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Chemical Reaction: The Power of Soap

By: Steve Herman
Posted: October 7, 2008, from the October 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

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Curtis decided there was an opportunity to save millions of children while she was living in the African country Burkina Faso.3 Once know as Upper Volta, the country has a per capita income that makes it one of the poorest nations in the world. Curtis wanted to persuade people to wash their hands, knowing that diseases caused by dirty hands kill a child somewhere in the world every 15 seconds and half the deaths could be prevented by regular use of soap.

Curtis cooperated with P&G, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever to help form the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing With Soap.4 A campaign was launched in Ghana in 2003. There was plenty of soap and water around, the problem was changing Ghanaians habits, and changing habits involves marketing. Curtis needed the same marketing that makes us brush our teeth several times a day, drink bottled water and spray Febreze. Febreze’s example was the key because it perfectly demonstrated how a company can market a habit. When it was first launched in 1996, it was a failure with consumers. It was directed at malodors, but not enough malodors were around to create a Febreze-using habit. P&G products had historically served existing needs. To support new products, it was necessary to create new habits.

The cue identified by marketing was the act of cleaning a room. New commercials showed women spraying a perfectly made bed or freshly washed clothing, with an open window in the scene. The message was that Febreze was the finishing touch for a cleaning job, and the advertising created a habit capable of sustaining a $650 million product.

The Febreze marketing principle was applied in Ghana. There, a toilet represented a clean image because they replaced pit latrines. Ads were created showing mothers and children leaving bathrooms with purple pigment on their hands that contaminated everything they touched. The idea was not to promote soap but to establish a feeling of disgust if soap was not used. The commercials resulted in 13% more soap use after using the toilet, and 41% percent more use before eating. The same marketing methods are now being applied to drug abuse, antismoking, condom use and obesity.

Closer to home, doctors and hospitals in the U.S. are far from clean. The CDC reports that the most effective way to reduce infection is for medical personnel to wash their hands. Yet on average, doctors wash their hands only about half the time before treating patients. By some estimates hospital infections in the U.S. kill 103,000 patients each year of the two million infected.