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A few weeks ago I was at the Dogpound, NYC’s trendiest new boutique workout venue, staring at Elias Theodorou, a UFC champion and fairly perfect specimen of manhood. He was showing a bunch of beauty and grooming editors how to punch while wearing bright green – let’s call it Pert Plus green – boxing shorts.
Theodorou, with his glorious long hair, is the new spokesman for a brand which has undergone a number of identity crises in its 30-plus years of existence. Its hope, according to brand representative Gil Kross, is that Theodorou will pull in a new generation of customers, mainly millennial men. Pert is basically betting on Theodorou to be the Gigi Hadid of men’s grooming.
According to Kross, the brand’s buyers are currently 75 percent male and generally older. They’re Gen X’ers in their 40s and 50s, whose moms likely bought Pert for them in high school and they never bothered switching brands. But with Dove Men (a favorite of Reddit’s best dressed man, no less) and Axe both making 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner products, Pert is facing stiff competition now.
#TheManeEvent in #NYC . What a great showing today @dogpound gym for the @Pert media day. Thanks to all that joined and got their sweat on! ;) . We talked #haircare, the power of the original #2in1 & I was sure to put everyone to work. (That includes me too!) Got in plenty of rounds with @kruash, only for both of us to realize... I'm ready today. I'm ready now. I'm ready for #UFCHalifax
So the brand, owned by parent company Helen of Troy, relaunched two weeks ago with this new spokesperson, a focus on social media, and a few cosmetic updates. It changed the curvy bottle shape, which Kross told me used to sit in the “family” haircare section of drugstores, to a more macho shape with sharp angles, where it is now apparently qualified to be in the men’s section. (My husband even said to me upon seeing these bottles “Why do all men’s product bottles look like this?”)
It also shortened the name from Pert Plus to just Pert, although some brand confusion is still visible in its social media handles. On Twitter it’s @PertPlus, on Instagram it’s @Pert, and on Facebook it’s @pert2in1. The brand is in the process of making them all @Pert.
And really, Pert has been on a roller coaster as a brand, dating back to its 1980 debut. I can remember it being kind of a big deal in the ‘80s, because it was like nothing we had ever seen at the drugstore before. A shampoo PLUS conditioner? My god, it was revolutionary.
According to Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of the Beauty Brains, the formula is actually legit. It can indeed both wash and condition your hair. Sulfates, common in body washes and shampoos, provide the sudsy cleansing. The conditioners are dimethicone, a type of silicone, which is a smoothing and shine agent, and polymethacrylamidopropyltrimonim chloride, which provides anti-static and detangling benefits. They work to respectively coat the hair shaft and then stick to the places where hair needs conditioning.
Pert, in addition to being an old and semi-forgotten drugstore brand, also likely fell out of favor, at least among women, because of cleansing conditioners (also referred to as co-cleansers), like this Racked-approved one from R+Co. They became popular as part of the “no ‘poo” trend. They are generally free of sulfates, which have gotten a bad rap over the years for being stripping and drying, which is true for certain hair types. This new generation of 2-in-1s feel more like conditioners, while Pert definitely feels like a traditional shampoo.
Two generations, Gen X and millennials, essentially grew up with this brand. But it’s gone through a lot of iterations and is a pretty fascinating look at how beauty marketing works. How does a product go from girly must-have to masculine afterthought?
Pert has come full circle since its debut in 1980, when it was called merely Pert and was marketed as a shampoo, even though early commercials touted its “cleaning-conditioner.” It came in a squat green bottle that wasn’t quite the nuclear green it has become today. And it was fully being marketed to women. In the early ‘80s, if these ads are to be believed, bouncy hair was an obsession among women of the period. The ads featured perky blonde ladies bouncing on trampolines and doing aerobics in classic ‘80s “Let’s Get Physical” fitness looks.
In 1987, P&G, which owned Pert at the time, relaunched it as Pert Plus, a never-before-seen (at least by me and my tween friends) shampoo and conditioner all in one. A 1989 commercial shows that it was still marketing to a bouncy-haired woman, this time one who is playing tennis and simply cannot be bothered storing both a shampoo and conditioner in her gym locker.
