Case Studies

Insight for Innovation ®

Case Studies are published articles written by Ken Miller that address opportunities for innovation in a specific category. They involve primary research, analysis and concept development summarized in a brief and readable format.

Making Scents of Air Fresheners

Brand Packaging Magazine: July 1, 2009 by Ken Miller


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Scent is a powerful force.  We use scent to catalog and recall experiences, people and environments that hold a prominent place in our lives.  We have strong emotional connections and associations with scents that can immediately transport us and change our mood.  And nowhere is that more apparent than in the air freshener category where products work hard to leverage the transformational power of scent.

After interacting with consumers, it is clear that there is opportunity to look at the scent delivery business in ways that would genuinely excite them.  That’s what this article, another installment of the “Insight for Innovation” column, is all about.  Once again, I’ll try to illustrate that every category and every consumer experience, no matter how mature and entrenched, has an innovation story to tell.  This is the story of consumers and their air fresheners.

This category is on fire.  New product launches seem to occur daily, and I had to run to the store a few extra times to catch up as my research week approached.  Many new products are sporting new “delivery systems”—the housing or primary package that disperses the scented formula.  The functional and perceptual attributes of these delivery systems will be the focus of this case study.

To write this article, I conducted in-home ethnographic research with a large handful of women who buy and use a range of air freshener products.  Fieldwork Research in New Jersey did a great job recruiting this for me.  I audited the home, explored the rationale for purchase, assessed product performance and presented a range of category entries for feedback.  Spending time in the home was critical to assessing the underlying needs that drive purchase behavior and satisfaction.  I’d be the first to say that my research wasn’t comprehensive.  Nevertheless, it did surface some key leverage points that could jump-start innovation.  

Does it Make Scents?

The household section at Target is lined with perhaps 15 linear feet of air freshener offerings, top to bottom.  From candles to crystals, the selection is astonishing (and overwhelming) in its breadth.  While some products are simple and intuitive, others are almost appliance-like in their features and functionality.  What most have in common, however, is that they view consumer needs as “object” focused.  In an effort to cover every conceivable scent-eligible location in the home, manufacturers have taken to the proliferation of products and features with the expectation that the consumer can always find something that will do the trick.

However, the products are rarely location or problem-specific.  They represent a range of generic solutions that ask the consumers to match a need with a cure.  While this approach is sure to satisfy every isolated occasion, it may be stifling category growth.  That’s because manufacturers are not setting up new potential usage occasions or indicating fresh, scent-needy environments.  And more importantly, they are not addressing the various underlying emotional connections people have with scent.  That’s why consumers seem to be stuck in a buy-and-replace routine that holds little excitement for them.

There is one fascinating exception, which has the potential to move the category from “object” focused to “need state” focused.  The diffuser products (reed-like sticks in an oil-filled vial) have created new rules.  Sure, they are genuinely attractive, subtle and can be used anywhere.  But that’s not why they are game-changers.  For certain consumers, they play perfectly to an emotional need state involving the true meaning of home.  One could argue that candles accomplished this first, but I would contend that candles are still mostly purpose-driven.  More on this later.

The Scented Landscape

air-fresh-for-case-studyAs a category, the proliferation of forms, features and formulas is likely driven by what manufacturers view to be the next incremental idea.  Motion-detection, intermittent spraying, dual scents, and dissolving crystals all vie for real estate in the home by attending to presumably under-met device-driven needs.  For instance:  It works automatically so I don’t have to be there.  It looks presentable on my end table.  It only works when someone is around to trigger and appreciate it.  It is easy to hide.

As an aside, it is informative to review what consumers say they like and don’t like about today’s offerings.  While plug-in units are still out there in bathrooms and hallways, they make some consumers nervous.  One said, “I got weirded out leaving them plugged in all day”.  Not even night lights and extra outlets can get them past this issue.  And the refill business model can be frustrating for those who are attached to a scent but find it missing on the shelf—particularly because consumers are not likely to stock up on these products.

