Unilever's Suave tests toothpaste

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The fast-growing, $600 million Suave value brand will face possibly its toughest challenge ever next year, when it extends into the hotly competitive toothpaste business.

The Unilever brand will test market an entry in the $1.7 billion category, driven for decades by ambitious performance claims, constant new-product rollouts and massive media budgets from the likes of Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Colgate and Procter & Gamble Co.'s Crest.

Unilever wouldn't comment on which retailers would conduct the test, or on the location of test markets.

As in other categories-such as hair care, body washes, skin care and antiperspirant/deodorant-Suave will try to create a microcosm of the toothpaste category by offering cavity-protection, whitening and multi-benefit varieties at a lower price, said Category Director Ralph Blessing. He would not comment on marketing plans, but said they would include retail promotions in test markets. WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, is Suave's agency.

While Suave has been successful in a variety of forms, there are concerns that toothpaste could be one brand extension too many for Unilever. Industry watchers are skeptical, and so is Mr. Blessing, who shied away from forecasting success. "It' s just a test right now," he said. "We don't have any plans for the future."

"I think it's very difficult to transport an equity that's primarily a personal care product to oral care," said Michael Hoye, a former exec VP-North America for Colgate and now president of consulting firm Hoye & Partners. "I admire them for having the guts to test it and also having the brains not to just launch it nationally."

If Crest consumers Cathy and Mike Wilson of Cincinnati are any indication, Suave's premium-price competitors have something to worry about. As the late-20-something couple entered the hair-care aisle at Wal-Mart last week, they got no farther than the 5-foot-wide section of Suave products-first in the traffic pattern-to make their selection. Asked if she'd buy Suave toothpaste, Ms. Wilson at first had a quizzical look, but after thinking, said: "I'd be willing to try it. I don't know if I'd keep buying it." Asked how much lower the price would have to be than Crest for her to try Suave, she said: "It wouldn't have to be lower, as long as it didn't cost more." Her husband agreed.

Suave toothpaste will cost less-under $2 for an 8-ounce tube compared to more than $3 for some Colgate and Crest products. But it will cost more than the $1 to $1.50 for 6-ounce tubes of Unilever's own Aim, Pepsodent and Close-Up brands and Colgate's UltraBrite. Unilever's value toothpaste brands will stay on shelves during the Suave test.

Mr. Blessing said there's more to Suave than price-or hair care, where Suave posted a crisp 20% growth in sales during the first three quarters of this year. Suave has been growing at an average double-digit pace for 10 years and now has volume leadership not only in hair care but also in body washes. Suave also was named recently as consumers' favorite U.S. health and beauty care brand by DSN Retailing, based on a poll by Leo J. Shapiro Associates, Chicago. It leapfrogged Colgate and P&G's Cover Girl cosmetics brand, which tied for second.

"Suave tends to draw business from price brands that are really just positioned on price, because we offer more of a personality imagery," said Mr. Blessing, "and we draw from dying brands that are being delisted or under-marketed or just have a very bad positioning."

Unilever doesn't place its own top U.S. toothpaste brand, Mentadent, in that category, though the brand has not received media support this year. Unilever dropped Ogilvy, New York, as Mentadent's agency of record this year without a replacement. A Unilever spokeswoman said Mentadent plans a new product launch next year and a promotional campaign from Omnicom Group's Alcone Marketing Group, Darien, Conn.

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