France's Top Body Wash Looks to Make It Big in U.S.

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The name denotes smallness, but body wash Le Petit Marseillais is big in France. Now Johnson & Johnson hopes it can attain similar stature in the U.S. with a relatively small budget and full distribution at retail giant Walmart, as the company for the first time launches a beauty brand here with no TV.

Le Petit Marseillais is France's leading body wash, used in more than half the country's households and already sold in more than 20 countries worldwide. Launched originally in the 1980s and acquired by J&J in 2006, it started its U.S. launch last month with five body wash products backed by digital and social media plus scented magazine ads.

The brand rolls into Walmart's specialty bath and body sections with a fuller 17-item line that includes body lotions on March 16. The U.S. launch, which follows successful expansion for into Russia and Turkey last year, is handled by DDB, Paris, which handles the brand globally.

"We're not following the traditional launch model using TV," said Jorge Mesquita, worldwide chairman of J&J Consumer Cos., in a presentation at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference last month. "We're creating a grassroots movement for LPM by using digital media as our primary source."

"I think a digital-first approach has worked," said Dawn Kidd, senior marketing director at J&J in an interview, who said the brand is off to a fast start. The introduction has included backing from social-media influencers who have French roots, such as Christina Caradona, a beauty blogger who grew up in France and New York. Ads include Google search and Facebook, with the brand already logging a million likes in the U.S. Its video featuring line drawings of its trademark sailor boy bringing the brand to the U.S. got more than 630,000 views in two weeks.

Comments on the video are heavy with fond remembrances among people who've encountered the brand in France and look forward to finding it in U.S. stores. Ms. Kidd said the brand "conveys the sunniness and joie de vivre of being in the south of France in Provence" and has gotten a 1-5% share in markets it's recently entered.

"We feel like the U.S. market is perfect," she said. "There's a lot of fondness for everything French."

That includes, she hopes, at Walmart, with a mid-tier value price ahead of Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Softsoap but a bit below Unilever's Dove and well below J&J's own Neutrogena or OGX.

Like the latter, Le Petit Marseilles has a natural positioning, including olive-oil-based soap and ingredients such as Mediterranean algae, marine minerals, beeswax and orange blossoms.

Correction: An earlier version of the story mistakenly said Le Petit Marseillais ranks among the top five body-wash brands in every market it's entered up to now. The brand has gotten a 1-5% share in new markets it's recently entered.