As if the world doesn't have enough problems, marketers lately have been busy finding new ones most people never knew they had -- from "stress sweat" to invisible laundry stains to eyes that look older from air pollution -- and magically offering a solution.
All are bona fide problems identified by consumer or laboratory research, the companies insist. And they see consumers responding to the solutions, even if critics or commentators sometimes think the problems are made up.
For example, a few commenters on YouTube cast doubts about Procter & Gamble Co.'s Secret contending that stress sweat smells worse than ordinary sweat. Nonetheless, Secret Clinical Strength Antiperspirant has a patented ingredient it claims combats stress sweat four times better than ordinary antiperspirants, backed by clinical research that was to be presented at the American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting in Miami Beach last week. "This is absolutely not a made-up thing at all," said John Sebastian, associate marketing director for personal care at P&G.
Watery "hot sweat" comes from the eccrine glands, he said, while apocrine glands produce stress sweat, which is made up of 20% fat and other "nutrients" prone to harboring stinky bacteria. Marketers, however, have mainly dealt with hot sweat, testing antiperspirants on people in hot rooms. To produce stress sweat, P&G teamed with a German research firm that subjected people to public speaking or doing math in their heads, then found Secret Clinical Strength works better on stress sweat than watery hot sweat, Mr. Sebastian said.
Meanwhile, Unilever is addressing in recent TV spots its solution to another previously unknown underarm problem its research uncovered: Women concerned about their ugly armpits. Dove first addressed that in 2005 ads about brides prettying up their armpits for the big day, then brought the solution to full fruition with the 2011 launch of Dove Go Sleeveless. Stephen Colbert lampooned the idea by suggesting "leg pits" and "thumb crotches" as new beauty frontiers.
Undeterred, Unilever has since launched Dove Ultimate White in the Philippines to reduce dark spots under arms and Dove Pure in Australia, which is free of such artificial ingredients as parabens to keep armpits "healthy-looking."
But problems you can't see at all can be the worst. To expose them, Sun Products' Wisk since October has been using online-video ads showing "invisible stains" from body oils and sweat. One, using jars and buckets of goo to depict body oil and sweat residue left in clothes by other detergents, has drawn more than 2 million YouTube views, though some commenters think it's a "Saturday Night Live" parody, and Gawker, following a New York Times story on the campaign, called it "the biggest scam since bottled water."
Sun would be happy if its brand was a fraction of the size of the multibillion-dollar bottled-water business, but sees no scam. Wisk's "stain diary" research identified oils and sweat as consumers' top laundry concerns, while lab tests found clothes have more invisible stains (largely from stress sweat, no doubt) than visible ones. Detergents often don't remove these "stains," so Sun last year reformulated Wisk for a "deep down clean," said marketing director Lora Van Velsor.
"It's a tough category to create news in," she said, "so discovering this and finding how compelling it is for consumers is pretty exciting."
But it doesn't take entirely new research or ingredients to talk about a new problem.
Scientists long have known that air pollution damages skin, but Estee Lauder recently "developed a new testing methodology which helped us better understand how existing anti-aging technology helps improve the appearance of damage caused by environmental assaults," said Charisse Ford, senior VP-global marketing at Estee Lauder, in an email. That led to Advanced Night Repair Eye Serum, which has seen strong sales since it hit the market in the U.S. 10 weeks ago, she said.
Finding new problems, of course, is as old as marketing. In the 1960s, Revlon even tried ear makeup, said beauty-industry consultant Suzanne Grayson, though she believes marketers are looking harder for problems lately.
"Everyone is looking to consumer research for ideas," she said. "It's desperation time. Even companies that never were heavy into research, like the upscale department-store brands, are using it, looking for kernels of disappointment [they] can latch onto."
Ms. Grayson sees promise in P&G's recent Pantene Expert Collection applying "anti-aging" to hair, borrowing from sibling Olay in citing seven signs of hair aging. The products address such things as thickness, frizz, breakage and shine -- problems Pantene has long solved. But calling them anti-aging solutions, she said, taps into a graying U.S. population that already knows it has a problem.