This was very much a must-have product for my social set, at least until we discovered Herbal Essences in the ‘90s and its much more appealing and overtly sexual ads. What I remember most about Pert is thinking the smell was the most sophisticated thing I had ever sniffed. Many Gen X friends of mine agree with this memory, and the company claims the fragrance hasn’t changed since its launch, though smelling it now doesn’t bring the same sort of euphoria it once did. It was also an intriguing product to me because my mom wouldn’t buy it. She claimed it was still more expensive than buying separate bottles of Agree shampoo and conditioner, apparently.
According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, by 1990 Pert was the country’s best-selling shampoo with 12 percent market share. By this point, it was also much less magical. In all honesty, it really couldn’t handle the perms, bleach, and extreme heat styling that were de rigueur in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Millennial acquaintances remember it from this period much less fondly than I did in my formative years, with one saying “I used it to wash my dog.”
I was fully into Pantene by this point, the fanciest of the drugstore shampoos. (In other 2-in-1 news, Wen, the first cleansing conditioner, launched in 1993. It’s now embroiled in a class action lawsuit ,which alleges it makes your hair fall out.) The early ‘90s also saw the rise of the metrosexual man, a being who presumably was more willing to dabble in high-level product usage.
Pert looked to branch out and really went after the sporty demographic of both genders. Commercials of the period featured beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, soccer player Mia Hamm, and baseball player Mike Piazza. It also started muddying the waters by launching Pert for Kids, and tried to be everything to every lazy person who did not want to use two products.
In 1999, Pert Plus reformulated and dropped a commercial that was part of a $20 million marketing campaign that (unenthusiastically, in my opinion) tried to convince consumers that it was great. It featured a man randomly stopping people on the street in Las Vegas and subjecting them to sidewalk shampoo sessions. This was the beginning of turmoil for the brand.
According to that NYT article, “Since its sales began declining in the 1990s, so many marketers have tried to breathe life into Pert Plus that it has come to resemble a CPR mannequin.” P&G sold Pert to Innovative Brands in 2006, which launched a Pert Plus for Men. This line included a horrifying 3-in-1 product, which added body wash to the mix of things Pert could do. Innovative Brands didn’t have success with Pert Plus and sold it to Helen of Troy in 2009, which got rid of the men’s line, since most of Pert’s customers by that point were already men.
Then Axe was introduced in the US in 2002, forever changing the way men shop for and perceive drugstore products. That magical Pert scent? It couldn’t hold a pleasantly-scented candle to the in-your-face male aggression of Axe.
At this point, Pert was becoming irrelevant. Online you can find threads that question Pert’s use as a flea remover for cats (results are unclear) and its appearance in the urban dictionary as a sex act that’s basically the hair equivalent of a “facial.”
In 2011, with only 2.8 percent of market share, Pert committed fully to its male consumers with a series of commercials in which guys had animal heads and found themselves in questionable situations with the women in their lives. The tagline: “Don’t be an animal.” One situation includes a man with a dog head in a doghouse chatting with his neighbor, who says he keeps his wife happy by washing his hair once in a while. Meanwhile, doghouse husband explains his predicament: “She wanted something that would go from zero to 200 in three seconds. So I got her a scale.” Hilarious! Yeah, those ads were abandoned.
This past weekend, I stopped in a Walmart in suburban Connecticut and checked out the men’s haircare aisle. Pert now comes in five different formulas, including hydrating, strengthening, and thickening versions. But the Pert bottles were on the bottom shelf, below the 2-in-1 offerings from Suave for Men, Dove Men, Axe, and Old Spice, all of which are about $4, plus or minus a dollar.
Enter hot young guy Elias Theodorou, the self-described “owner of the Best Hair in Combat Sports,” a title I really can’t contradict. Can he convince regular millennial dudes to stoop down a little lower and grab the Pert? I’m eagerly waiting to see if it happens and hope, for the sake of nostalgia and my 13-year-old self who was smitten with Pert, that it does.