Case Detail:After a dismal 2009, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), India’s largest consumer company by revenue, has seen volume growth return to double digits in three successive quarters this calendar year. This comes after volume either fell or grew marginally in the corresponding year-ago quarters. It also broke a run of 40 quarters during which volume didn’t expand by more than single digits.
A year ago, the maker of Lux, Wheel, Dove and Knorr seemed to be floundering, caught in a spiral of price cuts and shrinking margins.
The comeback has taken place amid a pitched battle with Procter and Gamble Home Products Ltd (P&G), which also spilled over from the retail shelves into the courts as they fought over claims made in advertisements.
That fight is reminiscent of its campaign in the 1980s to tackle Nirma, which was making inroads at the lower end of the market, by launching Wheel, now India’s largest detergent brand with 18% market share. It also brings to mind the 2004-05 laundry war with P&G, during which both the companies took a hit on their margins, but eventually HUL emerged stronger.
Keeping pace: Consumer products on display at a supermarket in Delhi. Close to 90% of HUL’s portfolio is fresh—either a new product or one that’s been relaunched over the last 12 to 18 months.
The Indian arm of the Anglo-Dutch Unilever Plc, which has been present in the country since 1933, did several things that seem to be working for it. The company completely revamped the product range, cut prices to keep the competition on its toes, tweaked advertising to better position the offerings, reduced its inventory levels and reached even further into rural India, opening up new markets for branded goods.
What changed at HUL that allowed to it to succeed this time around? Gopal Vittal, executive director of the company’s home and personal care (HPC) division, which accounts for 70% of revenue, characterizes it as an internal transformation.
“The company has now become comfortable in a schizophrenic culture,” he said. He was referring to the new attitude of the company—more aggressive, flexible and nimble enough to take up both large and small opportunities that are sharply different in scope.
The gain has not come without its share of pain. For instance, HUL was forced to reduce the price of Rin detergent and bars by close to 30% following the launch of Tide Naturals, a 30% cheaper variant of the P&G flagship brand Tide. Then came a round of increases in content and pack sizes.
The aggressive price cuts have resulted in a decrease of overall sector profit, meaning all companies need to work that much harder and sell that much more merely to stay in place, leave alone getting profit growth to hasten.
This battle between the two global consumer giants was inevitable, given that growth is tapering in the developed markets. Cincinnati-based P&G, which made a serious push into India only in 2009, although it has been present in the country since 1989, wants to expand as fast as possible in emerging markets. HUL has a year-to-date market share of 34.5% in detergents and 45.9% in shampoo versus P&G’s 9.6% and 23%, respectively.
While the rivalry has exacted its toll, it has seen both companies benefiting from the expansion in the market. “Despite risks associated with the tactics in laundry, P&G seems confident in its strategy and has expressed a desire to continue competing with Unilever and other companies in contested areas,” Dibadj said in his report.
While P&G has been seeking to make up for lost time, HUL, on the other hand, has single-mindedly sought to “unblinkingly defend (its) market leadership,” as Harish Manwani, president, Asia Africa, Unilever executive and non-executive chairman of HUL, put it at a press briefing on 28 July.
That has meant a vigorous churning of the product range with as many as 41 launches during the year. Close to 90% of HUL’s portfolio is fresh—either a new product or one that’s been relaunched over the last 12 to 18 months.
The relaunches include the companies so-called local jewels—Breeze, Liril, Moti, Pears and Hamam—aimed at taking on homegrown rivals such as Godrej Consumer Products Ltd (GCPL), which makes Godrej No. 1 and Cinthol, and Wipro Ltd’s Wipro Consumer Care and Lighting division, which has brands such as Santoor. HUL also reintroduced what it calls power brands—Lifebuoy and Clinic Plus. It also launched premium products such as anti-ageing formulas and hair conditioners under existing brands such as Ponds, Dove and Lakme.
Earlier strategies had centred around big categories and big brands. In 2000, it sought to focus on 30 power brands. In 2005-06, the Masstige(Mass Prestige) strategy sought to make premium brands available to the masses through appropriate pricing.
That focus on size has widened to accommodate smaller segments.
“We are as passionate, as determined about doing a Rs10 crore opportunity as we are about Rs2,000 crore,” says Vittal.
Rivals recognize the efforts made by the company.
The company wants to tap growth at both ends of the pyramid. The large categories at the bottom, such as detergents and soaps, are growing well, while at the top, growth is explosive, Vittal said.
As the economy continues to boom—India boasts of the second fastest pace of growth globally—greater prosperity will put more disposable income in the hands of a larger number of consumers, all with newly awakened aspirations. Or so the argument runs.
This is already happening in the rural areas, helped along by some of the government’s social welfare programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, better infrastructure and increased job opportunities. Meanwhile, in urban India, consumers are looking for more choice and better products.
“Companies have to decide between high volumes and high-value growth. This is a tactical decision,” said Sunil Duggal, chief executive officer of Dabur India Ltd, which makes personal and Ayurvedic products such as Vatika and Uveda.
That won’t be an easy call to make considering HUL’s size and reach and the scope of its ambition.
“In the next five years, the market is going to be 2-2.5 times its present size,” Vittal said. Right now, his key concern is to ensure that HUL will be nimble enough to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the market.1.) Conduct the Portfolio Analysis of Various Brands of HUL w.r.t Categories/Product Lines.2.) Comment on the Relaunches as a result of Turnaround Strategies adopted by Company3.) “Companies have to decide between high volumes and high-value growth. This is a tactical decision” .Comment