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Once it was only hairdressers who knew for sure. Now, even they may not have a clue.

Sales of at-home hair coloring products are growing at a 13% annual clip, buoyed by the graying of the baby boomers and younger generations who like to play with hair color in much the same way they do cosmetics. Another boomlet for the market: Men, who've helped push sales of Combe products up more than 30% to more than $63 million last year.

"Hair coloring is one of the fastest growing health and beauty aids segments, faster than analgesics or cough-cold products," said Jeff Hill, managing director at Meridien Consulting Group, Wilton, Conn. "It's also the second-largest haircare segment after shampoos and the fastest growing.

In 1994, hair coloring sales reached almost $1 billion, according to Information Resources Inc. And Mr. Hill predicted strong growth will continue in '95 with improved technology and demographics driving the increases.

L'Oreal saw sales rise on the order of 20% last year, according to Nielsen North America, and is among the fastest growing companies in the category.

By IRI's calculations, it posted a 35% market share, further narrowing the gap with No. 1 Clairol's 49% share. Contributing to L'Oreal's rise: Boomer products like the Cybill Shepherd-endorsed Preference, the leading single brand in the category; and Casting, introduced two years ago and now among the top four brands.

Now L'Oreal is going after the younger set with Exuberance, aimed at women 12 to 25 who may want to change their hair color almost as often as they do clothes. The beauty of Exuberance: It lasts no more than a week.

"The category drew 5 million new users from 1991 to 1993, of which 2 million were under the age of 24," said a L'Oreal spokesman, who described the product as "foolproof," and a way to get women into hair coloring at an early age and keep them there, preferably within the L'Oreal fold.

Starting this spring, Exuberance will be promoted with an estimated $8 million marketing campaign, including 15-second TV spots in vignette style from McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York.

Also backing the rollout are 2 million full-size samples to be handed out on college campuses and other sites. In stores, the product will be supported by educational brochures. Packaging instructions are in English and Spanish, recognizing that the Hispanic market is also driving increased sales in the category.

In addition, Revlon Consumer Products Corp. is fielding a new brand this year called Shadings, meant to compete with Clairol's Casting, and Natural Instincts, introduced last fall with a $26 million marketing budget. J. Walter Thompson USA is the agency for Natural Instincts.

Shadings, handled by Tarlow Advertising, will get support from print ads, $2 refund offers, brochures, and cross sampling and couponing with other Revlon products.

Revlon has the fastest growing brand in the category in terms of unit sales with Colorsilk, which has helped the company build a more than 6% share.

But the big battle remains between L'Oreal and Clairol. Natural Instincts had a strong introduction in the fall and the question is whether it can sustain momentum and knock back L'Oreal's Casting. Certainly Clairol is trying, continuing lavish support for the brand that includes print spreads and full refunds.

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