So I thought I would share with you all the incident that got me started thinking about consumer manipulation, many years ago… I will change some details, but I will keep the core of the story intact.

At the time, I was a team manager at a top-tier management consulting firm. We were working for a large client that sold all sorts of consumer products, from soaps to cosmetics and even food. As it turned out, I was working with a small team to try and find a way to boost the profitability of one division, the one that handled soaps, detergents, and other similar products.

Retail Manipulations through divisions

Okay, it was not the sexiest division ever.

As it turns out, this was difficult. Soap is a mature industry – people are not buying more and more soaps and dishwashing liquid every year. It’s a mature, stable industry, where every box that you gain is lost by someone else. And since the industry is dominated by large, powerful players, everyone has access to the same tools – the same distribution channels, the same marketing resources, etc… – it’s very difficult to make lasting changes on behalf of one player or another. Which is why, of course, some of these companies pay high-priced consultants to do it for them.

One day, my team and I were brainstorming ideas in a conference room. The table had dozens of different bottles and boxes, basically samples of the client’s products that were meant to stimulate ideas. One of the analysts was playing with a soap bottle when he flipped the top by mistake, and dumped a huge squirt of soap on his pants. As he got up, red-faced, he joked that the easiest way to sell more soap was to simply make the hole at the top of the bottle larger.

We all laughed about it and went on to other ideas. Later in the day, however, I started to think about it. It couldn’t be that simple, right? A larger hole would simply mean that consumers would squeeze less hard and adapt, right? But what if they didn’t?

Eventually, I asked the analyst to go out and test his idea. Get a few bottles with different sized nozzles, give them to consumers, see what happens. Of course, the details took some time to iron out, but a couple of weeks later we had the results.

They were surprising results. It turned out that people didn’t adapt. People thought in terms of squeezes, not the total amount of soap. They basically squeezed the bottle or tipped the box, and if more stuff than they needed came out, they didn’t care – people were concerned about having too little soap, never about having too much. In fact, if you gave a buyer a bottle with a large nozzle and then gave him one with a smaller nozzle, he would squeeze it harder until he got as much soap as he had with the larger nozzle.

Given those findings, the client decided to try a large-scale test. All the bottles in one region were changed – the nozzles were doubled in size, they were painted red to draw attention to them, and a banner proclaiming “new, easy to use nozzle!” was painted onto the bottle. Then everyone sat back to see what would happen.

Consumer Manipulation started at Nozzles

It's all about the nozzle.

Six months later, the results were in. The company had sold 46% more soap in the region during the test than in the six months preceding the test.

It’s hard to emphasize how ridiculous those results were. In the industry, a 2% change was considered a huge win. An almost 50% increase was pure science-fiction. And if you add the fact that the change didn’t cost the client anything (save our fees), that buyers were as happy with the products as before, and that competitors didn’t react (because it was not an obvious price or distribution change), then you have a very happy company. In fact, this single change generated several hundred million of dollars across the entire company’s product line over the next few years.

Not only was this one change one of the most successful initiative in the group’s history, it was conceptually different from what the company – and everyone else in the industry – had done up to that point. Most marketing and sales projects focused on what I’ll call one a complete sale: getting a new customer to buy your product. Companies changed prices, bought ads with sexy sirens on the screen, or paid supermarkets for prime shelf space, all in the hope of convincing some consumers to buy their bottle of soap rather than their competitors’.

This was different, though. It was not a complete sale – The ‘double nozzle’ effort didn’t convert a single customer from the competition. It was essentially just a subtle way to encourage buyers to buy more of a product, mostly by leveraging an innate perception that consumers have that ‘more is better’. Instead of convincing a small number of people to do a big thing (change their favorite soap brand), it convinced a very large number of people to do something very small (use up a little – 46% – more soap every they squeezed that bottle). It was a fascinating concept, and that is when I started to research this type of play in other areas.

The ‘double nozzle’ was actually a fairly typical example of manipulation. It focused on changing a small behavior in a lot of people. It leveraged a built-in preference of those people. And there was an element of dissimulation – the company drew attention to the new nozzles, but did so under the banner of “easier to use”. All three of these elements are common to a lot of manipulation efforts.

To finish that story, other companies eventually caught on to the nozzle manipulation. Competitors promptly changed their own nozzles and dispenser, and as a result the overall market grew substantially. In the course of a couple of years, the entire category got a growth boost of almost 50%, since eventually everyone followed the same path. One of my great pleasures in those years was to see industry analyst reporting this boom, attributing it to everything from “international demand” to “new dishwashing machines that consume more soap” to “increased marketing spend”. Not one of them ever caught on that it was due to slightly larger nozzles…