But the advent of easier-to-use products, along with new shelf placements, higher ad spending and the increased use of targeted media, have helped marketers find the key to the graying locks of male baby boomers.
Sales of men's hair coloring products rose 9% to $78.6 million in food and drugstore sales for the year ended June 30, according to Information Resources Inc. And sales show no sign of receding; business has more than quadrupled since 1986.
Analysts maintain that despite marketing innovations and product improvements from such top players as Combe and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Clairol, the primary contributing factor to the success of men's dyes is the demographic swing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16 million males turned 40 in 1985.
"We'd been waiting for them for 10 years," said Jeanne Matson, director of marketing for Clairol's men's hair coloring division.
Combined with smart marketing, the result is a more socially acceptable image of hair coloring products among baby boomer men.
"The males of the '60s and '70s weren't quite ready for it," said Don Stuart, partner at consultancy Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn., even though Combe said its ads of that period starring baseball's Pete Rose went a long way toward legitimizing men's hair coloring.
"Men are more willing to use the products now that hair coloring is more mainstream," Mr. Stuart said.
Making it more mainstream was tricky, requiring marketers to both reach the male bumper crop and make it cool for them to color.
First, marketers improved product technology. Earlier versions were itch-inducing, malodorous formulas that sometimes left male manes in inappropriate shades.
Next, moving the products from the women's haircare aisle to a spot alongside distinctively masculine merchandise was a simple but effective marketing tactic.
Men's coloring marketers also are building on an early breakthrough from Combe with its Just for Men line. That brand, introduced in 1987, washes out the gray in 5 minutes.
Because of its speed, Just for Men "really broke open the door in the category," said Dominic DeMain, VP-group marketing director at Combe.
Combe has ruled the men's hair coloring business since Grecian Formula, a gradual gray concealer and the pioneer in the men's industry, was first introduced in the late 1960s. Success has come from the one-two punch of Just for Men, with a 59% share, up 14% over last year, and Grecian Formula 16, with a 14.6% share, up 7%.
That nearly 74% share hasn't come cheaply. Combe has spent more than $50 million on marketing Just for Men since its 1987 introduction, mostly on TV commercials created in-house.
The trail blazed by Combe was followed two years ago by Clairol with Men's Choice. While Clairol introduced its first men's product, Great Day, in the hair-dye-averse 1970s, it wasn't until the rollout of Men's Choice that the segment took off for Clairol. As Combe's only real competitor, Men's Choice comes in third in the segment with a 13.3% share.
But Men's Choice's dollar sales were up 21% from last year to $10.4 million, according to IRI, making it the fastest-growing product in the segment.
Marketers' rethinking of media placement has also helped make sales soar. Early advertising was scattershot, but Clairol and Combe now place their ads where the 45-and-over boys are: prime-time newscasts, TV sports, and men's and sports magazines.
Men's Choice's $4.5 million ad budget, as measured by Competitive Media Reporting, is skewed to radio and magazines. Regional support for local sports teams and live endorsements from nationally syndicated radio personality Don Imus are also part of the mix.
Gotham Group, New York, is revising its print campaign for November men's books, touting Men's Choice as a two-in-one product that can also handle facial hair.
But the ads will continue Clairol's strategy of pitting itself against the competition. Current ads juxtapose images of Men's Choice against that of Combe's Just for Men, listing reasons why Clairol has a better product.
"It's a bold move," Ms. Matson said, "but we felt that it worked best for men, who are information seekers."
That attribute explains the use of copy-intensive magazine ads as a medium of choice for men's hair coloring. Packaging also hooks into the male "just the facts" ad appeal with strictly informative label and point-of-purchase copy.