Two major shampoo makers are expected to wage a massive marketing war in the fall, with a domestic giant preparing to battle a foreign competitor for the top spot it lost two years ago.

Asience brand shampoo and conditioner, scheduled to hit the market next month, is Kao Corp.’s answer to Lux Super Rich, a product made by Nippon Lever K.K.

The latter is the Japanese unit of the Unilever Group, an Anglo-Dutch consumer products giant.

Whereas Lux and other foreign brands have successfully wooed Japanese consumers by exploiting their admiration for things Western, Kao will try to win them back by extolling an Asian sense of beauty, enlisting a Beijing-born Hollywood star.

Industry officials expect that the marketing battle will intensify in the highly mature 165 billion yen market, with store shelves crowded with competing brands touting similar performance.

“Honestly, despite what shampoo makers say, they cannot differentiate between each other on the basis of product merit,” said Yoshinaga Takagi, Lever’s marketing manager for hair-care products. “The point is how to differentiate their products in other ways besides merit.”

Capturing a market share of more than 20 percent, Lever became the No. 1 shampoo maker in Japan in 2001, dethroning Kao, the longtime market leader, by a small margin, according to both firms.

While Lever officials declined to disclose how much the firm spends on marketing in Japan, the company has a reputation for aggressive promotional efforts, spending heavily on TV ads and giving away millions of free samples.

Company officials said the heavy marketing activity has been necessary in cracking the Japanese market.

In launching Timotei shampoo in 1984, it distributed free samples to 16 million households nationwide over two years. Its TV commercials earned widespread recognition with their catchy jingle.

But it was the launch of Lux brand shampoo in 1987 that put the company on the map. The brand has gained a loyal following by successfully projecting an elegant image through a series of TV commercials starring Hollywood celebrities, including Penelope Cruz, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Brooke Shields.

The commercials — all original in Japan — are designed to appeal to consumers desirous of the beauty and other trappings of celebrity.

In its latest ad, the firm presents a Cinderella-like before-and-after story, with Natalie Portman smiling back at a bashful but admiring girl in a swanky hotel lobby.

“When we consider the brand concept, (it is necessary to present) what will happen as a result of having beautiful hair: an emotional result,” Lever’s Takagi explained.

For Kao, losing the home turf it dominated for 70 years to a foreign competitor was a humbling experience that brought home the growing importance of concept-oriented marketing in the shampoo market.

Touted as being able to curb dandruff and itchiness, Kao’s Merit and Essential shampoos found their way into Japanese households. But the company determined it had to launch a new brand to counter the advance of foreign brands.

“Now that there are many shampoo brands on the market, consumers have a better knowledge of products,” said Tadashi Nomura, Kao’s vice president of hair care and personal care products. “They now select brands based on emotional attachments, admiration and shared value in addition to product merit.”

Following the stunning market upset, Kao launched its “Asian beauty” concept to compete squarely with its Western rivals. It spent two years consulting with dozens of fashion industry insiders in Tokyo, New York, London, Shanghai and other cities.

Asience, the first new shampoo brand Kao has launched in seven years, is designed to present a clear contrast with Lever and other foreign rivals. The brand name was coined from Asia, science and essence.

Featuring “Oriental Beauty Essences,” including soy and pearl proteins, rice and Korean ginseng extracts, the products are said to enhance the intrinsic beauty of Asian women’s hair.

Its gold-colored packages feature an asymmetrical body design, which is supposed to embody Asian aesthetics as opposed to Western beauty.

“We believe the brand can gain a strong foothold as a counterforce to foreign brands,” Nomura said.

In promoting the new brand, Kao has also turned to a Hollywood star — Asian actress Zhang Ziyi. It plans to launch a marketing campaign on an unprecedented scale in this fall.

“We are confident that we can win back the No. 1 spot,” Nomura said.

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