Opinion Series: Category Ethnography – Shampoo

by Diane Lindquist on 06/03/2014 | 7 Minute Read

Aaron Keller, Managing Director of Capsule , and his researchers and designers adventured out into the aisle again! Last month, they jump started summer and indulged in the guilty pleasure of ice cream (read more about it here). This month they’re feeling refreshed after investigating another pleasure category, shampoo.

They experienced the good, the bad, and the smelly in this particular aisle. They discovered some interesting findings and found areas with great potential in shampoo packaging. 

Sight, touch, smell and taste (yes, taste)

The experience of purchasing shampoo has a handful of essential moments. The sight of the full selection of options and navigating your way to the set of brands you’d consider. The feel of a bottle as you hold it to read ingredients or consider some of the implied rewards for purchase. The consuming of the smell as you draw in a fragrance. While the taste is obviously not directly connected, it certainly plays a role as scent and taste are interwoven. This is essential and considered for the brands winning in the route toward more natural products. Our researchers noticed an intermingling smell and taste to help determine what felt more natural.

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Our shoppers were drawn to products communicating fresh, clean, natural ingredients because the desire is to feel fresh and clean. Products with white or cream colored bottles communicate this better than others. Men’s products seem to be more chiseled and darker while women’s products have brighter and softer colors.

Shoppers didn’t gravitate to the clinical design. Perhaps it was the common perceptions on what need a clinical shampoo fills or just the desire to seek more natural resolutions. But, just because a shampoo helps stimulate hair growth does not mean it has to look lackluster. If people want products that communicate fresh and clean, maybe clinical shampoo bottles need to stimulate more positive perceptions using the scent of the medical shampoo.

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Consistency is one key. The other key is navigation and many shampoo brands visibly struggled to find the balance between consistency and navigation. Many brands lacked enough visual cues to identify features distinguishing the moisturizing shampoo from the conditioner. Our researchers found themselves feeling frustrated when they purchased the wrong bottle or struggled to pick the right bottle first in the shower the next morning.

People are connected—and attached—to the smell of their shampoo. The way their shampoo smells is important to them. When it comes to selecting a shampoo, a confirmation of their choice is to pop the cap and take a whiff. This is the strongest emotional connection the brand can make with a shopper and was often the final deciding factor distinguishing one brand from another.

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This begs the question, what is the draw to having hair products that smell like consumable food items? Take the “Cake Me To Paradise” shampoo for example – A cake (something luscious and delicious) is literally being likened to the smell of the shampoo and the present sensory experiences. This takes tapping into the cupcake experience to a whole other level. While the concept drew our researchers to the package, the result wasn’t a purchase but more of a curiosity. Perhaps it is nice to leave a little bit to the imagination.

Up close and personal

Lip balm, deodorant, make-up, cereal, lotion, jewelry and milk – all similar experiences to shampoo. This seems to be because it is something put on or in the body and requires trust in the product. Trust in the category is essential and natural loyalty exists as shoppers get into a pattern and find a brand to form an emotional bond.

People like to pick up the bottle and look at the ingredients, product features and benefits. And try to determine how that specific shampoo will benefit their specific needs. Sulfates are the “trans fats” of the shampoo aisle.

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Brand familiarity stands out on the shelf. Hair products are typically sorted on the shelf by brand, not by product type. This “billboard effect” makes specific brands stand out when they use a consistent look and feel on the shelf. And in most cases, they do. This would appear to keep new entrants out of the category, but innovation and new product development still rules the day and our shoppers did notice the fringe brands.

When in an unfamiliar store, customers will look to identify a shampoo that is similar to their normal shampoo purchase. Whether it is the overall look and feel or the features of the shampoo.

Big hair, big value and the big switch

Customers like the volume of big bottles. Big bottles are equated to value. The quality of the package is a direct reflection of the product inside. “If they don’t care about the packaging, they likely don’t care about the product, right?” and “If the packaging can’t be honest, I don’t expect the product to be honest.” There are categories where the line between product and package is blurred; this is certainly the case with shampoo.

Functionality in the shower impacts repurchase and hence, loyalty – cap needs to open easily, bottle needs to stand on its own (no matter how empty or full), bottle needs to fit well in a hand and pumps are an added perk for easy shower usage. A problem sometimes found with shampoo and conditioner caps is that they break inside workout bags, causing the horrid leakage. The sturdy package has a better chance of being repurchased.

The “switch movement” is coming and smaller brands should be doing what they can to give this idea momentum. Some of our shoppers were just recently made aware of the fact that you shouldn’t use the same brand and type of shampoo for extended periods of time. As this built in behavior of making a periodic change impacts loyalty to larger brands, it provides opportunity to the new entrants. 

Hello beautiful, nice ideas

The change Method brought to the laundry aisle with 3x concentrate could be a way to find a new balance in value. The value shopper will be drawn to a shampoo concentrate touting how long the bottle will last if used in moderation.

Pumped up. The pump dispenser was preferred, but yet still lacked in usability in context. It also had issues when shoppers sought an enticing smell. The pump redesigned might consider the perfume sampling or other ways to redesign the pump experience. 

Touch is important. The feel of your hair after use of a particular brand was important to our shoppers. Some brands were getting close to emulating the texture of your hair on the package using a texture on an external box. Using touch could have a tremendous impact on the feeling of the product. 

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Gripped to perform. People are drawn to shampoo bottles that are shaped differently. The more interesting shapes seem to either tell the story of shampoo and matching conditioner. Wouldn’t it be great if they were specially sculpted to perform even better when gripping in the shower at those pivotal pre-lather moments?

Consider your taste. As smell and taste are tightly interwoven, when testing for scent, ask how something would taste. The findings may offer an interesting contrast and have an undiscovered impact on decision-making.  

Personality in the aisle. Archetypes are starting to age as brands like Bedhead, Axe, Old Spice, as the most dramatic personalities, are aging. The aisles were cluttered with similar messages of natural, ingredient “a la mode” and middle of the road visual and personality language. Our researchers saw room for a brand to make us smile, think and reconsider the old constructs of the shampoo routine: wet hair, lather and rinse.

Who’s ready to spice it up? 

Research was designed using a mobile research methodology combined with observations and interviews. 

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About Aaron Keller

Website • Email •  LinkedIn

Aaron Keller is the Managing Principal and co-founder of Capsule, the highly regarded national brand research, strategy, identity and packaging design firm located in Minneapolis, MN. A sampling of Capsule’s clients include Caribou Coffee, Fox River Socks, Red Wing Shoes, Double Cross Vodka, Target, 3M, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Brown Forman, Byerly’s, Capital One, Cargill, Edens, Fisher-Price, Sears, HoMedics, Honeywell, Lawson Software, Mattel, Medtronic, Minnesota Orchestra, Outdoor Research, Panda Express, Patagonia, PrairieStone Pharmacies, Schroeder Milk, Schuler Shoes, SmartWool, Thrivent and Yakima. 


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