Ah, the simple and romantic days of early 20th-century America. The men were splendid in suits and hats, the women were elegant in dresses and gloves, and nobody worried about finding a reliable wi-fi connection. They also, however, never worried about brushing their teeth. Eww.
In the early 1900s, oral hygiene was simply not a thing. You got up, got dressed, had breakfast, and went to work—without brushing. And when the day was done and dinner was finished, people climbed into bed. The toothbrush never came near their mouths.
Consequently, turn-of-the-century America was a country of cavities and missing molars. The situation was dire enough, in fact, that the US Army declared poor oral health to be a national security risk—because so many of its recruits for World War I suffered from rotting teeth.
The unlikely savior of the American mouth? Advertising.
Around this same time, a new toothpaste called “Pepsodent”—came to be. Legendary marketing man Claude Hopkins was hired to bring Pepsodent to market. Hopkins had an established track record of success, having already put brands like Quaker Oats and Goodyear Tires on the map. His strategy was simple but powerful: figure out a way to align his clients’ products with an audience’s daily habits.
Habits, Hopkins knew, were created through a process involving three elements: a Trigger, a Routine, and a Reward (many years later, journalist Charles Duhigg wrote about these elements in his book "The Power of Habit").
Example: for many people, lunch at 12 noon is a habit. The Trigger is the clock striking 12. The Routine is making your way to a place where there will be food. The Reward is the food itself.
To sell Pepsodent, Hopkins needed to find a way to start making teeth-brushing habitual. He spent weeks poring over dental textbooks, looking for his “trigger”. He learned about something called the mucin plaque, which is a thin membrane that builds up on all teeth naturally throughout the day, no matter what you eat or how often you brush.
So Hopkins decided to appeal to peoples’ vanity (always a good play) and marketed Pepsodent as “a creator of beauty”—specifically, something that could help people get rid of that cloudy “film.” He created his own trigger with this campaign message:
“Just run your tongue across your teeth. You’ll feel a film- that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off-color’ and invites decay. Pepsodent removes the film!”
Hopkins used a Trigger that anyone could implement (you just did it, right??), and created a Routine that could help (which was brushing daily). He couldn’t just say, “Brush every day, folks.” He had to create a need, and a clear way to fulfill it.
The final step was the “reward”. That was the tingly, minty flavor and suds created by using toothpaste. Neither the flavor or the bubbles did a thing to clean teeth. But the customer enjoyed the taste and the “tingle”, and the suds were a visible manifestation that he/she was DOING something.
Sales of Pepsodent skyrocketed. And the impact was profound—brushing daily caught on. Around 1915, about 7% of Americans brushed their teeth regularly. Within ten years, that number was 65%. By the time the army was recruiting soldiers for World War II, poor oral health was no longer an issue.
People often refer to a catchy ad campaign as “the sizzle that sells the steak”. Hopkins’ Pepsodent campaigns—including a very catchy jingle for radio and television that was created in later years—had plenty of sizzle. But the steak—the habit that the product helped form—wouldn’t have come into being without that bubbly, minty tingle (or, for that matter, without the marked improvement in dental health that came from daily brushing).
What about you? Could you cultivate buying behaviors that become “habit forming” for at least your local market? The answer is yes. The three elements—Trigger, Routine, Reward—are at anyone’s disposal. Here are some real and imagined examples to consider:
For Pepsodent, the trigger was a suggestion of running your tongue across your teeth and pointing out that you could feel “the film”. The routine was to brush your teeth. The reward was the bubbles and the tingly feeling. Brushing teeth is a daily habit.
For a business that makes or sells coffee, the trigger could be a suggestion of the need for a happy experience to start the day on the right foot. The routine would be to buy a cup of coffee from that business. The reward might simply be the taste, the warmth, the caffeine (so the coffee will always need to be fresh, hot, and never burned). Drinking coffee is a daily habit.
For a business that services cars, the trigger could be a suggestion that worn-out oil will shorten your car’s engine life. The routine would be to come in once a month to have the oil changed. The reward might be free coffee and donuts while you wait, and maybe even a car wash and cleaning with every oil change (so the coffee and donuts would always need to be in place, and the car would have to really sparkle when it was returned to the customer). Changing oil would be a monthly habit.
For a business that operates a golf and country club, the trigger could be the suggestion of a need for leisure time, or for an impressive place to meet with clients. The routine would be joining the club and then using its facilities. The reward would be a clearer head after a round of golf, or perhaps a lucrative contract secured because of the impressive setting (so conditions on the course would need to always be excellent, and the clubhouse would need to always be immaculate). Joining a Club would be a yearly habit.
A real life, contemporary example with a connection to the Pepsodent story can be found at Saco River Dentistry in Buxton. Rather than pursuing turn-of-the-century customers who never brushed, SRD is pursuing new millennium patients with "dental anxiety". The trigger in their radio advertising is the suggestion that a "pleasant dental experience" is something unusual--but is available at their practice. The routine is getting those folks to come in for a cleaning. The reward is threefold: it's Saco River Dentistry's beautifully decorated waiting area, it's the universally friendly, non-judgmental treatment of all new patients by the staff, and, of course, it's the healthier teeth and gums with which the new patients leave.
Trigger, Routine, Reward. The formation of habits is a powerful driver of business. With some research, some creativity, and some hard work, you can manipulate those habits to your own benefit and success. And without even understanding why they're doing it, your customers will come to see you again and again.
So make sure you brush your teeth.
Many thanks to Blake Hayes of the Coast Morning show for bringing the Pepsodent story to the Results Blog's attention... and for the snappy title!