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COMBE’S SEXY NEW IMAGE

NEW YORK -- For more than 50 years Combe Inc. has sported a button-down, business-suit image in order to successfully reach one of its primary consumers, the graying male. But a recent multiyear licensing agreement between closely held Combe and...

NEW YORK — For more than 50 years Combe Inc. has sported a button-down, business-suit image in order to successfully reach one of its primary consumers, the graying male. But a recent multiyear licensing agreement between closely held Combe and Dennis Publishing, the publisher of male glossy Maxim magazine, looks to catapult the manufacturer’s conservative hair color image into a sex-driven world typically reserved for its savvy competitors.

Last month, boxes and bottles of Maxim Magazine branded hair color, shampoo and styling gel began hitting drugstore shelves around the country. The move clearly aimed to prick hair color brands L’Oreal Feria and Clairol Herbal Essences, both of which began targeting hip, trend-oriented males as early as 1999.

But Combe executives said the launch of Maxim Magazine Haircare from Just For Men wasn’t a hasty reaction to competitors’ products. Like many companies in the consumer products industry, the light had simply become so bright over the male teen and college student demographic, the group became hard to ignore.

In fact, the White Plains, N.Y.-based company is quite confident its new targeted consumer will reach for a Maxim Magazine hair color box over a competing brand.

“We are the leader in men’s hair color products and expect to remain that way,” said Jim Kelly, Combe’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Indeed, the family-owned company, which is run by the founder’s son, Chris Combe, has earned its right to be a bit arrogant.

Combe, makers of the Grecian Formula and Just For Men Haircolor brands, commands a 70 to 80 percent share of the estimated $200 million male hair color category. According to Information Resources, sales of the company’s hair color brands have grown to more than $90 million, excluding Wal-Mart, for the year ended May 19, a 5.3 percent increase. The company starting turning to men in 1961 when it changed the positioning of a recently acquired female-oriented hair color brand, Grecian Formula, into one for men. The shift in strategy ultimately gave Combe a foothold on the category, and in 1987 the company reinforced its leadership position with the Just For Men Haircolor range, a permanent and instant hair color. In 1993, Combe rounded out Just For Men Haircolor with a beard, moustache and sideburns dyeing kit. In 1997, it launched Just 5, a five-minute permanent hair color for women. And in 1999, Combe introduced Grecian 5, a variation of the original that dyed hair permanently in five minutes — the original dyed hair gradually.

“We have enjoyed significant growth rates in the last decade,” said Kelly. “Each time we executed a launch, [we gained] more growth in terms of market share leadership. The idea that we are really focused on men comes from our intimate knowledge of men and how they interact with their hair. There is a uniqueness in our cumulative knowledge, and that sets us apart from everyone in the marketplace today.”

The Maxim Magazine Haircare from Just For Men retails for $4.59 to $5.29 for styling gel and a two-in-one shampoo and conditioner, and between $9.99 and $10.99 for hair color. Hair shades are available in Bleach Blonde, Sandstorm, Rich Red Rum and Black Jack. Formulas are designed to cover gray “but the purpose is about changing color, a guy would not look to this to simply cover gray,” Kelly said.

While the company now competes with sassy images put out by true-to-the-core beauty companies, such as L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble’s Clairol and Revlon, Combe’s reputation for turning brands into household names gives the Maxim Magazine Haircare from Just For Men range a great head start.

Clearasil, one of Combe’s first brands, has been fighting pimples for more than five decades. It was recently sold to the Boots Healthcare Group LLC, the manufacturing arm of the British drug store retailer, Boots the Chemist, from Procter & Gamble. Other health care brands, which account for approximately half of Combe’s estimated $250 million business, include skin care cream Lanacane; feminine hygiene product Vagisil; foot care product Odor Eaters, and denture sealant Sea-Bond.

Supporting brands with a generous advertising budget is key to many brands’ sales. Traditionally, however, Combe has kept a safe, formal approach to targeting its customers.

“When you think about the baby-boomer demographic, these [conservative] images are ones that appeal to them on an emotional level,” said Kelly.

But for the Maxim Magazine range, Combe loosened its tie. A national TV advertising campaign launched Monday, with TV spots directed by music video heavyweight Noble Jones. According to Kelly, the spots have “the look, feel and emotion of the magazine. It’s very different from what Combe has done in the past.” Barry Pincus, manager of brand development for Dennis Publishing, said the TV spots, “are sexy and humorous,” staying true to the magazine’s naughty DNA. A Web site tying Maxim magazine with hair color also looks to raise the brand’s profile, as will campus events delivering Maxim’s sexy hair care message to young adults.

Print ads, currently featured in June beauty magazines, feature men and women in various intimate situations, with tag lines quoting the featured men. One ad shows a man lying on his stomach with a woman grabbing his hair. They’re both smiling, but his quote reads: “Yes, I understand you love my hair. Do you understand what the words `restraining order’ mean?”

Maxim magazine, which is five years old, reaches an estimated 2.5 million readers each month.

While Combe is keeping a rein on the distribution, technology and product development of the line, Maxim has been instrumental with the advertising. “We have an intimate relationship with [men.] We are trying to create tools for them in a number of different product categories” that would also expand the Maxim brand. Pincus added that Combe’s conservative image didn’t raise a warning flag. “They are experts at what they do,” Pincus said.

Pincus added that the Maxim brand is not limited to hair care and that other “beauty opportunities are possible.”

Anyone need a shave?