Head and Shoulders – An Iconic Brand


Head and Shoulders is in many ways the ideal brand.  Everybody knows what it is and what it does.  The problem it aims to solve is one that we have all had at some time or another.  You find some white specks on your shoulders?  Reach for the brand you have known since childhood.

And it is a brand that generally fulfills its promise.  Not only has it been shown to work in properly conducted clinical trials, many of us have direct personal experience of it working.

So how does it work?  Strangely for a product that has been around since the 1930s,nobody is really sure.  The active ingredient is called zinc pyrithione.  Zinc pyrithione has an anti-fungal activity.  If you look at the scalps of people who suffer from severe dandruff you often find high levels of a fungus called pityosporum ovale.   When the dandruff clears up the fungus levels go down.  So it was for a long time thought that Head and Shoulders works simply by killing off a fungus that was causing the problem.

I am not sure that this is the whole story though.  For a start, although zinc pyrithione is an anti-fungal it isn’t a great anti-fungal.  There have been products that have a stronger anti-fungal effect that don’t clear up dandruff as well as Head and Shoulders does.  I have a feeling that the real reason it works will turn out to be something to do with the zinc in the zinc pyrithione.  Metals, at trace levels, seem to have something to do with the way the skin turns over.  I would love to be the person who worked out the details because I have a feeling that it would open the way to products that really solved some people’s skin problems.

One thing I have discovered from trial and plenty of error is that to make an effective anti dandruff shampoo using zinc pyrithione, there is a bit more to it than simply adding the zinc pyrithione to a simple shampoo formulation.  You need to get it just right.  Head and Shoulders has been effectively copied by a few companies, but on the whole I would recommend buying the real thing.  Copies don’t always work so well.  It isn’t particularly expensive and you want to buy something that works.

So with an effective formulation that solves a real problem, at a reasonable price.  You might think that even a brand manager or a marketing executive couldn’t spoil an offering like that.  That though, would be to underestimate the sheer creativity of marketing when it comes to ruining things.  I went to my local supermarket to get some Head and Shoulders for a photo for this blog post.  I had no trouble whatever finding it.  There was shelf after shelf of the stuff.  But it wasn’t just the simple shampoo.  There were all sorts of variants for different kinds of hair, conditioners branded Head and Shoulders, smooth and silky and God knows what else.  Come on guys, this is a problem solving product. It isn’t a beauty brand.  You just look silly.

Of course by producing a lot of variations they do get more shelf space for themselves and so less shelf space for their competition.  This is clearly in the producer’s interests.  But it is directly contrary to the consumers interests.  We just want the traditional product, for those times we need it.  And a bit more competition for Proctor and Gamble is a good thing too, from our point of view if not theirs.

So next time  you find some specks of dry skin on your shoulder, don’t buy a fancy variant.  Get the traditional Head and Shoulders variation.  Be a rebel.

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