could term as ‘People Problem’ — It needs detailed deep research to understand the need. You would love somebody as they are. After seeing the terrible results, P&G team went ahead with in-depth research to understand why the product failed. They visited a woman’s home who had nine cats. Though the house interior appeared clean and organised, the pet smells on curtains, furniture was overpowering for the research team, but the lady could not detect the smell. After series of research with pet owners, the team realised that most of them did not feel the “Pet Smell” as a major pain. Many of them could not detect the smell as they were getting used to their scent. Scents, in fact, fade with constant exposure. There was no trigger to make users buy the ‘Febreze’ product.


“Febreze” advertisements were all talking to rational mind and not to the emotional mind. The rational mind is not at all connected to our senses and only the emotional mind is connected to our sensory organs. Rational mind did not detect the pet smell and it never felt there was a problem or the need. The communication should appeal to both rational and emotional mind.


The golden rule in communications — “Never say the customer is wrong” — If you were saying that your room smells bad — You were blaming the customer that he was unable to keep it clean.

Will you admit that your house stinks?

Pets are loved, pointing problem with the pets is a wrong concept to promote the product. You should turn the problem into an aspirational statement, motivate him as if your product is trying to increase the sensory experience to a higher level so that it could benefit the user and the people around.


To develop a habit of using a product — there should be a cue which triggers an action and there should be a reward so that a craving for reward could be developed after repeated attempts. What was the cue for Febreze? Pet Smell? The smell from pet was a gradual process and the cue was not exactly defined or clear to the user. It was not an absolute point. Even if he was aware of the cue when he should start using the product(The action)? There was no proper guidance when to use the ‘Febreze’ product, even though a user buys the product — The cues were wrong and there was no clear indication when to take an action(Use the product). “No Smell” was not the destination. If right destination and the path is not defined, then the product would fail.


In User Research — One of the requirements is to look at users beyond the target segment — Extremes or Outliers or Non-Customers. If the product was already launched, we would try to understand and learn from people who use the product regularly(They may be outside the target segment) — Which could be called “Finding the BrightSpot”(Chip and Dan Heath used this term in his book “Switch”) — P&G team came across one such user — A woman with 4 teenage boys. The woman loved ‘Febreze’ and used it every day. She had no pets. No one smoked. The rooms were clean, tidy and no smell whatsoever. The teenagers never kept their room clean. So, she used to clean the rooms and to end the cleaning ritual in a nice way, she would spray the “Febreze”.


This scenario struck a chord with the research team — They started observing many people who kept their house clean and tidy — the team was moving in an opposite direction now. There was another user who after cleaning the clothes, folded them nicely, then sprayed the smooth comforter with a smile. Spraying was a mini-celebration for their work accomplishment — a way of feeling proud of their work. It is like having a sweet or dessert at the end of a spicy dinner.

Another user after smoothening the bed spreads, pillow, neatly arranging them — there was a smile, a relaxed, happy feeling in them and was proud to see their handiwork. After tidying the kitchen, wiping the counter clean — there was a smile, relaxed feeling in the user. The users treated cleaning as a ritual.

P&G team observed that this target segment was a massive one. But there was no pain to be solved — People were not looking for any options to end the cleaning ritual. A tablet need not be a painkiller — It could be a Vitamin too, but over a period of time, not having vitamins could turn into a pain. P&G team realised that ‘Febreze’ need not be a pain killer(For removing bad smells), but could be a Vitamin(Not solving a pain, but providing energy — boosting the visceral experience).


To create habitual experiences, we need to focus on behaviour, not on attitudes or beliefs — Attitudes and Beliefs keep changing over a period of time and difficult to utilise. But behaviour can be habituated.

Habit is activated by a cue that is associated with a context. As soon as a consumer sees a cue, an action happens, resulting in some reward, which further becomes a craving after multiple repetitions and the habit forms.

‘Febreze’ could be used(action) at the end of cleaning ritual(Cue) — The cue and when to take action was very clear, unlike the earlier scenario — after wiping the kitchen counter, after folding clothes, after neatly arranging bed spreads.

Here, the communication was not blaming the customer — not telling them their house is unclean — The communication was to elevate the user’s experience, to make something appear cleaner, to give more credibility to their cleaning ritual, to become an add-on sweet ingredient for their prepared food. It was no more about eliminating bad smells.

Design for Observability — P&G team added perfume to ‘Febreze’ to enhance the user’s visceral experience and user aspirations. It was a pleasant feedback mechanism to show the work done in right way.A pleasant smell would immediately attract the other people’s attention. It was an easy way for a user to show their sense of cleanliness to others in a subtle way.

Design for Craving — The pleasant smell at the end of cleaning brought the relaxation and the pride for the users — Over a period of usage, the mind began to relate smell as the completion of cleaning ritual — Without smell, the users felt like the work was not completed — the craving was being developed. Once craving was formed, it forces the user to form a habit of using the product every time they clean clothes, kitchen, carpet, curtains.

Once the craving began, even when the bottles ran suddenly dry — the bottles were designed in such a way that people could use diluted perfume in the container to spray over laundry clothes.(Temporary solution).


With deeper observational research, P&G team could convert a market disaster into a successful product. This case study shows that a product need not necessarily solve a pain point to become a successful one. Communicate proper cue, what actions, when to take actions to be communicated effectively to make people use the product. The reward systems need to be emotional as well as physical.

References: Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

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