China is “the Holy Grail for personal care brands," said Dean Aragon, Unilever’s Tokyo-based VP for hair care in North Asia, “particularly in hair and skin. It’s a fast-growing market and it’s getting more organized and progressive.”
Adding Clear to its line-up puts the company head-to-head with Procter & Gamble, and that's exactly where Unilever wants to be. In the past decade, P&G has pulled ahead of its rival in most home and personal care categories, a scenario the Anglo-Dutch giant is determined to reverse by streamlining its internal structure, marketing practices and distribution.
The brand's debut in China “is probably one of the biggest new brand initiatives in the personal care categories in recent years,” boasted Shanghai-based Frank Braeken, the company’s chairman, greater China.
The Unilever veteran is overstating Clear’s impact in China, of course, since the market has over 2,000 shampoo brands including local products. But one ad agency exec handling P&G beauty brands in China admitted that Clear’s debut “is something P&G is watching very, very carefully."
Professional anti-dandruff products account for about 18% of total shampoo sales in China but the category is dominated by a single brand, P&G’s Head & Shoulders, which has been on sale in the mainland for nearly two decades. With Clear, Unilever is aggressively courting P&G’s core target market for Head & Shoulders sales, young adults in tier one and tier two cities willing to spend money on premium hair care products.
There is no question that the category represents a major growth opportunity in China, where attitudes toward dandruff shampoo are very different from western markets like the U. S., where few consumers would openly admit to using Head & Shoulders or other anti-dandruff products. In the mainland, P&G has marketed Head & Shoulders as a youth brand, even tying up with MTV for road shows. With Clear, Unilever will be going after the same consumers.
"China has great potential market for Clear," said Francois Renard, Unilever's Shanghai-based marketing director, brand development for hair in China, based on "the sheer size of the market. The market is getting bigger overall, so the current brands do not satisfy all consumer needs."
When Clear first hit store shelves Feb. 28, it became Unilever’s third hair care brand in China, following Lux and Hazeline. It is sold in two varieties, a unisex version with white packaging aimed at women and couples and a blue version for men.
The latter marks the first time any shampoo brand in China has been marketed specifically for men, "a breakthrough for the market," said Shanghai-based Joanna Wang, VP of Unilever’s beauty care business in China. She is charged with launching the brand in China along brand guidelines established by a global team for Clear based in Bangkok, Thailand.
To convert longtime Head & Shoulders consumers, Unilever has launched stylish ads created by Lowe Worldwide featuring a Taiwanese celebrity talk show host known as Xiao S. The multimedia campaign is running in outdoor media and fashion magazines and online. Unilever developed a web site, clearad.com.cn, with sections for blogging and sharing photos, created with its media agency MindShare. Created around the tagline, "Dandruff will not come back," the ads promote the vitamins and minerals in Clear's formula that restore the scalp's natural balance. Unilever hopes the message will resonate with Chinese, who are firm believers in internal healing techniques.
"Some anti-dandruff shampoos just wash away dandruff but Clear goes deeper in the scalp to nourish it and fundamentally treat the issue at its source," said Ms. Wang, an ex-P&G executive who joined Unilever in 2003.
But the brand is more aspirational than medicinal. A 200ml bottle retails for nearly $2.60, about 40% higher than mass market shampoo brands.
Dandruff is "a seduction killer," added Ms. Wang. "Our bulls-eye core target is men and women from age 25 to early 30s, so the challenge is to make Clear young and sexy. The brand's DNA is very straightforward, to give consumers greater confidence by eliminating dandruff. That will allow them to be more attractive and charming."
Clear's product line, including shampoo, conditioner and treatments, may be new in the mainland but they are well established in Southeast Asia. The brand was created in Indonesia in 1975, and that country remains one of its strongest markets. Over 50 million consumers in that nation of 220 million people use the brand regularly. Clear also has significant market share in Thailand, Vietnam and India. Last year Clear launched in Singapore and Malaysia.
There is one overwhelming reason why anti-dandruff shampoos command greater market share in Asia compared to other parts of the world, explained Paul Grubb, Lowe's regional exec creative director in Bangkok, which develops creative for Clear globally: "Dandruff is a problem everywhere in the world, but it's more noticeable here, because Asia is full of people with long black hair and among Asian women in particular, hair care is a very big deal."
Asian women commonly visit a salon every few days for a professional hair wash. While China's hair care culture isn't quite so entrenched, Unilever believes the brand could be a hit in the mainland. Up to 70% of Chinese claim they have dandruff concerns, according to the company's internal research.
Many beauty hair care brands have an anti-dandruff variant there, although those aren't professional products, said Mr. Aragon in Tokyo. "That’s why Head & Shoulders has had such a high market share in China and until Clear came along, we’ve allowed it to remain unchallenged in that market."
Unilever is investing in Clear's potential in other markets. It is relaunching the brand across Southeast Asia with more stylish creative and the same blue and white packaging used in China. It is also introducing the brand in eastern Europe, namely Russia, and in South America.
But it has no plans to launch Clear in western Europe or North America, said Mr. Aragon. "In those markets, the company has picked different battlefronts."