The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better

This week, we published the second installment of the Broyhill Book Club.  Since I have difficulty doing one thing at a time, I often find myself reading two (or three) books concurrently. I find that pairing books also enhances one’s understanding. Two books on last year’s list worth mentioning are The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg.  The latter includes a wonderful chapter on Creativity at Disney consistent with Catmull’s story. The former presents a number of narratives to support Duhigg’s thesis. One of those stories took a look inside the creative process at P&G, which Andrea and I, both gravitated to.  Enter our new resident scientist:


The Power of Habit was a business bestseller a few years back. The book was constructed in a standard format for these sorts of books – i.e. a core thesis presented with the necessary background psychology or neurology information, followed by a series of industry case studies that build upon the thesis. The book discussed habits and proposed a feedback mechanism of how they are formed. The case studies discuss how these habits can be harnessed to enhance internal company culture or as external marketing tools. Many of these are stale material to us now, as we’ve seen the excerpts in business journals, or heard about them on some podcast or other. And I don’t want to add to the rehash, but I would like to spotlight some really cool science buried in one of the examples that got short shrift in my opinion. This is the case of the product Febreze developed by Proctor and Gamble.

Every time I go down the household products aisle and see Febreze sitting next to all those other air fresheners, I want to pull it out and shelf it somewhere else because it doesn’t belong there in my chemistry-oriented mind. You see, Febreze is a true “odor neutralizer” as opposed to most other products. The traditional product simply takes an odor that consumers have deemed “pleasant” – typically something along the lines of “Eau de French Cathouse” – and uses this to blanket the unpleasant one. Often this fails and the resulting combination is more like “Eau de French Kitty Litter Box.”

But Febreze takes a much more sophisticated approach, and for this, we need a little chemistry/biology background. Odors are aerosolized organic (meaning carbon-containing) compounds that are the right shape, size, and composition to bind to and activate sensory receptors in the nose. These receptors send signals to the brain, which interprets the data as an odor that has been linked to a specific memory of something pleasant or unpleasant. Odors that we tend to classify as “unpleasant” often have similar chemical structures – this helps the brain classify new, unfamiliar smells as they will bind to the same nasal receptors.

For example, take a look at these unpleasant smelling chemicals:


(Geek’s Note: the junction of two lines is a carbon atom and the line or lines are the single or double bonds between them, N is nitrogen, and H is hydrogen.)

Skatole has been described by many a chemist as “essence of sh*t” and let’s just say that putrescine and cadaverine are aptly named. Three bad odors, all similar chemical structures with nitrogens and a few carbons in a chain or ring structure. This is not a coincidence.

So what does this have to do with air fresheners? Well, it turns out P&G exploited this chemical similarity in a clever way to make Febreze. All those carbon atoms make those chemicals “hydrophobic” which means “afraid of water.” The opposite is “hydrophilic”. You can imagine a mixture of oil floating on top of water. If you drop a hydrophobic compound in, it will hang out in the oil layer, but a hydrophilic compound prefers the water. Air usually contains plenty of water vapor and is an environment more naturally suited to hydrophilic compounds. Febreze has chemicals called cyclodextrins in it, which look like variations on this structure:


See that hole in the middle of the molecule? That creates a nice little pocket for bad-smelling hydrophobic molecules to hide away from the hydrophilic air environment. Moreover, all those OH’s (hydroxyl groups) like to share hydrogens with the NH’s (amines) through a process called hydrogen bonding, which keeps them locked tightly inside.  These and other similar chemical functional groups are often found on our nasty smelling chemicals. And once they’re bound in the cyclodextrin, they are no longer free to bind with the receptors in our nose. Odor neutralized.

Sounds great, right? So where’s the catch? Simply stated, the old school-yard adage of “He who smelt it, dealt it” is somewhat off-base both grammatically and scientifically. We often do NOT smell our own odors unless we’ve been away for a while. Ever come back from a vacation, open the door and go, “Phew, what kind of slobs live here, it stinks?!” No, it’s not just stale air. That’s how your house really smells to everyone who doesn’t live there. You see, our brains eventually filter out repetitive, non-urgent sensory stimuli of all sorts. This is a good thing otherwise the average parent would never be able to concentrate on anything.

Bad news for P&G, though, because they have a really awesome product to fix a problem you don’t know you have. So what did they do? Sadly, they elected to create a ditsy ad campaign showing happy-go-lucky “housewives” celebrating with a spritz of Febreze in a newly cleaned room. A totally unnecessary “Eau de French Cathouse” smell was added to the product to alert the user to the fact that they had just sprayed something “real” as well. Essentially P&G elected to create a reflexive consumer habit, hence the inclusion of the story in The Power of Habit. Me? I would prefer to educate the consumer about the power of cool science. But maybe that’s why I don’t work in advertising. I do, however, have a can of Febreze on the shelf in my bathroom!



Article by Andrea Sefler – Broyhill Asset Management