Male mystique rises a Degree ystique heats up egree

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Unilever's gender-neutral Degree antiperspirant is getting an injection of testosterone next year with a new lineup of clear-gel products aimed at men.

The gels, a form increasingly preferred by young men, reach store shelves in January, and will be backed with TV, print and out-of-home ads breaking in March from Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, Chicago. Retail buyers expect the launch to get all of Degree's 2002 marketing budget, though Unilever would not comment on spending plans. In recent years, Unilever has put $25 million to $30 million behind Degree in media alone, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. The company also plans an extensive sampling program targeted at males 18-30, said Esther Lem, VP-brand development for antiperspirant/ deodorant.

Combined with sibling brand Rexona outside the U.S., Degree "is a very big brand for us globally," Ms. Lem said. "We're very committed to building a leadership position here in North America."

Degree aims to inundate young males with the product and its message, which Ms. Lem declined to discuss. "It will be surrounding [the young male consumer] anytime he's awake. He'll find it in bathrooms. He'll find it in transit. ...And the message will be very different from [what] you've seen before, but very much in the tone and manner that would appeal to this young guy."

What Ms. Lem called the "testosterone-driven" extension for the body-heat-activated brand includes three new scents-Exhilaration, Cool Rush and Stamina. She said she's not afraid of scaring away Degree's female consumers, who, she said, research shows will be attracted to the idea that the brand works well for men.

Though Degree is only 10 years old, it needs hormone therapy to keep pace with an increasingly competitive and fast-changing category, where young male consumers switch brands often, but get set in their ways by their 30s.

Despite its own advanced age, Old Spice, from rival Procter & Gamble Co., has gained share steadily in recent years with its 1-800-PROVEIT money-back challenge campaign, youth-oriented extensions such as Red Zone, and heavy sports event marketing and sampling.

Degree's masculine appeal is the latest of several moves by Unilever to extend its global leadership in antiperspirants/deodorants into North America, following a successful 2000 launch of Dove into the U.S. category and next year's revamp of Suave antiperspirant/deodorant.

Unilever says it had a 29% share of the category globally in 2000, compared to only 18% in the U.S., where it was second to P&G's 27% in the 26 weeks ended June 30 (which still includes Wal-Mart Stores data).

Degree, Unilever's leading U.S. brand, has slipped in the past year under a barrage of rival launches, including most recently a "Forces of Nature" series from Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Mennen Speed Stick.

Church & Dwight's Arm & Hammer and Gillette's eponymous brand, which likewise have seen share erosion, also plan deodorant restages in early 2002. Degree sales were down 14.3% to $82 million for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 7, in figures excluding Wal-Mart, according to Information Resources Inc. Overall, however, Unilever's total deodorant/antiperspirant share was up 0.2 points to 17.1% for the period.

While antiperspirants account for only about 4% of health and beauty care sales in the U.S., the category has gotten disproportionate marketing attention of late. "Although there are four major manufacturers of deodorants, the market lead isn't as strong as in many other categories," a Unilever spokeswoman said. "The separation between secondary and leading brands isn't as great as in other categories. Hence, there is a lot more competition."

For now, however, Unilever's underarm offensive won't include its top global men's deodorant brand, which goes variously by Axe and Lynx.

Though earlier this year rival P&G had been girding for such a launch, Ms. Lem said: "There are no plans to launch any new brands at this point [in the U.S.]"

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