NEW YORK — Herbal Essences is taking every opportunity to reach its target customer in the first half of 2003. Recently, the $700 million global brand became the exclusive beauty sponsor for "American Idol," one of the most widely watched shows on television. The premiere of the singing contest on Jan. 21 captured more than 26.7 million viewers, the largest number of viewers in Fox TV’s 16-year history.

As a sponsor, Herbal Essences has so far distributed thousands of Herbal Essences Fruit Fusions hair care samples to the seven different regions across the country where auditions took place. Beginning Feb. 4, Herbal Essences will begin "herbalizing" all 32 of the final contestants — who were chosen on the January 29 episode, providing all hair care and hair color products backstage and where the kids live.

Helping them with their hair is a yet-to-be-named celebrity stylist. However, Robert Vetica, a stylist to actress Renée Zellweger and singer Shakira, is a contender for the spot, as well as to be Herbal Essences’ spokesman.

By partnering with "American Idol," Herbal Essences is able to efficiently target teen consumers. But Marc Broccoli, assistant brand manager for Herbal Essences, added that in addition to having a teen component, "American Idol," at least in its first season, ranked number one with women between the ages of 18 and 49 years old, too.

Herbal Essences has a long history of working with entertainers, such as Britney Spears, 98 Degrees and ’NSync. "We look forward to playing a role in discovering the next big recording star," Broccoli said. "American Idol" runs for 15 weeks with the final shows airing May 6 and 7.

The "American Idol" sponsorship takes up a chunk of the brand’s first half 2003 ad budget. Sources estimate that Clairol, the brand’s parent, must be spending in excess of $8 million, which also includes funds for in-store events, Spring Break contests, sampling and publicity events.

Herbal Essences will also support the sponsorship with an exclusive Web page airing video clips from recent auditions, footage and highlights from the current "American Idol."

Herbal Essences is also aiming to keep its products on the cutting edge. In March, retailers begin receiving Herbal Essences HighLights Kits. Heidi Standhart, brand manager for Herbal Essences hair color, said the new kits raise the bar compared with what is currently available on shelves. "We wanted to deliver the whole Herbal Essences experience along all consumer touch points. We wanted to make it intuitive, breakthrough fun at point of sale and especially at use."While some competitors use highlighting kits where the user pulls strands of hair through a plastic cap, and others use thick combs, Herbal Essences HighLights Kits look to improve the experience. The Herbal Essences comb allows for finer strands to be colored, rather than wide highlighting strands.

Herbal Essences HighLights Kits also bring something new to the category: a colored formula. Currently, highlighting products on the market start out white and then look wet, making it difficult to tell where color has been applied. The new formula stays colored throughout the whole process. Cool Blonde Highlights for light to medium blond hair goes on blue; Golden Blonde HighLights for dark blond to light brown hair goes on yellow, and Rich Copper HighLights for medium to dark brown hair goes on red.

A print advertising campaign to support the new kits, which retail for $9.99, will commence in April and May beauty magazines. The one-step formulas will also feature Herbal Essence’s famous floral fragrance, as well as Colorseal, it’s trademarked conditioning system. First-year sales of the kits could reach between $15 million and $20 million.

TV ad spots could follow, said Alicia Leet, an assistant brand manager for Herbal Essences color. "Currently there are no TV [spots] advertising for highlighting brands," Leet pointed out.

Leet said according to company data, highlighting is again a trend to look for, whereas a year or two ago, the category softened. Highlighting is a way for Herbal Essences to draw younger consumers into the color category.

Perhaps Herbal Essences will luck out and capitalize on a new Kelly Clarkson, the winner of last year’s "American Idol" contest, whose bold, chunky highlights dominated her hair makeover look and spawned thousands of copycats.

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