Bugs, the New Frontier in Housecleaning

By Ellen Byron Features Dow Jones Newswires

Your floor is scrubbed, the bathroom gleams, dishes are washed and the laundry is done. But have you captured your home's flying bugs?

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Procter & Gamble Co. wants to add a step to your cleaning routine. The consumer-product company, already known for Tide laundry detergent, Mr. Clean disinfectant and Swiffer mops, in April introduced Zevo, an indoor trap for winged insects including flies, mosquitoes, gnats and moths.

After cleaning tubs, floors, clothes, hair and skin, bugs offer a new frontier, and a potential opportunity as P&G looks to reverse years of lackluster sales. "Another dirt for P&G are those insects around your home," says Jane Welling, a scientist for P&G's Ventures unit, which pursues new business opportunities.

"When flying insects come in, they seem to multiply and ruin everything that makes your house a home," an online Zevo ad says. "If you have pets and kids that are constantly going in and out of the house, then Zevo is a must-have."

Creating new product categories is one way P&G is trying to turnaround its business, which has struggled as consumers cut back spending and small, upstart brands have eaten into its dominance of shaving, cleaning and beauty products. Sales in P&G's most recent quarter ended March 31 fell 1% to $15.6 billion. Its fabric & home care division posted sales and profit declines over the same period.

The strategy isn't new. P&G for generations has excelled at convincing consumers of problems they didn't realize they had. Febreze captures household odors you may have become accustomed to but guests might detect. Crest teaches consumers that teeth should be white, not just cavity-free. Pantene sells the notion that healthy hair should always shine. Olay wants aging consumers to fight dull skin tone as well as wrinkles. Downy says washing clothes also requires fiber protection, softening and fragrance.

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P&G is taking a relatively quiet approach to its Zevo launch. Unlike the blockbuster store roll outs P&G's giant brands usually stage for a new product, Zevo is sold via its folksy website and Home Depot's stores and site. The Zevo site includes photos of the P&G team that created the product, including a mosquito-masked employee named "Mosquito Joe," whose title is "chief test subject." Zevo's packaging includes a thank-you note.

Zevo, which resembles a plug-in air freshener, uses a combination of blue and UV light to attract flying insects onto a sticky cartridge that ensnares and ultimately kills them. Developers borrowed know-how from across P&G's businesses, including device technology from Febreze, adhesive capabilities from Always sanitary pads and the replaceable-cartridge business model from Gillette razors. A starter kit, which includes a device and two trap cartridges, costs $12.99 and two refill cartridges cost $5.99.

P&G considered at least 50 iterations of the device as it looked for the right cover for the sticky cartridge -- it needed to have openings wide enough for insects to see the blue light and fly through it to be captured, yet not so revealing that consumers could see too many dead bugs. "We didn't want the consumers to get totally grossed out," Ms. Welling says.

Still, seeing how many dead bugs are snagged during the cartridge's 45-day or so lifespan helps persuade consumers they need the device, P&G says. During a four-week test in Orlando, chosen because of its bug-friendly climate, consumers involved initially were skeptical they had a bug problem. "But then looking at their cartridge, they said, 'oh, I did need that," Ms. Welling says.

P&G uses gruesome facts to describe why winged insects are more than just a household nuisance. Twice as many germs are carried by house flies than cockroaches and flies spit, throw up and defecate on food they land on, P&G says in its marketing materials. Some 1.6 million gallons of American blood is sucked by mosquitoes each year, and fruit flies can lay 500 eggs on your fruit in less than 10 days, P&G says.

Still, except for mosquito-borne diseases like the West Nile and Zika viruses, flying insects don't usually pose a health hazard in the U.S., says Joshua Benoit, an entomologist and assistant professor of biology at the University of Cincinnati, who is involved in Zevo's development. "Flies and other insects in your house in the U.S. are mostly just a major nuisance," he says.

This summer homeowners may face a particularly annoying insect population thanks to a mild winter and warmer and wetter spring this year in many parts of the U.S. "We'll have a lot more pests," Dr. Benoit says.

P&G says they aren't replacing the capabilities of an exterminator, but rather helping to alleviate an annoyance without chemicals or swatters. "If you're doing nothing before, now you're doing something," Ms. Welling says.

Write to Ellen Byron at ellen.byron@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 15, 2017 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)