Cake Mix, Bad Smells And Great Leadership; Weirdly They All Have Something In Common


They worked out the importance of the cue — action — reward loop.

Photo by Mike Meeks on Unsplash

There are some famous marketing case studies that highlight the importance of understanding the psychology of the consumer, these same findings are important to great leaders as well.

Cue — Action — Reward


Betty Crocker had pushed out a simple cake mix in the 1950s that was designed to give the difficult cake baking experience a simplification. Too often there were cake failures around the kitchens, so Betty Crocker designed a variety of cake mixes that only required the addition of water, a good mix and some time on a pre-heated oven. They guaranteed success in the kitchen. Nobody bought them.

It was in the early 90s, Febreze had been on the market as an odour eliminator for the last few years and had been a resounding failure. The product was excellent at doing what they said it would, it was exceptional at fighting bad smells. TV ads marketed it as perfect for removing cigarette smoke and pets smells from clothing, cars and your home, but no one was buying it.

What the marketing team from General Mills (owners of Betty Crockers) and Procter and Gamble (owners of Febreze) had missed was understanding the psychology of their customer. They’d not paid enough attention to the cue, action and reward loops of habit formation.

I’ve noticed that those Leaders who continuously get the most out of their teams, the ones that outperform peers and associates ten-fold, have a knack for seeing their teams differently.

They have worked out the same things that the Betty Crocker and Febreze marketing teams realised, that the teams need to see the cues, own the actions and find the reward in those achievements.

They have worked out how to see the psychology gap and let the teams fill it in themselves. As a marketer, if you do not create this psychology gap, your product marketing will fail. As a leader, your team will fail.

You need to fit the cue, action and reward to the people you are targetting. This is what cake mix, bad smells and great leadership have in common.


Cake Mix

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Almost everyone has a pre-packaged cake mix in their cupboard somewhere. Ideations that if I need to bake, I’ll have something I can get done is now embedded within our mindset.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the 1950s there were several companies pushing forward packaged cake mix, General Mills and the Betty Crocker brand were able to make themselves stand out from the crowd.

What did they do?

They realised that the kitchen cook felt guilt about the size of the reward, for the level of action they had contributed.

Sitting down with guests over a cup of tea or coffee and a great cake brought praise from all corners, but the cook felt guilt, all they did was mix in water and stick it in the oven. They felt unworthy of the praise.

The marketing team had made making a cake too convenient. They had diluted the action step in the psychology reward loop.

Cue — we’re having guests this afternoon, let’s have cake.
Action — add water and bake.
Reward — glowing praise for the most perfect cake — and a healthy serve of guilt that I never earnt that praise — I cheated.


Bad Smells

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Febreze was meant to be a game-changer for Procter and Gamble in the 90s. The development team had discovered an odour-less odour neutraliser. That is, you didn’t try and mask the smell with a different smell. You could spray Febreze and the odours would be gone!

The marketing team seized on the idea. They showed TV adverts of Febreze being sprayed around the home, in the car, on clothes and all odours disappeared!

The marketing team believed that people would flock to the product to take away those stubborn smells and odours. They were wrong. During some customer visits to determine why the product was not selling as they had hoped.

They stumbled across a lady who lived in a house with her nine cats, as they entered the house the smell of the cats was overpowering causing one of the researchers to gag. The conversation went a little like this;

  • Researcher to Homeowner: “What do you do about the cat smell?”
  • Homeowner: “It’s usually not a problem.”
  • Researcher: “Do you smell it now?”
  • Homeowner: “No. Isn’t it wonderful? My cats hardly smell at all.”

They realised that marketing Febreze to remove odours, only worked if people realised there was an odour to be neutralised. Most people become de-sensitised to persistent odour. Cigarette smokers don’t smell the smoke on their clothes, cat owners don’t smell the overpowering cat odours.

The marketing team had missed the cue, and they later found that they had also missed the reward.

So they pivoted, they used the cue of normal housework. The made ironing, cleaning and cooking the cue, then the action of spraying Febreze, and a reward of a small refreshing odour, often clean linen or a summer breeze. The smell of Febreze was the reward for doing a good job.

The development team ended up putting an odour back into Febreze.

Their pivot was;

Cue — Finish the housework, make the bed, clean.
Action — Spray the Febreze.
Reward — A refreshing smell of clean linen or a summer breeze and a sense of accomplishment.


Great Leadership

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Here’s the thing, the same psychology loop of cue, action and reward applies in everything we do. All addictions are formed this way, and they can be broken through an understanding of it too.

The cue, action and reward loop can also be used as a reference point for great leadership.

Examine the outcomes required of your team. Do they have a clear path from a cue, to action and then to reward?

Does the action fit the reward, does the cue elicit the right action?

Here’s an example of bad leadership using this reference frame.

‘Hey, Julie — I realise you’re busy but I need you to run the latest projections again, we’ve missed the IT cost forecast, and I’m pretty sure that Steve screwed the incoming calculations for the last quarter….. You need to get this right by Thursday, it’s too important to muck-up twice’.

Cue — request to re-run the projections and get it right by Thursday.
Action — Look at the IT cost forecast and re-check the incoming calculations.
Reward — Don’t muck it up, again.

The boss in this situation has diluted the action step and the reward step. This causes Julie to feel like she doesn’t own the task, but she owns all the potential fallout if she screws up.

Let’s re-run it and use a different approach.

‘Hey Julie — I know you’re busy but somethings not right with the latest projections, before we take them forward, could you have a look? I’m concerned with the IT cost forecast and last quarters incoming calculations, but there’s probably something else. I’m not sure Steve really understood it. We need to make sure we get it right for the town hall meeting on Thursday, we’ve got a chance to show we’re on top of our game’.

Cue — request to look at the projections before Thursday’s meeting.
Action — Check through the projections, make sure it’s ready for Thursday. Let the boss know what was out. Let Steve know what I changed and why.
Reward — Nailing the Town Hall meeting and knowing I played a role in getting it right. Knowing that Steve has a better chance of getting it right next time.

The outcome achieved by the boss is the same. The figures are right. The way they went about it is very different and achieves a very different result for Julie.

In some ways, this is the difference between management and leadership. You can manage a task, but you don’t manage humans — you need to lead and coach them.

The primary difference in the two approaches was in the action and reward step. These are all enabled by how you cue them, and in that context is key.

In example one, the cue was a direct request and a deadline. The context was we’ve mucked up in two areas and they need to be addressed.

This is inflexible. Directive. This was a delegation of a task.

In example two, the cue was a complication in a task and a deadline. The context was a narrative about a problem and some shape to that problem, we need it addressed so we can nail the Town Hall meeting.

This is exploratory and focussed on intent over tasks. This was a delegation of an outcome.

As a great leader, you don’t prescribe tasks. You provide information on complications and outcomes and let the team find the right actions to reach the right answers.

In example one — the boss owns the actions and needs someone to complete them. In example two — the boss describes the problems and the team own the tasks. They created a gap in that psychology loop that meant that the teams had to fill it in.

The cue-action-reward loop framework, used within psychology and so powerful for correctly positioning a product in marketing, is vitally important to great leadership.

In essence, the effort and the reward need to be owned by the team.

So, next time you are looking at the problem in front of you. Remember the psychology loop and the failures overcome by Betty Crocker and Febreze. Then fit the cue and context to the team.

Create an action gap for your team and let them fill it. They will then own the action and the reward. They will be more effective, capable and happy.


Inspired by life. Leadership, Growth, Personal Development. Engineer and Sports Enthusiast. Top Writer in Leadership. Editor of Sparks Publication. leonpurton.com

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