Nexxus basks in success ... for now

HAIRCARE: Alberto-Culver's mass launch of brand is big winner, but mega-rivals Unilever, P&G plan their own new initiatives

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The biggest news in haircare this year has been the mass launch of Nexxus by one of the category's smallest players, Alberto-Culver Co. But watch out, the big boys are preparing to weigh in with nine-figure budgets of their own this summer behind the U.S. launch of Unilever's Sunsilk and overhaul of Procter & Gamble Co.'s struggling Clairol Herbal Essences.

All three aim at tapping or combating some of the major driving forces of haircare in recent years-salon brands, L'Oreal's Garnier Fructis and Kao Brands' John Frieda.

Nexxus, the biggest launch in Alberto-Culver's history at $100 million from Campbell-Mithun, Minneapolis, is having a big impact since its February rollout. First-quarter sales of Nexxus to retailers exceeded $30 million, "much higher than originally anticipated," Alberto-Culver CEO Howard Bernick told investors in an April conference call. He said consumer purchases have been strong despite the $10 to $20 price points.

Of course, consumers already are used to shelling out big bucks for salon products at mass. Playing that tack to the hilt, Nexxus was diverted from its intended salon distribution. The fastest-growing brand in mass haircare the past year has been L'Oreal's Matrix, up more than 40% in shampoo and conditioner to a combined $45 million for the 52 weeks ended April 16, according to Information Resources Inc.

Matrix, like Nexxus, is a salon brand that surreptitiously slips into the mass market through a variety of diversion channels. Marketers aren't supposed to let this happen. To combat its Matrix diversion, L'Oreal cracked down with new coded packaging, the result of which was a falloff in overall sales rather than sending consumers to salons to buy Matrix.

Meanwhile, L'Oreal's Garnier Fructis, with combined annual sales of nearly $200 million only three years after its launch in shampoo, conditioner and styling aids in IRI-measured outlets and likely topping $300 million in all outlets, has caught competitors' eyes.

Fructis, with fruit extracts and ads aimed at a young, hip, multiethnic consumer base, has taken much of its market from Herbal Essences. P&G is preparing to fight back with a restaging that features nine shampoo-conditioner systems for different hair needs in wavy packaging where the shampoo and conditioner products fit together.

Gone, apparently, are orgasmic ads for which Herbal Essences became famous in the 1990s. There's a big "O" surrounded by sea foam on the new packages. A newly trademarked tagline, "Catch the Wave," apparently will anchor a new campaign from Kaplan Thaler Group, New York. Though Herbal Essences didn't start reaching stores until June, P&G was auctioning off bottles on eBay in May to build buzz.

Unilever's Sunsilk also aims to muscle in on Fructis' success. Already popular in Latin America, Europe and Asia, the brand comes to the U.S. with a problem-solution systems format similar to Kao's John Frieda.

Industry executives say retailers were wary of having pictures of real people on Sunsilk's packages, a hallmark of Sunsilk in 80 countries, but not seen here since Breck disappeared from U.S. hair-care aisles in the 1980s.

Like Fructis and Herbal Essences, Sunsilk is expected to aim heavily at the fast-growing and hair-involved Hispanic population, with some of the most heavily bilingual packaging ever in the U.S. The $100 million launch also includes 85 two-minute vignettes launching in September on TBS and online from JWT, New York, featuring twentysomething fictional heroines Max and Kellie.
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