CURTIS BABIES SUAVE TO BATTLE J&J, MENNEN

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Helene Curtis Industries will take a giant step into the baby-care market this summer with Suave Baby Care, a line of wee one lotions and potions that will tussle with Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Mennen.

An estimated $20 million in marketing support will get the tots line on its feet with an assist from Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, Chicago. Besides shampoos, powders, lotion, oil and baby bath, the line will include baby wipes, putting Curtis in direct competition for the first time with Scott Paper Co. and Kimberly-Clark Corp., the respective marketers of Baby Fresh and Huggies.

The line, priced 25% below the market leaders and 15% above private-label brands, is but one new initiative this year from Curtis. The company has told financial analysts it's looking for an 8% increase from 1993 sales of $1.2 billion.

Also on tap is a restaging of Curtis haircare brands, including Vibrance, Finesse and Salon Selectives, all handled by DDB Needham Worldwide. Suave haircare for adults will be fine-tuned via Bayer Bess, while Degree antiperspirant is being extended into deodorants with help from DDB Needham.

"We started a year ago to restage virtually all brands to compete aggressively and successfully in the marketplace," said Curtis President Ronald Gidwitz. "We are mindful of the competition we face, particularly from Procter & Gamble."

And Curtis should be. In the $1.3 billion shampoo and $712 million conditioner markets, Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pantene Pro V continues to be the brand to beat. According to Information Resources Inc.'s InfoScan, Pantene shampoo and conditioner sales surged by more than 75% for the 52 weeks ended Feb. 27, giving the brand a leading 10.7% share in shampoos and 9.1% share in conditioners.

With the rise of Pantene, Curtis' Salon Selectives saw a continued decrease in sales and share of shampoos and conditioners while Finesse was flat. But the company's major disappointment continues to be Vibrance, with sales off 29.5% for a 1.7% share in the 52 weeks ended Feb. 19, according to Nielsen Marketing Research.

As of May, Vibrance will be repackaged and also field its first shampoo plus conditioner; the price will be knocked back 14.3% to an average of $2.99 from $3.49 in an effort to compete with Pantene. Suave will also be repackaged, and expanded with 15 new products, including Healthy Shine Shampoo Plus Conditioner and Healthy Shine Treatment Conditioner. Besides being repackaged and reformulated, Finesse will add Dry Scalp shampoo and conditioner; Salon Selectives will also be overhauled and introduce Shampoo Plus Detangler.

New advertising from DDB Needham will break later this spring on both Salon Selectives and Finesse.

Curtis spent $111 million on advertising in 1993. Company executives refused to disclose anticipated spending for 1994, but with the new activity, it is expected to be well above that.

Still, Wall Street analysts remain concerned about its chances for success. Noted PaineWebber's Andrew Shore: "The company has said it is looking for 6% to 8% sales growth this year and will enter a new category with baby care. And with all the activity in haircare, 6% to 8% doesn't seem to be anything to get excited about."

In baby care, Curtis will also face some stiff competition from Mennen and Johnson, which have stolen sales and share from Baby Fresh and Huggies in the nearly $500 million baby wipes category. Johnson sales in the category, according to IRI, have jumped 275% to win a 6.1% share.

Mr. Gidwitz denied speculation the family-controlled company is looking to be sold but acknowledged he's pursuing joint ventures.

Earlier this year, Maybelline was said to have approached Curtis about a venture, though Mr. Gidwitz claimed no knowledge of any talks. Industry executives suggest Curtis would be a good match for Colgate, which could use a strong haircare presence in this country but so far has refrained from major internal initiatives.

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