Unilever’s Sunsilk Launch Goes Far Beyond The Box

For its biggest hair-care product launch ever—the U.S. debut of Sunsilk—Unilever is giving its media dollars a workout in an ambitious attempt to reach its frenetic target audience wherever it may be.

The packaged-goods giant is earmarking 15 percent of its total budget for the campaign, or about $30 million, for nontraditional media. Platforms include mall displays that use a new audio technology to grab the attention of passersby, a profile and ads on MySpace.com, cinema ads in nationwide theaters and eye-catching 3-D displays in close to 900 bars in key target markets such as Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Several unique branded content integrations are also being created for both television and print media.

Like the broader campaign, which broke in July, the far-reaching nontraditional effort centers on the concept of “hairapy” for young single women on the go.

Unilever confirms that it’s spending a total of $200 million on the yearlong launch. Susan Noble, senior partner and group marketing director at Unilever media agency MindShare, Chicago, confirmed that about 15 percent of the Sunsilk ad budget will go toward nontraditional efforts. Noble said that’s about three times more than most media plans. Another executive said the money for nontraditional was shifted out of the print and TV budgets, but stressed that both of those areas remain key elements in the overall campaign.

Several factors are driving the increased allocation to nontraditional venues, said Noble. “The bull’s-eye target for this brand is the 25-year-old single woman who is in a so-called quarter-life crisis,” she said. “They have one foot just out of college and one foot in the professional world, and she’s trying to create a balance between the need to go out and see friends and have fun and the need to be at work the next day.” So the strategy behind the media plan is to “reach her in multiple places,” like movie theaters, bars and malls, but also at home in front of the TV, online and in print.

For Unilever the stakes are high. It’s been steadily losing share in the U.S. hair care category for several years, the company confirmed. The U.S. launch of Sunsilk, a $1.2 billion brand worldwide, is designed to reverse that, said marketing manager Tiffany Kurtz. “There really is a lot riding on it. That’s why the company is investing so much money in year one,” she said. “We think it can really round out our portfolio.” Over time, the company’s goal is to make Sunsilk a top 5 brand in the U.S., she said.

Kurtz said she didn’t need convincing to heavy up on the nontraditional platforms. “The research showed us that [the target consumers’] lifestyle isn’t traditional, and the whole point of ‘hairapy’ is to help her laugh her way through her hair problems and life’s problems,” she said. “In order to do that, we quickly realized that we needed to be in her world where she is and when she is there. So to just kind of go by traditional means would be a dismissal of everything we know about this target.”

In shopping centers, Mindshare sibling The Wow Factory, a nontraditional ad specialist, teamed with high-tech brand firm Brand Experience Lab to create displays for malls that transmit “sonic blankets” of broadcast-quality audio. Wow president Connie Garrido said that laser-activated motion-detector technology triggers the audio when shoppers pass by the display, but the sound is contained to just within that “blanket” of space, so it doesn’t echo throughout the mall.

It’s the first time the technology has been used for advertising, and Sunsilk has an option to retain the technique exclusively through 2007, she said. Some mall operators were concerned it would be disruptive to shoppers, but the feedback so far has been positive, said Garrido. The transmitted voiceovers address hair issues (e.g., “My hair is poofier than my bridesmaid dress”) that reflect the visual message.

Sex and the City co-star Mario Cantone, who played the sassy, raspy-voiced “gay friend” Anthony, is the voice of the effort. “The audio and the tone of the campaign is very distinctive, and we looked for a way to incorporate that audio into the media in ways that had never been done before,” Noble said.

In bars, 3-D bathroom ads offer perfect-world solutions like “I wish my hair could borrow volume from my butt,” while ads in the main bar areas use motion-detector technology to morph into mirrors so passersby can get a look at their tresses. Bars are also plastered with branded glasses, postcards and coasters.

One of the core creative elements of the campaign is the advice dispensed by the so-called “Hairapy Guys,” a trio of Queer Eye-type lifestyle specialists who offer thoughts on hair care, dating and other typical twentysomething issues. They have their own MySpace profiles and have been integrated into two VH-1 reality shows: Best Week Ever, chatting about celebrity gossip, and Flavor of Love. For the latter, a dating show featuring rap star Flavor Flav, the trio does 30-second promos for the program, dishing on the hairstyles of the would-be girlfriends. Those spots run through September.

This month and thoughout the fall the hairapists will also be writing guest columns, which are actually paid integrations, in magazines such as InStyle, Us, Star, Glamour and Jane.

The MySpace profile has been up for just two weeks and has already attracted more than 4,000 “friends”—many of whom illustrate the dangers advertisers face on such sites. “Why does your page distort my face in this manner?” asked one young woman. Another Goth-looking youngster—with a user name not fit for publication—simply linked her site, complete with a corpse-like character definitely in need of hairapy, and the quote, “I’m the shadow in the background of the morgue.” But Noble is unfazed. “In the world of user-generated content you can’t resort to censorship and remain true to your brand. You take the positive with the negative.” And, one presumes, a smidge of the merely bizarre.