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Dandruff and fungus. Try planning a product launch around those topics.

That was the challenge when Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit set out to put its first shampoo -- Nizoral A-D -- on drugstore and supermarket shelves last year.

The anti-dandruff shampoo was a hit since its introduction in June 1999, with $20.8 million in sales by the end of March 2000, according to Information Resources Inc.

Not only do sales show the brand's success, but the public's reaction was very enthusiastic, says Nicole Black, marketing manager.

"We get letters and product testimonials," says Ms. Black. "Someone sent me a poem about Nizoral -- it's something else."

On the plus side, Nizoral was already the top anti-dandruff prescription product; McNeil claims it accounts for 80% of anti-dandruff prescriptions and $200 million in annual sales worldwide as a prescription and behind-the-counter remedy.

Traditional thinking would have dictated that Nizoral's pitch would focus on its anti-fungal properties -- fungus being the root cause of dandruff, not poor hygiene -- and tout its powerful main ingredient, ketoconazole.

"It was widely assumed we would launch on a very `Rx-ish' basis," says Ms. Black.

But McNeil took another route, following one-on-one consumer interviews to establish the psychographic factors involved. Consumers won't disclose their problems with dandruff in a focus group, but when asked individually, they volunteered how embarrassing and painful it is, Ms. Black says.

That insight led her to position Nizoral as a product that could free users from the stigma of dandruff without pitching it as medication, and added an aspirational twist with the tag, "The freedom will go to your head."

The ads dripped with irony, as a voice-over by "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer pointed out the negatives of dandruff while a couple caroused together in the shower.

"We broke tremendously new ground for the category and for McNeil," Ms. Black says.

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