PLANET USHUAIA IS EXOTIC PLACE TO FIND L'OREAL

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PARIS-Cosmetics giant L'Oreal is bringing mass marketing muscle to a niche category-natural personal care products-popularized in Europe by such chains as the U.K.'s The Body Shop but largely untouched by major marketers.

Its new Planet Ushuaia (pronounced oo-SHWY-yah) line of deodorants, shampoos and bath and shower gels, quietly introduced to France in mid-April, features such exotic ingredients as Tasmanian musk and Amazonian babassu nuts.

A TV, cinema and print campaign from FCA breaks this month in France, where "Ushuaia," an adventure program, airs on TF1 Fridays at 10:35 p.m.

"It's not what you normally expect from L'Oreal," said a personal care products expert from a European market research company of the line. "L'Oreal's general philosophy has basically been bringing premium products to the mass market. ... Ushuaia quite surprises me because L'Oreal has tended to a more American approach that is very R&D led, very technical, using new ingredients."

Neither L'Oreal nor its agency would comment on plans for Ushuaia but it's believed the name is a clue to global intentions for the line. For international audiences, Ushuaia has the advantage of being phonetically pronounced and the allure of being the name of the city in Argentina that is the furthest south in the world.

The line will also bring ad spending to natural personal care products, a category dominated by the The Body Shop, a $657 million U.K. chain which doesn't advertise on moral grounds. "We're happy for people to compete with us as long as they take into account the whole Body Shop concept," said a Body Shop spokesman, referring to the company's philosophy of dealing directly with indigenous communities [for its ingredients] and its close monitoring eye on the environmental impact of manufacturing.

Ushuaia spending couldn't be determined, but its introduction would follow L'Oreal's usual pan-European pattern. L'Oreal starts first with France, expanding six months to a year later in the rest of Europe. This process is currently underway with a plethora of brands ranging from Neutralia, a Neutrogena lookalike, and Performance makeup, both just hitting the U.K.

Should Ushuaia go pan-European, FCA won't be handling it. To avoid conflict with Henkel, a client of the German agency BMZ that FCA merged with last month, L'Oreal business outside France will be handled by parent Publicis FCB.

What is most unusual about the line is L'Oreal's interest in the segment, still so small a niche that analysts have no estimate for how much of the total $38.7 billion European personal care market natural products comprise. "It's not a thing L'Oreal is famous for," said Ian Lyle, senior partner at Promar International, a U.K. market research group. "Usually they start at the top and filter into the mass market ranges. This would be a strategic departure in that they launched at the bottom rather than the top."

But with Body Shop alone ringing up sales of more than $600 million, cosmetic execs note that L'Oreal's interest dovetails with that of other mass marketers in the U.S. flirting with the category. These include Estee Lauder with its Origins line and Procter & Gamble. L'Oreal is taking a bottom-up approach in marketing, too, starting with innovative store displays and then moving to TV advertising. At a Prisunic discount store on the Champs-Elysees here, a huge cardboard point-of-sale display designed to look like blonde wood holds dozens of brightly-colored Ushuaia products under the theme line, "The entire world is the source of beauty."

Stippled turquoise, red, blue, orange and gold plastic bottles are color-coded according to the origin of their beauty secrets and therapeutic properties in half a dozen far off lands such as Patagonia and the Austral Islands. Behind cellophane windows in the display L'Oreal has placed examples of the raw materials like babassu nuts from the Amazon, with little explanations of their beauty secrets. The Amazon Indians, for example, extracted the babassu nuts' milk for its ultra-nourishment and protection of the hair.

The line's packaging is recyclable and emblazoned with the words Nature and Technology. An on-pack "Offer of Discovery" promotes a variable refund to a maximum of $4 for mailing in the cash register receipts from the purchase of up to four roducts before the end of the year. Pricing is competitive, ranging from $2 for Ushuaia shower gel to $3.50 for bath gel. Deodorant is priced at $3.30; shampoo at $2.50.

Like many natural care products, Ushuaia is aimed at men and women under 35, an age group L'Oreal research shows prize nature and ethnicity.

The U.K.-based Body Shop chain pioneered reasonably-priced natural products in the 1980s using exotic ingredients and an environmental approach so friendly that shoppers are encouraged not to take bags for their purchases.

The Body Shop's sales come from 1,053 shops in 45 countries, including its U.K. home market with 239 stores. France is home to 26 of those stores, which sell everything from peppermint foot massage lotion to kiwi lip balm, Japanese washing grains and elderflower eye gel under the Body Shop's cosmetics range called Colourings, reasonably priced and plainly packaged.

Ushuaia even replicates Body Shop's bright colors. In the U.K., where private label brands account for up to half of major supermarkets' sales, major chains have their own Body Shop-like toiletries ranges with names like Nature's Garden, Fruits of the Earth and Nature's Way.

Pat Sloan contributed to this story.

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