/ Health, Shopping

Are you persuaded by packaging?

When we asked whether you get taken in by advertising, some of you told us you avoid ads all together. But there’s another type of marketing that’s more difficult to swerve – the sort you find on the products themselves: persuasive packaging.

Toiletries are a perfect example. If you go to a farmers’ market to buy apples, it’s simple – you compare them and pick the ones that look the freshest or biggest or juiciest. But what if those same apples were inside boxes covered with different celebrities’ faces and words like ‘rapid diffusion micro peptides’?

With toiletries, you can’t really compare apples with apples and that’s why manufacturers capitalise on their packaging to sell their product to you. After all, the packaging is there anyway – it protects the product and makes it easier to transport – so it makes perfect sense to utilise it.

The truth is, you’ve almost certainly been affected by marketing when buying toiletries. If you weren’t, manufacturers wouldn’t invest in making their products look different to one another.

Why it works

Part of the reason packaging design works is, quite simply, ease. Making in-depth, informed decisions about every product we’re faced with in the supermarket would take a lot of time and energy.

If you’re making a larger investment – perhaps a car, dishwasher or television – you’re likely to invest that time and energy, and luckily Which? is here to help.

But when it comes to lower-risk decisions, many of us fall back on heuristics – intellectual short cuts. Studies suggest it can take less than a 10th of a second for shoppers to make a judgment about the appeal of a product they’ve glanced at.

The tactics of persuasive packaging

When we spoke to marketing and psychology experts on how marketers appeal to this way of thinking, many of the tactics they told us about are incredibly simple.

Toiletries are packaged in colours we associate with certain qualities – blue for cleanliness, for example. Faces are slapped on packets as we’re naturally drawn to look at them, which in turn will draw our attention to the packaging or shelf branding. And using scientific-sounding buzzwords can make us believe a product is effective, even when we have no idea what those words mean.

Separating products by gender works, too – seeing a shaving foam for women or shampoo for men can help us avoid having to spend too long finding a product that suits. Of course, the downside of this – and all of these tactics – is there may be another product that works just as well and costs less.

So, have you ever bought toiletries and thought the product didn’t live up to its packaging? Do you own any right now that are endorsed by celebrities or covered in buzzwords? Or have you found a way to see past the marketing?


The biggest rip-off (from this man’s point of view) is bottles of scent. The packaging is what often sells it because the contents are almost irrelevant – smells “produced” under “celebrity” names or endorsement that to my engineering mind mean absolutely nothing – not to them probably either except more money. But it’s the thought that counts, the “token”,and the more expensive the more you are likely to be appreciated. I don’t suppose presenting a plain bottle of Lidl “Nice Smell” would go down a bundle.

We buy basic Colgate toothpaste, Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner in blue bottles, usually on offer”, works fine, Nivea shaving gel – low price and still got normal skin, Dove soap – moderate price, M&S loo rolls, often 2 packs for a good price (no Labrador puppies needed to sell that), and what does that leave? I am cynical about fancy packaging, weasel words, overpricing. If others feel presentation, high price, silly ingredients are important to them then so be it.


Couldnt agree more malcolm.


We have a mixture of branded and own-label everyday toiletry products like shower gel, tissues, toothpaste, mouthwash, handwash, shaving foam, and bathroom cleaning products. There’s no great brand loyalty and will pick the best value on the day so long as it isn’t awful, and if there’s a good offer on a different product to the usual we’ll give it a try. Shampoo is more personal and specific, as are loo rolls, deodorant, hand-cream and some other items. My main objective with the packaging is instant recognition by colour and shape – what else is on the bottle or pack escapes my attention – and I dislike it when retailers’ own-label products mimic the packaging of the preferred product. A quick look around the bathrooms shows that most scents and fragrances have names one would have found fifty years ago; I wouldn’t wear a grooming product that I would associate with sweaty football boots, for example [sorry Mr Beckham].

I think most of these products are overpriced and ‘branding’ and market segmentation are the major causes of that. There must be a hundred different toothpastes available in stores, with Colgate alone having about twenty I should think. I am disappointed that Nivea have seen fit to dilute their shower gel recently – I don’t keep a check on its price but I bet it hasn’t been reduced; despite its higher price it used to be good value for money.

Caroline Starr says:
21 September 2016

I am with John Ward.
Family of four adults here. We tend to use the same branded shampoo and shower gel and buy them when they are 3 for 2 or similar. As long as bath foam is moisturising we buy the cheapest, bath soap ditto, for hand soap I have started buying white ‘value’ soap, it doesn’t smell and it works (no-one has noticed and no-one has complained). For shaving we all use men’s moisturising gel, usually the own brand. I am an ‘older’ lady and I have found a moisturiser which suits me so I stick with that, again buying it when on special offer. Toothpaste and anti-perspirant/deodorant are ‘special offer’ purchases. My perfume is the same as Marilyn Monroe’s, my daughter does like to experiment (understandably) and the men tend not to use cologne, though there is a “50 year old” one knocking around for special occasions.


I am interested in packaging if there is the possibility that the container could be useful for storage. Looking round the garage and utility room, I have amassed a large collection of biscuit boxes of different shapes and sizes. Though I have never smoked, I have a large collection of tobacco and cigar tins.

Toiletries are uninteresting to me and I tend to buy when they are on offer, comparing unit prices. There are some that I avoid because they have a strong smell. It is often cheaper to buy 400 or 500ml bottles of shampoo or shower gel, but I then I refill a smaller bottle to minimise risk of injuring my toes in the shower if I was to drop the bottle!

I came back from holiday a couple of weeks ago to find that the cap of the shampoo bottle had come off in my toilet bag. Fortunately the bag has a plastic lining but I will be studying the packaging of small shampoo bottles in the supermarket to find one with a good old fashioned screw cap.

The ingredients of toothpaste are scrutinised for chemicals that I’m not happy with, notably triclosan. I prefer toothpaste in pump dispensers for home use, but a small tube is more convenient for travelling.

Living in a hard water area, I avoid hand soap, which produces a scum. Instead I use hand-wash in a pump dispenser, avoiding anything with anti-bacterial ingredients.

Looking at my stocks of toiletries, there is little indication of brand loyalty. I even have three brands of spare loo rolls in stock.


Wavechange, a good tip for taking liquids on holiday, is putting them inside food bags then tying a knot in the bag to keep them air/liquid tight.


Also don’t fill the bottles if flying because of pressurisation in the cabin atmosphere or massive temperature changes in hold luggage.


Thanks folks. None of the shampoos I have found have a good old fashioned screw cap. It’s either a flip-up cap (the sort that let me down) or one where you push down on one edge to open a valve – in which case you have to be sure that it is closed before packing.

Now that we have rules about taking liquids on aircraft, I have relied on what hotels provide plus a few spare sachets of shampoo and shower gel. I presume that these don’t have to be shown.