The trend toward multi-scents in one unit confuses many consumers.  I can understand how research may have surfaced the “nose boredom” consumers get with a given scent.  But the concept doesn’t play out intellectually for them when exposed to the product.  While two scents can be attractive—if she happens to like them both—the consumer misses the point of rotating or switching scents.   Even so, manufacturers seem to be playing the razor blade game with two and now three scents per unit.

The adjustable cones are passable for light duty where appearance isn’t an issue, and localized scent is enough.  Consumers say they look “institutional”, or “like my mom’s house in the ‘70s”.  And the labels don’t help.  Consumers have a hard time understanding the role of motion sensor units, and the intermittent sprays seem like a waste to many.  The functionality of appliance-like products such as these is difficult to understand without a deep dive into copy or heavy ad support.  And, some say they look too obvious in their purpose and too conspicuous in the home.

Attempts at nicer aesthetics are hit-and-miss for each consumer.  However, most consumers rave about two new products:  Glade’s reed diffuser and Renuzit’s Crystal Elements.  The reed diffuser is the only product that comes close to being considered a décor enhancer rather than just décor friendly.  Many women associate this product with a more refined specialty-store version they may have received as a gift.  And, consumers say they would likely add it to the mix rather than replace something else.  The only knock is that it may knock over.  As mentioned, this is the first product that begins to tap in to deep-seated emotional needs surrounding scent.

Crystal Elements has a more modest goal.  It is quite modern and attractive, and can substitute for the ugly unit now hidden behind photo frames.  Consumers love the look, but moms with kids worry about products that are easily mistaken for candy.  And, they would never use one of their own bowls for fear of mixing chemical residue with food.

Underlying Need States

Let’s talk about some preliminary need states that seem to characterize discrete groups of air freshener users.  Again, I can’t say these would pass the sniff test (so to speak) upon deeper investigation, but they are solid enough to make my point here.


Scent-Centrics want scent to play a role in their lives.  Scent is a critical element to a sense of place in their home.  After a long day, they want to return to a scent that they associate with the warmth and security of home and family.  They are less concerned with location-specific odors (though they do take steps to combat these), and are more concerned with the emotional wellbeing they get from experiencing scent in the home.

Practically speaking, this means that air fresheners are always present and functioning in main rooms, and scents are often coordinated throughout these public spaces.   Appearance in these settings is important, but Scent-Centrics will hide less attractive products to achieve the scent they want.  In essence, they have adopted a scent strategy for their home, anchored in underlying emotional needs.

What products do they tend to buy?  Diffusers and automatic units freshen constantly in perceptible fashion.  Candles lend atmosphere.  Others such as plug-in or stand-alone units don’t have the desired impact beyond a few feet.  These and other products may find their way to bathrooms or other needy spots, but they don’t help the Scent-Centric to enhance and enjoy her home.


Odor-Phobics work hard to rid their homes of any and all distasteful pollutants.  They are not into scents, but more concerned about eliminating odors at their source.  They talk about “sanitizing” and “neutralizing”, often quoting package claims, and worry about germs as well as unpleasant odors.  Problems crop up in the garbage can, during cooking, and in the bathroom.

Like the other need state groups, they are concerned about spraying around food in the kitchen.  While the Scent-Centrics would light a candle during food preparation to suppress fish, garlic and vegetable odors, Odor-Phobics would wait until cooking is completed and then spray away.

They prefer to address the odor per occasion rather than put an air freshener in place to treat it consistently.  As such, the spray can is their best friend, and the scent is less important.  In fact, they would expect that a product that could truly “cancel” an odor would leave no scent behind.  They are confused by claims that a product can eliminate an odor but leave another one in its place.  “Isn’t that just masking?” they wonder.

Odor-Phobics are all about functionality, and they may have cans placed strategically throughout the house.  Even so, they are quick to point out that cans are not that attractive, particularly when guests can see them.  But hiding them would only create bigger odor-related problems when husbands, guests and kids neglect to use them.  The only emotional connection they have with scent is the one that drives them to abolish it in their home.


Spot-Treaters like their homes to smell fresh—location by location—and see specific odor sources as a challenge.  They enjoy scents and have no issue with the “masking” that O-Ps find fault with.  As well, O-Ps are more occasion-driven while S-Ts prefer ongoing air freshening.  The air freshener category as we know it is tailor made for this need state group, as it is comprised of a range of devices, each with specific utility suitable for any and all household locations.

