Creating the Need for Clean Hands

How a Product Designed to Remove Odor from Smelly Clothes Is Helping to Save Lives in Ghana
Attempting to understand another culture on its terms can reveal deeply-held values that are common to both cultures, enabling marketing professionals to communicate a product’s benefits more effectively


Creating the Need for Clean Hands: How a Product Designed to Remove Odor from Smelly Clothes Is Helping to Save Lives in Ghana

April, 2009
By Morenike Agiri

“Our products succeed when they become part of daily or weekly patterns,” according to Carol Berning, a consumer psychologist recently retired from Procter & Gamble. For many years, companies have focused on ways customers can use their products in their everyday lives. Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Unilever have all spent millions of dollars researching the subtle cues in consumers’ lives that can be used to introduce new routines. Identifying and understanding these cues allows companies to produce useful and efficient products to the consumer’s satisfaction.

A few years ago, Dr. Val Curtis, an anthropologist residing in Burkina Faso, West Africa, began dedicating her research to discovering how to persuade people in third world countries to habitually use soap to wash their hands. Dr. Curtis’s motivation comes from studies which indicate that a child is killed every 15 seconds from diseases and disorders such as diarrhea, which is caused by dirty hands. Studies also show that half of these deaths can be prevented with the regular use of soap; therefore, Dr. Curtis decided to focus on Ghana, a country where only 4% of the population regularly uses soap to wash its hands after using the bathroom. As Dr. Curtis found it exceedingly hard to persuade people to wash their hands regularly with soap, she turned to Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Unilever for answers. Her goal was to find out “how to sell hand-washing the same way they sell Speed Stick deodorant and Pringles potato chips” (Duhigg, 2).
Before approaching the problem, Dr. Curtis considered the sale of Febreze as a primary case example. Initially, Procter & Gamble advertised Febreze as a product used to remove odors from smelly clothes. This did not work; however, and early sales were so disappointing, the company considered canceling the entire project. But consumer researchers discovered that bad smells in clothes did not happen on a regular basis in their consumer’s lives. Therefore, using a new approach, Procter & Gamble researchers discovered that subtle cues actually give people the urge to do something throughout their daily routines. For example, location and various activity cues gave a person the urge to do certain things such as check her email or grab a cookie. Using such cues, Procter & Gamble discovered an opportunity to associate the clean smell of Febreze with a clean room. This resulted in more habitual use of Febreze after cleaning a room.

Dr. Curtis used this method to cue Ghanaians into washing their hands with soap after using the toilet. She studied surveys disclosing that Ghanaian parents are deeply concerned about exposing their children to anything disgusting, and intuitively, they washed their hands with soap whenever they had something disgusting on them. The results, however, suggested that Ghanaians did not perceive cleaning up in the bathroom as disgusting; in fact, in many African countries, “toilets are a symbol of cleanliness because they replaced pit latrines” (Duhigg, 4).

Using this theory, Dr. Curtis and her group created commercials that depicted not washing hands with soap after toilet use as disgusting. The 55-second television commercial showed mothers and children with glowing purple pigment on their hands, contaminating everything they touched. The ads resulted in two positive effects identified just last year in Ghana: 1) a 13% increase in the use of soap after using the toilet and 2) a 41% increase in soap use before eating. Dr. Curtis was able to market the “yuk” factor to the Ghanaians much the same way Unilever and Procter & Gamble market it to their customers. This enabled her to successfully get her message across to consumers and other stakeholders.

While Dr. Curtis adhered to good business practice and marketing ethics when borrowing from methods used by Procter & Gamble and others to sell ideas and products, such methods may unknowingly and/or potentially harm consumers. Patrick E. Murphy, D.R. Smith Director of the Institute of Ethical Business Worldwide, concentrates much of his work on marketing ethics, an area that is easily exploited by organizations and businesses. Murphy emphasizes the potentially harmful impact of ignoring stakeholders, especially consumers. See

 Dr. Curtis’s approach incorporated using soap after toilet use into Ghanaians’ daily lives without changing their culture. Very often, ideas and products introduced to third world countries require the people there to change their mentality and culture. Dr. Curtis’s attention to the way Ghanaians live their lives is remarkable, as she is able to sell her idea through valuing, not suppressing, their culture.

Sometimes cultural differences make it more challenging to communicate factual product benefits to customers outside a given area—especially if those benefits seem obvious to us. Instead of focusing on the cultural differences, try to understand the other culture on its terms. You may discover a deeply-held value that is common to both cultures, as well as the language and context necessary to help you communicate the product’s benefits more effectively.


Charles Duhigg. “Warning – Habits may be good for you.” New York Times 13 July 2008: 1-4.

Patrick E. Murphy. Professor C.R. Smith Co Director, Institute for Ethical Business WorldWide. University of Notre Dame, Mendoza College of Business,

Keywords: subtle cues, stakeholders, business practice, marketing ethics

Organizations: Procter & GambleColgate-PalmoliveUnilever

People: Carol Berning, retired Procter & Gamble consumer psychologist; Dr. Val Curtis, anthropologist in Burkina Faso, West Africa; Patrick E. Murphy, D.R. Smith Director of the Institute of Ethical Business Worldwide, University of Notre Dame