Unilever shines brand spotlight on Helene Curtis

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Soft-sell branding is in vogue online. At least that's what Unilever is betting with a new site for its Helene Curtis haircare line that, like Procter & Gamble Co.'s Reflect.com, tries to look more like a women's beauty magazine than a product site.

Created by Digital@ JWT, Chicago, the interactive arm of J.Walter Thompson USA, the site (helenecurtis.com) offers content ranging from beauty and haircare advice, such as how to manage your hair based on local weather forecasts, to postcards and a directory of local Helene Curtis beauty salons in the U.S. It will eventually carry users' reviews of those salons. Users are invited to e-mail the site for haircare advice.

E-COMMERCE CONSIDERED

Three premium Helene Curtis brands--Finesse, Salon Selectives and Thermasilk--are buttons on the navigation bar on site pages. The low-cost Suave was not included because it's not considered one of the company's premium brands. Unilever is considering adding e-commerce to the site, but declined to give details.

Leslie Geissler, director of marketing for the Helene Curtis brand, declined to disclose spending. But Unilever will likely piggyback on deals it already has in place through America Online, Excite@Home, iVillage and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN. She also said in-store promotions, print ads and Helene Curtis shampoos would carry the tag: "For tips and talk, visit Helenecurtis.com."

BRANDING FIRST

This is the first time the Helene Curtis brand is being promoted over individual shampoos. With the Helene Curtis name, "We felt like we had a lot of equity," Ms. Geissler said. The soft-sell approach arose from research showing "there was a gap--nobody was tapping into the emotional side of hair."

Liz Gruszkievicz, account director at JWT, said Unilever is interested in exploring other ways to use the megabrand strategy it used on Helene Curtis' site. While the agency said a recent iVillage/-Unilever joint venture was conceived separately, executives hinted this might be tied to that unnamed beauty site.

In "Study: Online Grocers ring package-goods bell," Tony Romeo, chairman-North America Interactive Brand Center for Unilever, said: "Branded Web sites are going to have a limited usefulness," referring to individual package-goods brands. He also said the reason it invested in a joint venture with iVillage is that it had a better chance of being a destination site than any one branded site.

Unilever has company among consumer marketers mixing customized content with pitches.

Reflect.com, backed by P&G, sells custom mixed beauty products, including make-up and fragrances, based on users' personal profiles. It also offers beauty tips and tries to cop an editorial voice.

Content also is important to other marketers. For example, Studio One Networks, New York, develops content for third-party sites. Its content for American Honda Motor Co. appears in AOL's car area. Other clients include Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America and Nestle USA. It's also negotiating with P&G.

Copyright May 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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