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New product introductions backed by hefty marketing budgets, a consumer preference for soft hair and a consumer shift from value to premium brands are combining to drive sales of shampoos and conditioners.

With few exceptions, in both categories, it is the premium brands that are posting the healthier sales gains, led by Procter & Gamble's Pantene Pro-V with a surge of 28% to $183.9 million in shampoos and a jump of 32.7% to $86.5 million in conditioners.

The one notable exception in shampoos and conditioners, industry executives and observers say, is Helene Curtis' Suave, which offers a premium image with a value price positioning.

Marketers and consultants aren't sure why the premium brands are on the rise -whether it's based on aging demographics, a greater willingness to spend or a rub-off effect from highly visible salon brands-but in these emotionally driven categories, the shift, they say, is clear from the numbers.

A General Merchandise Distributors Council Efficient Product Assortment study by Westport, Conn.-based Meridian Consulting Group also recently concluded that consumers today need a broader range of performance or premium items to meet their perceived needs, as opposed to value products, which just a few years ago held sway in the market.

The study also suggested that while consumers may switch brands within a segment, they are unlikely to switch out of a segment nor easily jump, for example, from a performance or premium brand to a value brand.

Consultants credit Procter & Gamble in part for the consumer move to premium brands. With Head & Shoulders and Prell, the company long harbored a value-price-detergent orientation. Through Pantene and the recent revamping of the Vidal Sassoon line, P&G showed a definite premium orientation which has helped establish the market trend.

Generally, premium brands advertise and sample more than their price-based brethren. And advertising and promotional tactics such as direct mail sampling are widely credited with helping to drive sales of shampoos and conditioners in general in the last year, especially at the premium end.

In 1994, P&G funded a $46 million U.S. relaunch of Vidal Sassoon, part of a $100 million-plus worldwide effort to be completed this July. Though it has not yet resulted in a notable share change, the push-which included P&G's largest one-time sampling drive-helped increase Sassoon conditioner sales by 15.2% to $22.8 million, though shampoo sales inched ahead by only 2% to $44.4 million.

In the last year, Helene Curtis also concentrated on its premium brands, Salon Selectives and Finesse. Both brands managed sales gains of better than 12% in shampoos and also boosted their shares. In rinses and conditioners, Finesse increased sales by 7.7% to $42.7 million, though Salon Selectives was essentially flat at $43.2 million.

L'Oreal, which last year introduced Hydravive shampoos and conditioners, saw sales of its conditioners increase 26.5% to $32.3 million, moving up in ranking from the No. 7 to the No. 6 brand.

While it has yet to crack the top 10 in shampoos, this year's launch of Fortavive Shampoos and Conditioners, with patent pending Ceramide-R that claims to repair hair by replacing lost ceramide, may help. Scheduled for an October launch, it will be backed by $20 million in consumer advertising and promotion. McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, handles.

L'Oreal is not the only marketer planning new products which should keep category interest high. Helene Curtis is ready to spend more than $20 million to restage Vibrance as Vibrance Organic Care via DDB Needham, Chicago, which like Suave will have a premium image with a value price positioning.

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