How Pfizer used Behavioral Science to Help Smokers Quit

The Challenge

One of those change-makers is Lauri Kien Kotcher, who, in the mid-2000s, was the SVP of Marketing for Pfizer Consumer Health. Lauri had a weak product in her portfolio: Nicorette. The patch-or-gum nicotine replacement therapy was experiencing weak sales and weak customer outcomes, and she was at a crossroads: she could either kill the product or…could she turn it into part of a successful smoking cessation service?

she could either kill the product or…could she turn it into part of a successful smoking cessation service?

She shared this idea with Peer Insight, and they gave the project the codename, “Pavlov.” The Peer Insight team helped Pfizer conduct a year-long market experiment to hypothesize, test, and iterate on a “quit service” that incorporated Nicorette. A key part of their process was to collect SAY and DO data to understand the root of the problem (the WHY).

Smokers Have Intentions to Quit

The DO data suggested something fairly different. Smokers would plan for months and months in advance of their quit attempt, anticipating a time when they would be able to mass their energy, as if for a big fight. (The time window after the Super Bowl and before finals was popular with smokers in their twenties.)

Some would keep their attempt to quit a secret, refusing to inform any of their friends of their plans. Others would pull all the stops, enrolling friends and co-workers, starting an exercise program, etc.

The Disconnect Between the SAY and the DO Data

What was driving the smoker’s reluctance to try again?

The Fear of Failure

These smokers had frequently been chastened by doctors, family members, and others telling them how harmful smoking was for their health. Showing an image of what their lungs would look like in thirty years didn’t have much of an effect. Images of medical professionals in lab coats evoked eye rolls.

One of the key challenges they identified was the fear of failure

How could they address this paradox of what they SAY (“I’m not addicted…those risks are a long way off…”) and what they DO (planning for months, saving their energy, etc.)? What seemed to lurk just behind the curtain was a deep fear they would fail yet again.

What if, instead of, ‘Leave me alone, I can do this,’ what they were really feeling was, ‘OMG, I’m afraid I can’t do this, and no one can help me?’ Did these people feel doomed to a life sentence of smoking?

The “Lurking Fear”

…reframing the service as a gym membership instead of a medical intervention

Someone who would be by their side, encouraging them along the path, and helping mitigate their fear of failure. This came in the form of a “Quit Coach.”

A Friend in the Quest to Quit

The Creation of Active Stop

Most importantly, though, was the ingenious incorporation of a soft commitment device. By making an explicit commitment to their Quit Coach, smokers increased the likelihood that they would follow through on their intention.

This commitment device approach worked. Built from the underlying WHY, it not only provided a win for smokers wanting to quit, but also for Lori Kien Kitcher and the Pfizer team in making their Nicorette product relevant again. It became Pfizer’s first revenue-generating service, and this treatment option is still alive and well today.

Decoding the Why — How Behavioral Science is Driving the Next Generation of Product Design

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Entrepreneur blending behavioral economics, data and technology to help changemakers inspire and move people to action. Co-founder @creativesci & member @yec.