What does $18 billion smell like?

At the turn of the last century, it was taboo to talk about stinky armpits. It just wasn’t done in polite society.

You stuck cotton wool or pads under your oxter, soaked up the sweat and said no more about it.

There was no deodorant and, besides, it would have been tough to sell it anyway if no one was going to talk about their personal smells.

So how does an entrepreneur with a new deodorant get people’s attention?

Do you have to be a mad extrovert? Or is there something more scientific and measured about it?

No less an extrovert like Ben Parr would have you believe it requires analysis and hard work.

With a book on the way called Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, Parr shared some of his learning at the Web Summit.

The former co-editor of Mashable, and now a VC at the Dominate Fund, told the story of how, in 1910, entrepreneur Edna Murphey struggled to talk BO with her new Odorono deodorant.

In addition to the stigma of talking smelly armpits, people also believed deodorants could actually be bad for them.

So Murphey did two things, Parr said. She:

  • Leveraged experts
  • Reframed the conversation.

Murphey’s father, a doctor, had invented an antiperspirant to keep his hands dry during surgery. This was the mark of respectability her marketing needed.

Citing research he did for his book, Parr said people defer to experts.

In fact, MRI scans have shown people actually shut down decision-making parts of their brains when listening to their advice, Parr said.

To reframe the discussion, Murphey’s first ads spoke of “a frank discussion too often avoided.” When it ran in first in Lady’s Home Journal, hundreds were horrified enough to cancel their subscriptions, Parr said.

But the conversation had begun.

After finding the right approach, Murphey’s sales in year one were $418,000, almost $6 million in today’s money.

The lure of riches attracted competitors which only served to expand the conversation – and the market.

Today, the deodorant market is now worth $18 billion.

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