Apply Liberally: Consumers Use Products as They See Fit

Preparation H is generally not something you’d dab on while waiting in line outside a Manhattan dance club, but according to recent media coverage, that’s exactly what some men are doing. They’re using the hemorrhoids cream, however, well north of where it’s intended: on their torsos and arms to appear more muscular.

According to reports on ABC News and numerous blogs, among other places, this may yield results, since shrinking nearby tissue may make muscles appear more defined.

It’s hardly the first time Prep H has been used for an odd purpose. Newsweek reported in 1975 that the “newest cosmetic fad” was to use the product to reduce puffiness under eyes, and the claim has been widely reported (and disputed) in publications and online ever since. More recently, as evidenced by thousands of mentions online, the product has been suggested for treating just-tattooed skin.

Prep H is just one of countless brands, ranging from Bounce and Arm & Hammer baking soda to Vaseline petroleum jelly, used in ways not advertised by manufacturers.

Not everyone embraces the innovative uses.

“We don’t approve or endorse any off-label uses of our products, including Preparation H,” says Millicent Brooks, a representative at Prep H parent company, Wyeth Consumer Healthcare. “We have certain quality-control standards at Wyeth, where unless it has been thoroughly tested, we wouldn’t endorse the use or promote it.”

Consumers have always used — or misused — products however they see fit. And they’ve always shared their discoveries (that Hellmann’s mayonnaise, say, works as a hair conditioner), albeit in limited ways. But when it comes to products these days, the ubiquity of blogs and online inquiries means people are increasingly going public with alternative uses.

“A big part of these social networks is people asking open-ended questions and sharing insights, and it’s uncovering these nuggets of off-label uses,” says Rohit Bhargava, svp at Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence.

The question for marketers, then, is whether or not to promote these uses — and if you do promote them, how not to undermine the products’ established strengths.

“Brands and companies aren’t in control anymore,” says Shannon Stairhime, content manager for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. “Consumers are talking about you whether you control it or not, and companies may be missing an opportunity to promote a use consumers already have for the brand.”

Bounce this way and that

For several years, a list that details quirky uses for Bounce dryer sheets — including tying them to belt loops as a bug repellent — has been the subject of viral e-mails and blog posts. Procter & Gamble, which makes the dryer sheets, was well aware of the phenomenon, but did not acknowledge it.

“There are hundreds of P&G products and you’d be hard-pressed to find many that tout alternative uses,” says Kash Shaikh, a P&G representative. “There was resistance that it might be a distraction from the traditional benefits of the product, which we were single-mindedly focused on.”

But the more online chatter the company observed about alternative uses, the more the resistance dissipated, says Shaikh. Brand managers decided it was time to “lean forward and take a risk on our part” and to try “to capture the consumers’ passion for the product and use it as leverage.”

It was time, in other words, to promote the off-label uses of Bounce.

A print, radio and TV campaign (TV spots ran only in Canada) by the Toronto office of Leo Burnett, “Bounce beyond the dryer” featured actual customer suggestions for the sheets. (In one spot, a mother sticks a dryer sheet under her child’s car seat to counter the smell of spilled milk and dirty diapers.) It launched in January and ran through June.

Heather Chambers, a cd at Burnett, says her team started out by talking among themselves about the ways they used the sheets. “Everybody had a story of some crazy place or way that they used them,” she says. They then decided to draw consumers into the conversation.

Integral to the campaign was a contest held at the Digitas-designed Bounceeverywhere. com, where visitors submitted more than 26,000 alternate uses for Bounce sheets. The winning use — artificial flowers made from the sheets — was featured in a print ad. A PR push by DeVries Public Relations landed Bounce on the Today show twice for segments about alternate uses.

Scrubbed from the Web by company lawyers were suggestions that imperiled users or the environment. Insect-repellent ideas were left online, but not formally endorsed.

“The suggestions we try to bring to life in a bigger way are about freshness or static cling. Those are extensions of the product’s core benefits,” Shaikh says.

The company had calculated that persuading 25 percent of existing customers to use just one more sheet per month for a non-dryer use could foster “substantial category growth,” says Shaikh, who claims the campaign spurred a $5 million boost in sales over the prior six months.

According to Information Resources Inc. data, which excludes Wal-Mart, for the year ending June 15 the brand’s basic scented sheets led the $155 million dryer-sheet category with $67 million in sales.

