[The Pepsodent case] A cue, a routine and a reward, and you are hooked
A prominent American executive named Claude C. Hopkins was approached by an old friend with a new business idea.
The friend had discovered an amazing product, he explained, that he was convinced would be a hit. It was a toothpaste, a minty, frothy concoction he called “Pepsodent.” To sell Pepsodent, then, Hopkins needed a trigger that would justify the toothpaste’s daily use. He sat down with a pile of dental textbooks. “It was dry reading,” he later wrote. “But in the middle of one book I found a reference to the mucin plaques on teeth, which I afterward called ‘the film.’ That gave me an appealing idea. I resolved to advertise this toothpaste as a creator of beauty. To deal with that cloudy film.” In focusing on tooth film, Hopkins was ignoring the fact that this same film has always covered people’s teeth and hadn‘t seemed to bother anyone. The film is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush.-" People had never paid much attention to it, and there was little reason why they should: You can get rid of the film by eating an apple, running your finger over your teeth, brushing, or vigorously swirling liquid around your mouth. Toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film. In fact, one of the leading dental researchers of the time said that all toothpastes—particularly Pepsodent—were worthless.
That didn’t stop Hopkins from exploiting his discovery. Here, he decided, was a cue that could trigger a habit. Soon, cities were plastered with Pepsodent ads. “Just run your tongue across your teeth,” read one. “You’lI feel a film—that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.” “Note how many pretty teeth are seen everywhere,” read another ad, featuring smiling beauties. “Millions are using a new method of teeth cleansing. Why would any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Pepsodent removes the film! “ The brilliance of these appeals was that they relied upon a cue—tooth film—that was universal and impossible to ignore.
Telling someone to run their tongue across their teeth, it turned out, was likely to cause them to run their tongue across their teeth. And when they did, they were likely to feel a film. Hopkins had found a cue that was simple, had existed for ages, and was so easy to trigger that an advertisement could cause people to comply automatically. Moreover, the reward, as Hopkins envisioned it, was even more enticing. Who, after all, doesn’t want to he more beautiful? Who doesn’t want a prettier smile? Particularly when all it takes is a quick brush with Pepsodent?
After the campaign launched, a quiet week passed.
In the third week, demand exploded.
There were so many orders for Pepsodent that the company couldn’t keep up.
In three years, the product went international, and Hopkins was crafting ads in Spanish, German, and Chinese. Within a decade, Pepsodent “as one of the top-selling goods in the world,” and remained America's best-selling toothpaste for more than thirty years. “I made for myself a million dollars on Pepsodent,” Hopkins wrote a few years after the product appeared on shelves. The key, he said, was that he had “learned the right human psychology.”
That psychology was grounded in two basic rules:
First, find a simple and obvious cue.
Second, clearly define the rewards.
If you get those elements right, Hopkins promised, it “as like magic. Look at Pepsodent: He had identified a cue—tooth film—and a reward—beautiful teeth—that had persuaded millions to start a daily ritual. Even today, Hopkins’s rules are a staple of marketing textbooks and the foundation of millions of ad campaigns. (…)
However, it turns out that Hopkins’s two rules aren’t enough. There’s also a third rule that must be satisfied to create a habit—a rule so subtle that Hopkins himself relied on it without knowing it existed. It explains everything from why it’s so hard to ignore a box of doughnuts to how a morning jog can become a nearly effortless routine. Hopkins doesn't spend any of his autobiography discussing the ingredients in Pepsodent, but the recipe listed on the toothpaste’s patent application and company records reveals something interesting: Unlike other pastes of the period, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals.”
Pepsodent’s inventor used those ingredients to make the toothpaste taste fresh, but they had another, unanticipated effect as well. There irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums.
After Pepsodent started dominating the marketplace, researchers at competing companies scrambled to ?gure out why. What they found was that customers said that if they forgot to use Pepsodent, they realized their mistake because they missed that cool, tingling sensation in their mouths.
They expected—they craved—that slight irritation.
If it wasn't there, their mouths didn't feel clean.
Claude Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth. He was selling a sensation. Once people craved that cool tingling—once they equated it with cleanliness—brushing became a habit.
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