By  on March 16, 2007

When they were relegated to the far corners of mass merchandise stores, the word "natural" in natural personal care products was sufficient to distinguish them from their mainstream brethren.

Now the terms "natural" and "organic" have become almost cliché, with retail sales of personal care products falling under their definitions reaching $6.05 billion in 2006, a 24 percent increase over the prior year, according to the Natural Marketing Institute.

And judging from the crowd of 47,000 at the Anaheim Convention Center for the Natural Products Expo West March 8 to 11, consumer interest is offering natural product manufacturers opportunities to enter scores of outlets, from Target to Sephora to CVS to Amazon. But the retail grab has also spawned a new quandary: How do brands stand out in a heavily populated field where simply being natural isn't unique anymore?

The more than 2,700 exhibitors at the expo hinted at the ways brands are maneuvering to outwit the ballooning competition. Among the tactics: bolstering organic credentials with USDA certification; advertising politically-sound sourcing and manufacturing techniques; targeting items to niche audiences; and taking a page out of high-end products' playbooks by touting effective cutting-edge treatments.

Meeting the Swiss accrediting agency Institute for Marketecology's "fair trade" criteria is Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap's point of differentiation. Adam Eidinger, public affairs director for the Escondido, Calif.-based company, which generated $17 million in revenues last year, explained Dr. Bronner's gets organic olive oil from Palestine for $6 per liter, well above the customary price in the battle-weary region, at farms with adequate wages.

"Some customers really do care," said Eidinger. "We are alarmed that there are so many commodities that market themselves as organic, but come out of hell."

MyChelle Dermaceuticals is taking up the cause of cosmeceuticals, or cosmetics meant to have medical benefits, in the natural arena. With the concept playing a larger role in department stores, MyChelle is introducing it to health food retailers and Internet shoppers, explained Margaret Woolley, who handles customer service for the six-year-old Frisco, Colo.-based company. MyChelle sells to about 1,000 accounts in the U.S.

"Dermaceuticals is kind of a made up word," acknowledged Woolley, adding that it communicates that the ingredients MyChelle uses don't rest "just on the surface of the skin. The skin takes them in." The company actively searches for exotic fruits — some of the latest being Mangosteen, Acai and Camu Camu from the South American rain forest — that it asserts have high concentrations of antioxidants to address skin damage and Rosacea.In the natural market, established brands believe there remains substantial room to grow with existing products.

Skin care brand Juice Beauty has 10 field workers, which the company calls juicers, that travel across the country visiting Sephora stores to educate the beauty chain's employees about its products. The brand entered Sephora in 2005 and is in all the around 120 U.S. stores, including the latest J.C. Penney units.

"They [Sephora employees] understand skin and they understand results, but they don't understand organics," said Melissa Jochim, product developer at San Rafael, Calif.-based Juice Beauty, which is releasing a Green Apple Body Peel system exclusively to Sephora this summer. Green Apple Peel, intended for the face and neck, is the company's top-selling product at $39 retail for two ounces.

At hair care brand Head Organics and Hain Celestial Group-owned Jason Natural Products, new wall units are options for mass retailers uncertain about what natural items to carry. One Jason wall unit was packed with travel sizes of top-selling products, including toothpaste for $1.75 and shampoos, conditioners and lotions for $1.49.

"We are trying to get the consumer to try the product," said Alicia Alvarez, an associate brand manager at Jason. "If it is a new consumer to the natural market, we want to entice them and let them know that it is a quality product."

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