In the Spot-Treater home, we may find plug-in units in the bathroom, stick-up units in the shoe closet (hard to find these days), cone-like units in the gym, office and laundry area, and maybe even a scented shelf liner or sachet in the drawers.  They will have spray cans in the bathrooms, but are fond of “layering”, where an ongoing scent may be augmented by a quick spray blast to address an “emergency”.

Even so, a pleasant scent is much appreciated.  There are scents that are right for the kitchen (cinnamon and vanilla), and the bathroom (citrus), but they are not coordinated as they are in S-C homes, and they do not make a house a home.  Candles may reside in the living areas, but are reserved for adult-related special occasions.  After all, these environments smell just fine as they are.

Need State Strategies

In a full-blown effort, much more work would be done to define these need-state groups in terms of attitudes and behavior, dissecting the buying and usage cycle and marrying them up to products, substitutes and workarounds.  But as a quick fix for these need-state groups, it’s time to think about the high-leverage opportunities and gaps that could drive innovation for each (assuming there is rationale for addressing them all).

The Scent-Centrics might greatly appreciate a solution that reinforces the emotional attachment they have to their home through scent.  Perhaps it coordinates scents in living areas and has unique features that ensure the house offers a welcoming smell upon their return.  This solution might eliminate the cobbling together of products to achieve an overall effect in the home.  Such an offering might drive incremental usage in new locations by delivering a cohesive solution with a unified look rather than relying on the consumer to pick and place discrete units.

The Odor-Phobics may appreciate products that neutralize odors in delivery system forms that are more convenient and long-lasting than the standard spray can.  Perhaps there’s a solution to dealing with cooking odors without spraying food.  Or addressing the kitchen garbage can and other receptacles without any spray residue.  While this crowd has already identified many of the offending locations, they would appreciate new products that might spotlight a few unrecognized ones.  For this group, the complete absence of scent could be a strong selling point.

The Spot-Treaters might appreciate a line of products geared toward their specific problem locations.  The growth opportunity here is to formally recognize both existing and new applications rather than expect the consumer to find and treat them with generic offerings.   Of course, these units should offer aesthetics, usability and scent that meld with the locations and sensibilities of those who primarily use the space.

Dollars and Scents

We’ve discussed some fresh ways to look at the category and exploit unrecognized needs to drive growth.  I might distill these opportunities down into three key Innovation Platforms, all nested under a single objective:

Re-energize category growth by shifting new delivery system development toward underlying emotional need-based solutions and away from multi-purpose, stand-alone devices.

Explore a lifestyle scent system for Scent-Centrics that helps them bring their home-based emotional connections to life when and where they want.  This concept could go in many directions.  One option may be a “kit”, anchored by the next “diffuser” product and flanked by units related in scent and appearance for main living spaces.

Identify usage theme-based products for Odor-Phobics that organize odor problems in dedicated lines to build preference and loyalty.  For instance, a new “neutralizing” product could be designed and positioned to perform in close-quarter receptacles such as trash cans, laundry hampers, cat litter, shoe bins, etc.

Grow consumption among Spot-Treaters by designing products for specific unrecognized occasions and locations.  For instance:  The linen closet, the shower, the home gym, etc.  Or, consider a bathroom product that is more attractive to leave out and inviting to users to ensure “compliance”.

This article attempts to illustrate how one might surface tangible business opportunities and exploit them through the identification of innovation platforms such as those above.  We can’t set out to solve for them here, but by way of example, I’ve asked Carson Ahlman, an independent industrial designer, to work with me to create a few packaging concepts that can address a couple of the above opportunities.  Think of them as “thought-starters” rather than refined solutions.  They are pictured in the magazine version of these pages.

Successful innovation takes place when a strong methodology teams with fresh insight and technical know-how to help focus, inspire and guide concept development.  With a coherent design strategy, your team can reach consensus on what really motivates the consumer beyond evident product features, and where there are opportunities for growth.  This is how thoughtful insight for innovation can make perfect “scents” for new product and package success.