Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Buying Shampoo

March 15, 2010

A cautionary tale about the failure of marketing. I think.

I was in the grocery store this evening when my son reminded me that we were almost out of shampoo. I was not there to shop, just to pick up a couple things for dinner, but I could get some shampoo. I don’t do most of the shopping (my wife is a disciplined and skilled shopper who, thankfully, relieves me of most of these chores), but I’m efficient and focused when purchasing needs are immediate.

I don’t shop, by the way. I just buy. I know what I’m going for when I walk into any store. When I want or need something I drive to the store, walk in, I go to the aisle, pick it off the shelf, walk to the register and pay for it. On occasion, my wife asks me how much something cost and I have no good answer for her. I never look at the price; I never look at anything except the item. I pay for it and I leave the store. I throw the receipt away. Done.

So today I strode onto the shampoo aisle and was confronted by a wall of shampoo, at which point I was lost. Totally. I’m standing there and I have no idea what shampoo I’m supposed to buy. Ours is in a big white bottle, but there are many big white bottles here. I recognize none of the brands. I mean, I recognize the brands…from like commercials and magazine ads and stuff, but I don’t see one that looks like the one in my shower.

I look at my son. “Okay, which one?” I ask, hopefully. He doesn’t look at me. He just keeps looking at the wall of plastic bottles and shrugs his shoulders. “I dunno,” he says. Awesome. Thanks man.

Okay, so I’m a strong, confident man, now completely undone by the complexities of shampoo brands. Really? No, seriously, I knew what I wanted when I walked into the store and now I’m pacing up and down an aisle, staring at bottles of shampoo, SCARED I MIGHT PICK THE WRONG ONE! Is this really happening? Apparently, yes.

What the heck do I know about shampoo? I don’t care about shampoo. Why is this happening? I almost laugh out loud as I realize, to my astonishment, that no particular brand of shampoo has snagged me yet. I mean in the marketplace of brands…no brand has imprinted itself on me to the extent that I know what I want when I go to get shampoo. I know what I want when I go to get cereal or…spaghetti sauce. I know what I want when I go to get running shoes or peanut butter. I get one brand and one brand only for each of these things, ‘cuz I know what I want! How is it that a shampoo brand has failed to impact my life?

I know what this is: THIS is brand failure! No, no, no, this is not my failure. Ha, noooooo, this is BRAND failure. Stupid shampoo brands! Look what they’ve made me do. Sh’yeah, this is totally shampoo’s fault. No, even better…this is the fault of poor marketing and poor ads by poor ad agencies. Yes! Bad agencies—bad work by bad agencies. See!? J’accuse! Et tu, ad agencies? Baaad agencies.

O, the irony! Long have I criticized and maligned ad agencies, only now to understand their true worth. It occurs to me now that they have responsibilities and serve a vital purpose in the world. No wonder companies spend billions on demographics, flounder helplessly trying to get the hang of social media, fall all over themselves trying to get in front of us at sporting events. It’s their duty to reach us! Their ad agencies have a responsibility to help us in just this sort of situation. And when they fail, we fail. And we hate them for it. And rightly so!

Waking from the euphoria of my epiphany, I am confronted by the very real fact that I still have a job to do here. My son is looking at me. So, secure in the knowledge that this fiasco was not my fault (nuh uh, not at all); I grabbed the first likely-looking big white bottle of familiar-sounding-brand shampoo and walked confidently to the self-checkout. I paid and I left. Done.

The bad thing is that this shampoo brand stole my money this time. It didn’t earn it, it stole it. Some brand was supposed to earn my purchase because of its undeniably clever and meaningful messaging, and that didn’t happen because an ad agency failed. For shame.

I realize now that there must be a vast desert of unaffected minds and unimpacted lives out here in the buying public. See, shampoo companies, we don’t know what we want because ad agencies haven’t yet told us. We don’t know why we should want your products because you haven’t made us care. There is yet work to be done, ad agencies. Get to it!

And no, I have no idea what brand of shampoo I purchased and I have no idea what that shampoo cost.

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