CINCINNATI - Procter & Gamble Co. has patented a treatment process that uses light diffraction instead of chemical dyes to change hair color.
Could it be the next big thing? Or is it one more example of P&G missing the mark on innovation? The answer is probably lies between those extremes, just like many of P&G’s recent product launches.
The new hair-coloring concept was developed by researchers working with P&G at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. One of them recently described the idea as a “temporary hair tattoo” in an Albuquerque newspaper. The process involves coating hair with a polymer film that can be hot pressed to include nanopatterns, or tiny surface textures that reflect a rainbow of colors, images and text. The designs are temporary, as the film washes out with shampoo.
“Fiber coloration with little or no colorants occurs in nature,” said the U.S. Patent No. 8,607,802 , granted Dec. 17. “Peacock feathers, for example, are known to have little or no pigmentation. The striking colors in peacock feathers are produced primarily from diffraction of incident light from nanometer scale branches of the peacock feathers.”
P&G and Los Alamos declined to talk about the new patent, so it’s not clear how quickly - or even whether - the company aims to bring it to market.
“They’re letting their hair down a little,” said Dan Crask, a veteran Cincinnati-based graphic designer whose agency, Brand Shepherd, specializes in new product launches. Crask predicted the “hair tattoo” concept would be just a novelty product for P&G, but because of the company’s size and marketing prowess, it could be more.
“That’s one of those products that is going to walk the line between being cheesy or presented in such a way that it could really catch on,” he said.
An October report by the London-based market research firm Mintel said the U.S. market for hair coloring products was $2.1 billion in 2012. While the U.S. is growing slowly, global growth is accelerating. Mintel predicts 110 percent growth for hair coloring products in India by 2016, up from $382 million in 2012.
“There is scope for the hair coloring category to recruit new users with new formats and formulations that promise ease of application and enhanced performance,” said Vivienne Rudd, Director of Global Insight, Beauty & Personal Care at Mintel. “In developing markets such as India, these developments will help to encourage consumers to trade up from traditional, low cost products to more sophisticated products that use familiar ingredients and claims and add a more cosmetic twist, promising luxuriant, shining color and professional results at home.”
P&G has been promising to restore growth through innovation for more than a year. In November 2012, the company briefed analysts on an internal review process aimed at squeezing more blockbuster ideas from its $2 billion-a-year research and development budget.
“Over 60 percent of our ideas would play in markets that are over $5 billion in size today,” said Jorge Mesquita, who was then P&G's global president for new business creation and innovation. He has since left the company. “About 40 percent of our ideas are single-product, disruptive solutions that create new categories and are pure ‘new jobs to be done.’”
Figures from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office show P&G grew its number of patents issued by 20 percent to 395 in 2012. Figures for 2013 are not yet available.
Analysts participating in P&G’s second quarter earnings call expressed skepticism in the company’s innovation pipeline. Two analysts questioned whether P&G needs to acquire another beauty brand to restore growth. Barclays Capital analyst Lauren Lieberman poked fun at a new laundry product launched by P&G this month.
“Gain Flings with great cleaning power, amazing scent, plus Oxy, plus Febreze. It reads like it's like 10 people sat in a room and couldn't make up their minds as which was the most important benefit,” she said. “It just struck me as a little bit too reminiscent of some of the innovation in the last two or three years where it's this massive bundling of benefits into one product.”
P&G Chief Financial Officer Jon Moeller said the company isn’t opposed to acquiring additional beauty brands, but doesn’t think it’s necessary to restore growth. He added that P&G did “a lot of work” to understand whether its customers will see value from Gain Flings and early customer reaction to the launch has been positive. He also said innovation will boost revenue in the second half of P&G’s fiscal year ending June 30.
"We think about innovation broadly," said P&G spokesman Paul Fox. "Yes, product innovation is important and frankly there are many examples of that including the new fabric care and oral care line up. However, innovation also applies to the way we manufacture, structure our supply
chain and the partnerships we create."
Crask said “big splash” products like Tide Pods are tough acts to follow for P&G. But that doesn’t mean the company lacks innovation.
“We neglect to understand that innovation is simply improving something that is established,” he said. “Inventing is the new thing, the new process, the new category. Innovation is not invention … So, in terms of a proper understanding of ‘innovative,’ P&G is accomplishing it.”