Why marketing to prospects who need you is a bad strategy

It sounds logical: if you’ve got a product or service that meets a need, then your next step is to find people or companies that need it really, really badly, because they’re the ones who are most likely to buy it. Right?

Um, no. Not if some recent research into consumer behavior has anything to say about it. In fact, the people who need you the worst may be the least likely to buy your product or service.

Why? It has to do with cat pee, cigarette smoke, and a weird quirk of human nature.


The case of the superfluous scent

In the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (not an affiliate link), author Charles Duhigg tells the story of Procter & Gamble’s marketing of the product Febreze. After accidentally stumbling upon a chemical compound that magically lifted offensive odors from virtually any fabric, the company rushed the product to market and waited for it to fly off store shelves. They anticipated that consumers looking to eliminate the scent of cat pee from their carpets and cigarette smoke from their clothes would be all over this new modern miracle.

Instead, the product languished on the shelves. The people who clearly needed this product simply ignored it. Sales were so bad at one point that those involved with the Febreze project were afraid for their jobs.

So back to the marketing drawing board they went. It was clearly a good product — a great product, in fact. So why did consumers who had a demonstrated need for the product completely ignore it?

It’s a matter of perceptions

Their follow-up research revealed an interesting (but not totally surprising) quirk of human nature. Those people who had cat pee in their carpets and cigarette smoke in their clothes couldn’t really smell it. They’d gotten so accustomed to the scent, being around it all the time, that they didn’t perceive a problem.

Lesson: prospects won’t buy a solution to a problem they don’t think they have. Click here to tweet this.

But if Procter & Gamble couldn’t sell Febreze to the people who really needed it, who would buy it?

Looking to current customers for clues

They did some more research, this time reviewing videos of current Febreze customers making their beds. One particular recurring behavior stood out: these customers, when they finished making the bed, used Febreze as a “finishing touch.” These customers (who, ironically, were the least likely to need the product for odor removal) considered this finishing touch to be a way to make everything smell nice after cleaning.

So, they reformulated the product to add a pleasant (albeit superfluous) scent and changed their main benefit statement from “removes unpleasant odors” to “makes everything smell nice after you’ve cleaned.”

Next time you see a Febreze commercial on TV, notice how the ad is mainly about the nice after-scent and only incidentally about removing existing odors from fabrics.

Who are your not-so-needy prospects?

If you’ve been beating your head against the wall trying to convince people who clearly need your help to buy your products or services, stop. Take a deep breath, step back a bit, and instead of looking at your neediest prospects, look at your most enthusiastic customers. You may find some common demographics (age, income, industry, etc.) or psychographics (attitudes and behaviors) that could give you some clue as to how you should reconfigure your marketing.

(image: http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-young-woman-covering-her-nose-image24641183#_)

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  1. Hey – had never heard this story before Deborah – great article.

    A shame for all of us who have to visit smelly houses that need is not the same as want! Maybe they could market febreze as a gift product – give it to you smelly friends for their birthday!


  2. I can’t image this philosophy abling to my hypnosis business. I realize that the word hypnosis does have a stigma attached to it with some people I really like to work with. Those people would be doctors.

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