Published on 2014/08/25

Understanding Your Customer: What Higher Ed Can Learn from Febreze

Understanding Your Customer: What Higher Ed Can Learn from Febreze
Innovation by postsecondary institutions should be tempered by what the student-consumer actually seeks in higher education.
A few years ago, The New York Times ran an in-depth story that analyzed how companies were trying to market their products in ways that built upon consumer behavior because, the logic goes, “once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.”[1] A key example in the article is Febreze, originally marketed by Proctor & Gamble in 1998 as an odorless spray that eliminated bad smells. Febreze was initially deemed a marketing misfire that failed to build upon established “habit loops” of consumers. In follow-up tests, P&G found consumers had become so used to the odors within their own homes that they saw no value in changing their cleaning routine.

In order to market the product effectively, it had to be positioned positively. P&G reworked their campaign to add Febreze, now featuring its own fresh scent, as a final “celebratory reward” to the cleaning routine, and the product became a billion-dollar-per-year industry. Today, Febreze products include candles and air fresheners, while fabric sheets and detergents tout the now-trusted name on their labels. Thus, newer innovations for the product lie mostly in expanding how it’s delivered.

Similar forms of “habit loops” can provide a predictable and reliable foundation, even in the world of academe: classes typically meet over the course of a semester on a fairly standard schedule; courses are evaluated each term, as are students, usually with grades; academic and graduation criteria tend not to vary much from institution to institution. Accrediting bodies enforce some of these, but I also think students, faculty and administrators appreciate having shared, core concepts. We value innovation, but we seem to like it to have recognizable, genuine ties to tradition as well.

I joined Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies when we first began offering the Master of Professional Studies (MPS) degree. While the same degree was also offered at other institutions, it was still considered new across the higher education community and at Georgetown, known primarily for highly-ranked traditional graduate degrees such as the MA, MS and MBA. As P&G found with the original, unscented Febreze, our new degree still needed to tie to a traditional structure that could appeal to the “habit loops” of the Georgetown community and prospective students. All MPS courses met face-to-face and values-based courses such as “Ethics in the Profession” were built into the framework. The innovation of the degree for Georgetown was that it focused on industry-specific professions (public relations, journalism, real estate and sports industry management) with a capstone project (instead of a thesis paper) and courses offered in the evenings. We learned quickly that the level of innovation must also fit the comfort level of our audience.

After P&G realized they had made incorrect assumptions about their customer base, they quickly changed course to recover. We faced similar challenges adjusting our projections for the MPS student body to the reality. We assumed our working, adult students would primarily go part-time with a five-year graduation goal to allow for family and career obligations. By the end of our first semester, however, it became clear many students would finish within one year, and the majority would finish within three years, far exceeding our initial course planning. We had to streamline course development and review processes to meet growing demand for courses and concentrations focused on new technologies and social media. We also found ourselves in need of providing stronger and more immediate support for career services.

Once the Febreze brand became recognized and respected, P&G was able to build out from that, adding new products to expand the brand. With the success of the first MPS programs, we were similarly able to add other industry-specific programs [2], and we now have more than 2,000 MPS alumni from seven programs [3]. By the time we reach the 10-year anniversary of the program, that number will likely have doubled. We have also been able to innovate with our delivery system, offering accelerated, modular, online, hybrid and field study courses. Our Executive MPS in Emergency & Disaster Management, for example, is a one-year program consisting of five modules with online coursework coupled with field study and simulations in New Orleans, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Washington, DC and Doha, Qatar. By co-branding with the Medical Center, we will soon be able to launch programs that build on complementary academic and professional strengths.

In keeping with the theme of cleaning supplies and habit loops, I would like to end with a lesson from Clorox, the makers of Pine Sol. Like Febreze, Pine Sol has been able to experiment with its delivery system (floor wipes, mopping solution). In January 2014, however, the makers suddenly changed the original scent, creating a series of protests among core consumers and active bloggers who started a campaign that has now reached 1,000 signatures.[4] This response echoes the change to “New Coke” back in the 1980s, affirming that the emotional connection to an institution’s core product remains a factor when developing innovations from that base. For our new educational products and services to take hold, it’s important we continue to value and augment that original brand, balancing innovation and tradition throughout the process.

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[1]Charles Duhigg, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” The New York Times, February 16, 2012. Accessed at

[2] “Degrees and Programs,” Georgetown School of Continuing Studies, August 18, 2014. Accessed at

[3] “Degree Programs: Theory Meets Practice,” Georgetown School of Continuing Studies Dean’s Report: 2013-2014, June 30, 2014. Accessed at

[4] Matt Wilson, “Pine Sol’s Altered Scent Prompts Flood of Social Media Rage,” Ragan’s PR Daily, January 6, 2014. Accessed at

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Readers Comments

Lorraine Williams 2014/08/25 at 4:41 pm

This was a good one! We all know the story of newspaper and the music industry, but this one is different. I didn’t realize Febreze had such a rocky start, but it’s such a success now! The one thing that gets me is that there were so many air fresheners before Febreze – Air Wick for example. Is the difference just that Febreze came in a spray bottle??

John Edwards 2014/08/25 at 5:15 pm

One thing we all need to take from this is the importance of listening to the consumer. As Lorraine Williams says, there were plenty of other air fresheners on the market when Febreze came along, but I’m betting Febreze was better at market research than the existing companies. We’re going to see online providers (MOOCs and Minerva, for example) gaining market share by following exactly this model.

Kathleen Simmons 2014/08/26 at 9:39 am

I like the idea of stablishing a brand and then developing secondary products spinning out of the first one. Schools should be developing numerous streams of single programs rather than just individual degree tracks. Evey program should have an associated certificate track, among other options.

Erwin Bedford 2014/08/26 at 10:54 am

I, too, read that piece in the Times, and I see the connection Rankin is trying to make between Proctor & Gamble and higher ed. What P&G has done successfully is really get into the mind of its intended audience and create products that respond to their specific needs or desires. We’re starting to see the shift toward bespoke programming in some higher ed institutions, but not on the scale of a P&G product. The challenge for institutions currently is that this type of customized education delivery requires intensive resources, something many institutions are short on. As this function becomes automated, however, with the development of new technologies, we might see more of a consumer-oriented model emerging in higher ed.

WA Anderson 2014/08/26 at 12:37 pm

I appreciate Rankin’s point about the need to balance innovation in higher ed with what’s familiar and comfortable for students and families, employers and the general public. Institutions have their own unique brand but higher ed as a whole also has a brand, and when an individual institution strays too far away from that overarching narrative or profile, it can run into difficulties. The example that comes to mind is that of for-profits. Higher ed has always been seen as altruistic and public driven, and a for-profit’s profit motive directly contradicts that. It’s enough to drive some consumers/students away.

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