Unilever readies $180 million blitz

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Unilever is preparing a three-pronged, $180 million-plus assault on the U.S. hair-care category in early 2003, led by the $110 million launch of Dove shampoo and conditioner, followed by a new Suave for Men line and stepped-up media support for struggling Thermasilk.

Unilever's hair offensive comes amid what retail executives say is an unprecedented level of new-product activity, even for the usually turbo-charged hair-care category. In all, buyers said more than 150 new items are hitting hair-care aisles in the first quarter, including L'Oreal's $20 million launch of Garnier Fructis handled by Publicis Groupe's Publicis USA, New York. The well-funded new-product glut puts smaller, weaker brands at risk of extinction. "Some of these brands will have to go," said one retail buyer.

some delays

Unilever will spend big despite delaying by a year its planned launch of a U.S. hair-color line, believed to be under the Thermasilk brand. Retail executives said the color initiative, which Unilever originally had discussed introducing in the first quarter of 2003, now won't likely come until 2004.

Unilever wouldn't comment on specifics of the launches but did say Dove hair care, Suave for Men and the Thermasilk improvements are coming to the U.S.

"We're committed to category growth and driving growth," said Andrew Gross, VP-hair category for Unilever. "We're clearly focusing innovation behind our core brands." He said he expects Dove to be successful in the U.S., as it has in other regions of the world.

Unilever is looking to rebound in a business where it recently has lost ground. Its hair-care sales fell 5.5% to $585.6 million in the 52 weeks ended Oct. 6, according to Information Resources Inc., though those figures exclude Wal-Mart, dollar and club stores where its Suave brand is strongest.

According to retail buyers, Dove shampoo and conditioner ships to retailers in February, with ads to break in April. It will be priced at a premium of 10% or more to Procter & Gamble Co.'s category-leading Pantene. With $110 million in support, it will be Unilever's best-supported U.S. hair-care launch ever, topping the massive $90 million U.S. launch of Axe body spray this year.

The Dove introduction is expected to be handled by WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Chicago.

The U.S. is the last big untapped market for Dove hair care globally, even though Dove cleansing bar had its origins in the U.S. in the 1950s. Hair care has been a driving force in making Dove a $1.7 billion global brand, up from only $200 million in 1990.

shoring up

As it launches Dove, Unilever also will shore up its flagging four-year-old Thermasilk brand in the U.S. with its first two-in-one shampoo-conditioner products and stronger-hold gel and hair spray products. Thermasilk will get "record levels of media in 2003," according to Unilever trade materials, totaling more than $60 million.

An 18.4% sales dive by Thermasilk in the past year more than erased a 4% gain by Suave in IRI-measured channels, despite what Unilever calls "record spending levels" in 2002. Unilever claims 2002 Thermasilk sales of $220 million, while IRI shows $85 million. WPP's J. Walter Thompson, New York, handles Thermasilk.

Unilever also will tap the growing wave of male-targeted personal-care products with the 10-item Suave for Men line, featuring dark-blue packaging and a "clean, fresh, masculine scent." Priced around $1.50, the line includes deep-cleaning, thickening and dandruff shampoos and shampoo-conditioners in regular, strengthening and dandruff-control varieties, plus gels, hairspray and pomade.

Suave for Men will have its own newspaper coupon inserts, but other ad plans weren't disclosed.

O&M, Chicago, handles Suave.

Meanwhile, L'Oreal will combat P&G's February overhaul of its Clairol Nice `n Easy with a new copper-blocking technology that delivers deeper color with a pricey Color Expert line priced at $20, retail executives said. The brand will get print support from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York.

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