NEW YORK — It must be something in the water. The $4.5 billion U.S. hair care category is set to receive yet another major new shampoo and conditioner line, complete with a $100 million ad campaign and first-year sales estimates of $150 million.

Dove, the latest entry into the fray, has until now been best known for its deodorant and oval-shaped synthetic bar —it’s not a soap since it doesn’t contain lye. But whether the 50-year-old brand can compete against some of hair care’s sexier new players is creating a wait-and-see attitude as the product hits stores next week.

On Dove’s side is the brand’s success in expanding outside the bar-soap arena. It is currently number one in body wash, and in antiperspirant-deodorant, Dove claimed a 5 percent dollar share its first year on the market.

Dove hair care also has been performing well in the markets that already sell it. The brand leads in Korea and Taiwan, and is number two in Japan. According to Jon Achenbaum, general manager for Unilever’s hair and oral care business, Dove is currently the number three brand in the U.K. with a 7 percent dollar share. By the end of 2003, Dove will be available in up to 50 countries.

Working against the brand may be the brand itself. At a recent hair care conference, buyers raised their eyebrows at the news of Dove entering hair care. "Look what happened to Ivory," said one drugstore buyer, referring to the flop of Procter & Gamble’s Ivory hair care brand several years back. The fact that a buyer related a soap brand to a bar brand shows that confusion may be at the consumer level, too.

Along with that is the bevy of hair care launches planned for this year. L’Oréal’s eye-popping Garnier Fructis line could present the biggest threat. Clairol’s re-launch of Daily Defense into a value brand, and the complete relaunch of L’Oréal Vive also increase competition.

"Dove is Dove. I know it’s big. I know it has a good heritage. But we just have to wait and see how they market it," said Gregg Heller, health and beauty aid buyer for May’s Drug Stores.Unilever, Dove’s parent, is positioning the brand as one that will finally meet women’s unmet hair care needs, which company research revealed to be body, followed by moisturization. And these unmet needs, they added, haven’t budged over the last 10 years.

"With all the brands that are out there, you have to ask why haven’t these statistics moved at all?" said Joanne Crudele, Unilever’s manager for measurement sciences.

"Dove hair care is really a marriage between moisturization and body, not sacrificing one for the other," she said. Competitors, it appears, currently make consumers choose between the two.

"What we’re saying is that with Dove, you’re not going to have to give up something — you’re not going to have to sacrifice one for the other."

Dove executives have been working closely with Dr. Marta Rendon, a cosmetics dermatologist with a practice in Boca Raton, Fla., to analyze Unilever’s consumer data compared with her patients’ needs.

Rendon discovered that women get into a cycle of overmoisturizing their hair, ultimately making it flat and limp. Their immediate reaction is to back off of using moisturizing products, ultimately leaving their hair dry and damaged.

This imbalance is what Dove will leverage in its line of products.

Dove hair care is formulated with a combination of 17 "weightless" moisturizers designed to provide maximum moisturization by hair type without weighing down the hair. About 15 of these moisturizers go to the core of the hair fiber; the others work at the exterior of the hair fiber. This number, Crudele said, is more than what competitors Pantene and Fructis are providing.

There are 13 Dove hair care items in all, including four new items to the hair care category: shampoos and conditioners for medium-to-thick, colored-treated hair and stockkeeping units targeting fine, color-treated hair.

Achenbaum said the Dove launch is not only Unilever’s largest launch but the biggest for the category this year. Unilever is supporting Dove hair care with more than $100 million and expects the brand to generate at least $150 million in first-year sales.Until now, Thermasilk, which launched in 1998, was Unilever’s biggest launch. Thermasilk reportedly generated $150 million in first-year consumer sales in North America with $82 million supporting it.

Perhaps the biggest plus for Dove is that it will ride the wings of a very powerful brand, and a proven track record for providing moisturization. It doesn’t hurt that Dove is going after a different consumer than Fructis, which is targeting a younger, unisex demographic. In addition, Fructis’ positioning is more in strengthening hair than in conditioning it.

Getting current Dove users to try the shampoo is at the heart of the brand’s marketing strategy. "Thirty-three percent of all U.S. households buy at least one Dove product during the year," said Peter Waxman, Dove’s brand director. "And they are very loyal to the brand. We are focusing a high percentage of our marketing against these consumers." Dove looks to target these consumers, mostly women, through direct mail and sampling as well as purchase incentives on other Dove products.

Dove will retail for approximately $3.69 for a 12-oz. container.

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