Another P&G brand, Dawn dish soap, also highlights an off-label use: as the country’s largest bird-rescue group’s preferred soap for removing spilled crude oil from befouled birds. Most recently, in November, Dawn donated hundreds of cases of soap to help battle the oil spill in San Francisco Bay, and was mentioned by name in several articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere about the cleanup. After the spill, P&G purchased a full-page ad in the Chronicle lauding volunteers for the effort. It ended with the words, “This ad was placed by Dawn. Tough on grease. Gentle on wildlife.”

But Jay Holcombe, director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center in San Francisco, says Dawn was slow to acknowledge its role in cleanups. Holcombe says that in the late-1970s the founder of his group compared numerous dish soaps for removing oil from feathers and, after Dawn was deemed the best, the group contacted P&G in the early-1980s, but “didn’t get much response.”

Toward the end of 1988, Holcombe says, the brand contacted the bird rescuers and agreed to donate soap. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred off Alaska and Dawn shipped hundreds of cases of the product to the disaster.

In 2002, Dawn started publicizing its work with the group, including a TV spot by The Kaplan Thaler Group, “Duck Talk,” that showed a duck being cleaned with Dawn. In 2006, the company launched a Web site, dawnsaveswildlife.com, that highlights the rescue group’s work. Manning Selvage & Lee coordinates the PR for Dawn.

The many lives of baking soda

Perhaps no brand has embraced off-label uses like Arm & Hammer baking soda. Shortly after its introduction in 1846, reports poured in that it worked as more than just a leavening agent, says Steve Bolkan, R&D director at Church & Dwight, which owns the brand.

Over the next century “entrepreneurial housewives” subjected virtually every surface of their home and families to suspected benefits of the product, from cleaning laundry and floors to brushing teeth and dusting armpits as a deodorant, Bolkan says. Eventually the company launched lines including Arm & Hammer laundry detergent (1970), toothpaste (1988), deodorant (1994) and cat litter (1998).

Ironically, Church & Dwight discourages off-label uses for products besides baking soda. So while online forums often recommend, say, using the cat litter to soak up oil from garages and driveways, the company discourages it.

“With personal-care products the label is highly regulated and you just don’t want people to misuse it,” says Bolkan. “We live in a very litigious society and if you don’t really conduct quality R&D tests for those applications, it’s just very dangerous from a legal standpoint.”

That, and possible sanctions from the Food and Drug Administration are why medications like Prep H are consistent about discouraging uses beyond what they prescribe.

Other brands make a case that doing nothing about alternative uses is the best way to go. Canada Dry Club Soda, for example — which, along with other club sodas, is lauded by consumers as a spot remover for clothes and carpets — says it’s just good business.

A representative for the brand, which is part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, says in a statement that “right now, consumer word of mouth is delivering the cleaning message for us, which is a marketer’s dream come true.”

Ditto for Vaseline, a Unilever product. In response to questions about off-label use (such as helping surfers slip into wet suits), brand manager Elizabeth Tomasulo stated in an e-mail that it doesn’t “proactively encourage off-label use,” but is delighted “that consumers have found all kinds of ways to use Vaseline to solve their daily problems.”

Joey Green, author of several books about alternative uses of products — including the just-published Joey Green’s Fix-It Magic: More Than 1,971 Quick-and-Easy Household Solutions Using Brand-Name Products, says he’s surprised Heinz white vinegar — recommended by consumers as a versatile and non-toxic cleaner — isn’t selling its product in a spray bottle.

A Heinz representative responds, “I can’t tell you if it’s something we’d bring to life, but it’s something the brand has considered.”

Heinz takes a middle-ground approach, not advertising its cleaning benefits per se, but highlighting such applications — including its use as a toilet-bowl cleaner — on its Web site.

That recommendation may well have caused some consternation among Heinz marketers. After all, once you’ve cleaned your toilet with it, how much enthusiasm could you corral for using it in a vinaigrette, a recipe for which is also on the Web site?

“It’s a brand-by-brand decision,” concludes Burnett’s Chambers, who worked on the Bounce campaign. “But if the off-label use is still relevant to the core equity of your brand, if it’s a usage that supports what your brand stands for, I think it should be advertised for sure.”