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As Unilever rolls out its newest international brand-the Organics haircare range-around the world, a global marketing battle with Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pantene Pro-V is taking root.

Organics claims to be "the first ever root nourishing shampoo," but Pantene Pro-V's hard-to-tell-apart positioning promises health-giving vitamins will penetrate hair from the roots up.

At stake is a sizable chunk of the $24 billion worldwide haircare market. Organics is quickly racking up market shares of 8% or more in its early launch markets. P&G boasts that Pantene Pro-V, one or two years ahead of Organics in most markets, has as much as double Organics' share in many countries, a claim Unilever disputes.

The striking Organics launch commercial running in Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia opens with womens' heads slowly pushing through the ground of a flat landscape. The women, who appear to be planted in the ground, gradually emerge complete with flowing, silky hair. A voice-over explains: "Organics is the only shampoo with Glucasil, a natural nutrient which nourishes the life source of hair, the roots. It strengthens hair so that it looks radiant. Organics, the first ever root-nourishing shampoo."

J. Walter Thompson Co. is Organics' global agency.

"Organics is a reaction to the great success Pantene has had," said a P&G executive responsible for European marketing. "There is obviously a strong similarity in positioning."

A Unilever executive said P&G has extended Pantene Pro-V's positioning to include roots to counter Organics' claims. P&G also recently plastered the word "Nourishing" all over its silver Pantene Pro-V packaging to match the words "Root nourishing" displayed prominently on Organics' bright green packaging.

Both ranges consist of several shampoos, regular and intensive conditioners, a two-in-one, and strengthening creams and serums. Organics also has a hair repair cream and Pantene Pro-V has a mousse.

The original Pantene brand barely eked out a 1% market share in the U.S. and was present in Switzerland and a few European markets as a hair tonic before P&G drastically revamped and reformulated the brand to begin a two-year global rollout in 1992 as vitamin-enriched Pantene Pro-V.

Organics grew out of a multicountry project to find and develop a new haircare brand, said Peter England, chairman of Unilever's personal products subsidiary Elida Gibbs Faberge in France. Organics was an old Faberge brand name that Unilever already owned although the shampoo by that name had virtually disappeared.

The initial work on the new Organics was done in Paris but the first launch was in Thailand in late 1993. The Thai ad campaign was entirely different, using the image of a strand of pearls woven into a model's dark hair to emphasize the strength Organics gives to the roots. The campaign helped win Organics a 9.2% market share by value in Thailand compared to 12.6% for more established Pantene Pro-V. The same campaign was used in some of the Asian markets Organics entered last year.

But Europe didn't much like the Asian creative work, and the literally groundbreaking ad developed by JWT's London office, working with a copywriter from JWT in Spain, is now the global standard. Unilever tested the market in Europe with a $14 million U.K. launch last summer and has picked up an 8% share, which P&G says is only about half of Pantene Pro-V's U.K. share. Last fall Organics was launched in a few small European markets, and quickly garnered a 16% market share in Norway, according to P&G about 60% of Pantene Pro-V's share there.

Last month Organics stepped up its rollout, entering Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain, and will be in most of the $8 billion Western European haircare market by yearend. The brand is currently rolling out in Latin America and was launched several months ago in the $4.7 billion Japanese haircare market, the world's largest. The Japanese spend the most money per capita-$38 a year-on haircare products, according to U.K. market research company Euromonitor. Europeans are next, ranging from $29 in France to $16 per head in Italy. Latin Americans spend the least, shelling out less than $5 each for haircare products in Mexico.

Organics' current rollout in the $2 billion German haircare market is typical, although due to tough German rules about product claims, the ad copy had to be altered, mainly by saying the product restores, rather than nourishes, the hair.

In Germany, Organics is matching P&G's $11.5 million ad budget for Pantene Pro-V, which has picked up an 8.1% share since its German launch last year, with an estimated $12 million to $15 million push. P&G anticipated Organics' German entry with a barrage of four commercials that make such claims as "Pantene Pro-V permeates the hair and roots" in an attempt to usurp Organics' positioning. Grey Advertising is Pantene Pro-V's global agency.

The German scenario is being replicated across the world, with one major exception-the $4 billion U.S. haircare market.

"Organics is attacking Pantene and we will obviously not let that happen," said the P&G executive. "We're not going to make their life easy. Organics is becoming a truly global brand, [but] what we see in all the markets where it has launched is that Pantene has continued to grow, which tells us how well we are protecting Pantene."

One huge advantage Pantene has over Organics as a global brand is its strength in the U.S., where Pantene Pro-V has already become the leading brand with a 10.7% share in shampoos and 9.1% share in conditioners after a 1992 launch. Unilever, with the bulk of its sales in Europe, is so weak in the U.S. that it is doubtful Organics will venture into the world's No. 2 haircare market at all.

"I don't sense Unilever is going to take it to the U.S., where it does not have a strong position in the shampoo market," said David Lang, an analyst at Henderson Crosthwaite, London. "I can't imagine the company going there with a shampoo unless it had an absolute winning product, and I don't think Organics is it."

The company "may have a different set of priorities in North America," said Mr. England, declining to comment on whether there will be a U.S. launch.

At the same time, Helene Curtis Industries, Chicago, introduces its Organic Care haircare brand to Canada this month with a $4.4 million ad and promotion campaign from DDB Needham Worldwide. The marketer also will reintroduce Vibrance in the U.S. this summer as Vibrance Organic Care with a campaign estimated at $20 million.

Unilever's Chesebrough-Pond's, Greenwich, Conn., challenged Helene Curtis's brand name in Toronto's Provincial Court, which ruled recently not to enjoin introduction of Organic Care from Curtis. Chesebrough did not say if it will take Curtis to trial or appeal the ruling.

U.S. executives close to Unilever say it has not determined if it will introduce Organics in the U.S., a risky and costly market for haircare products, though it is weighing a Canadian launch.

As a global marketer, Unilever consistently trails P&G. Unilever actually pioneered two-in-one shampoo and conditioner products more than a decade ago with its Dimension brand but the concept languished until P&G launched its fabulously successful Vidal Sassoon Wash'n'Go two-in-one.

"Unilever has the technology, but the marketing has not been right," Mr. Lang said.

Over the last several years, Unilever's personal products division has set up Innovation Centers, called ICs, across the world for key product categories like haircare, dental, body care and skincare. The aim is to combine technology, research, marketing and advertising to develop new ideas and speed up global rollouts.

Organics was in development before Unilever's haircare ICs, located in Paris and Bangkok, were set up, but they are being used for strategy and execution. On a local level, countries can design their own promotions, ranging from 20 million free samples now being distributed in France to a U.K. spot-now running internationally-celebrating Organics being named best new product by a U.K. haircare magazine. In the commercial, magazines emerge from the ground rather than models' heads.

"We used Vogue [in an ad campaign] when they awarded Pantene Pro-V as best brand," said the P&G executive. "That's another example where they're clearly copying us."

Juliana Koranteng and Pat Sloan contributed to this story.

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