Unilever's Lem bets big on July hair-care launch

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Unilever's Esther Lem is shattering marketing convention by changing the timeframe for shampoo launches, and drastically reducing the length of time brands get to prove themselves in the viciously competitive category.

Ms. Lem took over as VP-brand development for U.S. hair care at the company late last year after a successful run overseeing deodorants, including the U.S. Axe launch. Now she is hatching an unusual, midyear, $100 million-plus rollout for its global Sunsilk hair-care brand.

Window no. 2

Major launches in the category traditionally have come in late January and early February in the U.S., the time when Wal-Mart Stores and other national retailers usually reset shelves. By shipping Sunsilk in July, Unilever is opening a second decision-making window for retailers, which means that this year's initiatives may get less than six months rather than a year to earn their shelf space.

The move isn't without risk. Analysts and industry executives said Unilever will have to pay extra to slot its new line of shampoos, conditioners and styling aids outside the retail industry's usual cycle.

That's on top of the $100 million-plus in other marketing expenses that have become the table stakes for launching a brand in the crowded category. Sunsilk's introduction comes after years of decline for Unilever in U.S. hair care, with its market share down 2.2 and 1.8 points, respectively, in the fourth quarter in hair conditioner and shampoo, according to Information Resources Inc.

Though some retail buyers expected Sunsilk to replace similarly styled Thermasilk in Unilever's U.S. lineup, executives familiar with the introduction said Unilever is trying to keep both on shelves. WPP Group's JWT handles Sunsilk globally as well as Thermasilk in the U.S. Unilever is playing catch-up in one respect. Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pantene in February is launching a line of "anti-sponge" straightening aids that company documents said aim to pre-empt an anticipated launch of similar and successful Sunsilk products from Unilever now marketed in Mexico.

Sunsilk is already on the market in much of Europe, Asia and Latin America, going by the name Sedal in the latter. It's Unilever's only vehicle for colorants globally, though that's not part of initial U.S. plans, according to people familiar with the launch.

Sunsilk will "get an initial 4% or 5% [of market share] just because of Unilever's sheer management will," said Colin Hession, a Unilever alum who's now a U.K.-based health and beauty-care industry consultant. But he doubts Unilever will withdraw its "local jewel" Thermasilk unless forced by retailer in a one-for-one swap.

If Unilever can persuade retailers to give it additional space for Sunsilk, however, that pressures the roughly 250 new hair-care items now squeezing into the 2,500 shelf slots this year in a typical retail outlet.


Current entries are led by Alberto-Culver Co.'s $100 million launch of professional brand Nexxus into mass at prices ranging from $3.99 to $17.99. P&G is restaging and updating category-leading Pantene with new "amino protein" ingredients, Restoratives treatments and Silver Expressions, designed to maximize the appearance of gray hair.

Several brands already are reeling even before Sunsilk arrives. P&G is discontinuing Physique this year and tried to sell its Pert brand late last year in a deal that fell through when a private-equity buyer backed out, according to an executive familiar with the matter.

Mr. Hession said that leaves P&G little choice but to market declining Pert as a value brand, though he expects it will ultimately be discontinued.

A P&G spokesman declined to comment.

For its part, Unilever is still trying to sell its flagging Finesse, Salon Selectives and Rave hair brands, said a person familiar with the matter. Unilever declined to comment.

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