Burt’s Bees, Nature’s Gate and Kiss My Face until now have enjoyed relatively little competition in the small but growing subsegment of natural hair care. But it’s only a matter of time before shampoo titans, such as Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal USA, Kao and Unilever launch their own versions of natural. Even then, some of the smaller players said they are ready to compete head-on, despite what could be multimillion-dollar ad budgets from multinational companies.

Natural care consumers these days, they said, are not just buying a product, they are buying a piece of a company’s green philosophy.

This story first appeared in the August 1, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I applaud the efforts of any company starting to remove harmful or potentially harmful ingredients from their products,” said Mike Indursky, chief marketing and strategic officer of Burt’s Bees, the leading natural hair care maker. “But [the green effort] is all-encompassing. It’s sustainability, no animal testing, minimizing carbon footprint. We have a loyal consumer base. They believe in us because of the way the company operates.”

Unilever and L’Oréal would not comment for this story, and Procter & Gamble and Kao did not return requests for interviews, but the industry already is rumbling about what could be on deck from hair care’s Big Four.

Earlier this year, buyers were talking about L’Oréal’s plan to roll out a mass version of PureOlogy, a salon brand it acquired last year that is formulated free of sulfates. The marketing budget that would fuel such a launch, or any launch from a beauty giant, could hover in the $50 million range — or more.

Nature’s Gate chief executive Paddy Spence said his company’s natural hair care products would only benefit from the consumer education and overall exposure such a campaign would generate.

“The impact on natural brands like Nature’s Gate? I see it as a positive,” said Spence. “Look at skin care. Olay Regenerist had big ad spends for amino peptides. That educated consumers on what peptides could do for them. That ad effort benefited a whole range of smaller brands.”

A slew of advertising also could lure more consumers into the category. Burt’s Bees’ Indursky said only about 10 to 15 percent of women know about sodium laureth sulfate, a foaming ingredient in cleansers that Indursky said has the potential to cause bodily harm. Kiss My Face co-founder Steve Byckiewicz added that only about 14 percent of Whole Foods’ shoppers go into Whole Body, the grocery chain’s adjoining natural personal care store.

“Bringing a bigger consciousness to natural ingredients is really good because there are a lot of people who don’t buy our category. That’s always been an issue for us,” said Byckiewicz.

He acknowledged that going up against a multinational with deep pockets would certainly increase competition and put pressure on his company, which has been making naturally positioned personal care products for 25 years.

But in the end, Indursky said it would all come out positive.

“We will continue to do our kitchen chemistry, and should there be a brand from a large player that meets the standard, that’s good for the consumer and good for the industry.”

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