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Sunsilk launch bespoke range to get ahead in Ethiopian haircare

Unique hair deserves unique care. And Ethiopian hair is different from the rest of the world’s. It’s gorgeously curly but easily tangled, beautifully delicate but prone to dryness. So Sunsilk created a bespoke range to meet its needs. And even built a factory to make it.


In Ethiopia there are hair salons on almost every street corner. And going to a salon is not just an occasional treat. Saturday is wash day and women will queue and wait every week to get their hair washed and cared for.

There’s a reason why the phrase ‘having a bad hair day’ exists. No one enjoys having one. And when you do find a haircare routine that keeps your locks just the way you like them, chances are you’ll wave that bad mood goodbye.

Finding products that hit the mark can be a quest at the best of times, but it can be even more of a challenge if your hair is unique – and in Ethiopia, it is.

“Ethiopian hair is different from the rest of the world’s,” explains Barbara Ryl, Beauty & Wellbeing Marketing Lead for Ethiopia. “It’s gorgeous and curly, yet it’s also delicate. It gets dry easily and tangles quite a bit. That means it needs a different kind of care. Shampoos need to be mild and not strip the scalp of natural oils. Conditioners need to also help to detangle, especially when hair is wet.”

Unique hair deserves unique care

“Across Africa there is a saying that your hair is your crown,” Barbara says. “For Ethiopians good hair equals beauty. They put a lot of importance on looking after it. There are hair salons on almost every street corner. And going to a salon is not just an occasional treat. Saturday is wash day and women will queue and wait every week to get their hair washed and cared for.”

But in the current marketplace product choice is limited. “Complex import systems mean international brands are difficult to find. And when they are, they’re very expensive,” Barbara says. “We wanted to change that by launching a haircare range of affordable shampoos and conditioners that were just right for Ethiopian hair needs.”

Sunsilk began its search for those perfect formulations by calling upon the expertise of Unilever’s global R&D team. First on the list was finding a way to make the most of curls. “We worked on formulations based on their understanding of the needs of curly hair from the Brazilian market, then we fine-tuned the product by selecting the best fragrances and oils to suit our local needs,” Barbara says.

Using nature as a cue

As nature is such an important part of life in Ethiopia, the team knew that natural ingredients and product fragrances had to be carefully picked too.

Two variants were developed. The first was Strong & Shiny with avocado oil. “This is a firm favourite with many Ethiopians who use fresh avocado in home-made hair masks,” Barbara explains.

The second was Soft & Silky with coconut oil. “Coconuts are not grown here so their properties and smell are quite new to consumers. As a fragrance, it pushes the boundaries of what they’ve experienced from a shampoo and conditioner. We called it Pina Colada, and it smells just like it. Girls here are loving it,” she says.

A formulation first for Sunsilk

Next on the team’s to-do list was ensuring their new shampoo left scalps feeling not only clean and fresh but nourished too. “We worked to create an advanced low-sulphate blend. The resulting formulation is not found in any other shampoo within Unilever. It’s gentle on the scalp and it cleans and nourishes, leaving hair fresh and soft. It’s also paraben- and dye-free. I’m very proud of that and that it launched in Ethiopia first,”says Barbara.

“For conditioner, the real torture moment is when the girls brush their wet hair, not when hair is dry. So we worked on formulations that gave a slippery feel when hair was wet,” she adds.

In terms of product development, this meant adding silicones to help seal raised cuticles and reduce moisture loss. And the results from consumer tests were impressive. “Combs got snagged in hair a total of 12 times using our competitor system versus one time for the Sunsilk system over 1,000 combs,” she says.

Combining global skills and local knowledge

“For me it’s a brilliant example of global teamwork that saw us use global brand assets such as the regular Sunsilk shampoo base and bottle shape but adding the knowledge of our local R&D and sales teams,” says Barbara. “This allowed us to flex ingredients and also incorporate little details such as Ethiopian designs into bottles to appeal to our local market.”

The new range took a year to produce, trial, ship and commission; it also saw the team open a factory to make it. “Getting the equipment produced for Ethiopia and shipped to the country was quite a complex procedure and full of adventures,” says Barbara. “But after a 9,000km journey – 8,276km on the sea and 840km by the road – our hair plant was successfully installed,” she says.

Testing, learning, exceeding expectations

Post-launch saw a lot of sampling, with teams going out door to door on wash day to homes and salons to offer consumers the chance to experience the products. Activation Manager Feven Mekonnen was one the leaders of the promotions team. “The response was amazing,” she says. “Some people invited us into their homes. We had salon takeovers and people tried the product right away.

“This gave us the opportunity to do some educational work in terms of how to use the products and what quantity to apply. We found out, for example, that a lot of people were using too much shampoo or applying conditioner incorrectly,” she adds.

Showcasing real people and real haircare

The TV advertising supporting the new Sunsilk line looked to push boundaries too. “We decided not to use models but ordinary people using our shampoo to wash and nourish their hair. And that was quite a bold move for us,” Barbara says.

“Often adverts for haircare in Ethiopia feature highly stylised hair or hair extensions, but our ad got cut-through. People were really positive about seeing shorter natural hair on screen and a variety of hair types being shaped and styled.”

Looking to the future

The current haircare market in Ethiopia is worth more than $100 million . But thanks to the country’s status as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and its population of 120 million with a median age of just 19, predictions for growth are bullish.

And demand for Sunsilk’s range has certainly been encouraging. Sales volumes were double the predicted figures for its first year of trading. As the brand moves towards its second birthday in May, growth figures remain buoyant. It’s clear that for Sunsilk in Ethiopia there are many more good hair days ahead.

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