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Brands: The Historical Leaders in Creating Consumer Behavior Change

Image credit: Breck

Brands have the potential to disrupt the status quo and promote behavior change. They certainly have a history of doing so. One of my favorite examples is the way that shampoo brands have changed the way we care for our hair over the past 100 years.

Before the advent of indoor plumbing, washing hair was inconvenient and happened only about once a month. Instead, women brushed their hair a hundred times a night to spread natural oils and remove older, excess oil and dirt. The whole idea of “shampooing” came from the East: The British in India were exposed to the idea of therapeutic massage, or “champing” (from the Hindi champi). Brought back to London, “shampooing” gained cache in the mid-19th century among the upper classes and even in medical circles as a luxurious massage that promoted good health. Pretty good branding.

In time “shampoo” came to refer to hair and scalp massaging products — then, by 1866, to the act of washing the hair and the product used in that activity. But washing the hair with soap boiled in soda water was nobody’s idea of a good time.

In the United States, washing the hair was still an infrequent derivation from the regimen of nightly brushing. A 1908 New York Times story noted that, “every woman likes to have her hair not only daintily and becomingly arranged, but soft and glossy in appearance and texture ... and the shampoo is a necessary part of treatment.” But the story went on to say that hair specialists recommended “the shampooing of the hair as often as every two weeks, but a month to six weeks should be a better interval if the hair is in fairly good condition.”

In those days the every-month-if-you need-it regimen included singeing of split ends, applying an olive oil-based Castille soap with a stiff brush, and rinsing four times. The first commercial shampoo was introduced in the late 1920s.

In 1930, Dr. John Breck of Springfield, Massachusetts, developed one of the world’s first pH-balanced shampoos. At first it was known only in New England. Then his son Edward took over the company. He hired an illustrator named Charles Sheldon to draw pastel portraits of “Breck girls.” It was a stroke of branding genius that made Breck shampoo synonymous with beauty. In all, Sheldon created 107 oil and pastel portraits, and American women changed their behavior, migrating to washing their hair once a week.

Breck girl

By the 1950s, most middle-class women washed their hair once a week, at their hairdresser’s, where it was restyled the next week.

In the 1970s, Breck girls migrated from illustrations to real people, including models such as Cheryl Tiegs, Cybill Shepherd, Kim Basinger, Brooke Shields and Farrah Fawcett. And brands began running high-profile campaigns to convince women to wash their hair every day, so we could be as desirable and fabulous as the aforementioned models. Or, as NPR put it, “Madison Avenue sold people on the idea they could shampoo their way back to beauty.”

As a result of daily shampooing, women washed the natural oils from their hair, which created the need for this new stuff we call conditioner. Today, washing hair every day at home is considered the norm. Americans lather up 4.5 times a week, or twice as much as Italians and Spaniards. Spending on hair care products is projected to reach more than $10 billion by 2016.

When a brand is doing its job, it changes the way we behave. In fact, that’s what brands exist to do.

For more insights on American attitudes about sustainability and how to change consumer behaviors, visit Sheltoninsights.com.

SB '13 Suzanne Shelton will take part in a panel exploring "Storytelling for Organizational Engagement: Selling Sustainability Internally," Thursday, June 6 at the SB '13 conference.

Suzanne Shelton is CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm entirely focused in the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors. The company polls Americans on an ongoing basis to understand their drivers and obstacles to adopting more sustainable… [Read more about Suzanne Shelton]


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