For much of its 175-year history, Procter & Gamble has been the gold standard in consumer products, an overachiever that reliably invents clever new items, markets them with style and rakes in the profits that naturally follow.
So it was with launch-day optimism this week that Bob McDonald, chief executive, listed the latest output from his brands, ranging from Cascade Platinum dishwasher capsules to Cover Girl’s Clump Crusher LashBlast mascara.
He stopped at the 24th. “I’m sorry for making it so long, but you asked,” he told the reporter who had inquired.
In the past, such an inventory would have reinforced confidence. Today it prompts questions about whether it is all worthwhile.
Under Mr McDonald, P&G has lost its lustre and lost its way. The diagnoses of its problems from former employees, analysts and marketers are myriad and conflicting. But one theme recurs – the world is changing fast and P&G is struggling to keep up.
Whether it is the expansion of the middle class in emerging markets, the post-crisis penny-pinching of Americans and Europeans, or the digitisation of personal lives, venerable P&G has been too slow to react.
Since taking charge in July 2009, Mr McDonald, a strait-laced former US army captain, has been taking the heat – including from Bill Ackman, a hedge fund activist who bought 1 per cent of the company last year. Mr McDonald has brushed off the familiar charge that P&G’s culture is too insular. But he has acknowledged that P&G’s cost base was bloated and its processes too bureaucratic.
Last year, he set about a plan to streamline and simplify. It contributed to a share price rally that began in the middle of 2012 and ended 2½ years of stock market stagnation, although it helped that the consumer goods sector as a whole was on the up. This week that rally appeared to stop.
P&G produced another set of mediocre results and a new point of contention emerged. It has ploughed the money it saved into innovation and marketing, but it is not yielding the kind of sales boosts that it used to.
Listening to Mr McDonald’s comments on the day, Javier Escalante, an analyst at Consumer Edge Research, said: “So what I’m hearing is doing the same thing, spending more and doing the same innovation and blaming [competition for weak results] . . . But shouldn’t you be thinking about doing things differently?”
It was redolent of another run-in with analysts after poor results 12 months ago, when Wendy Nicholson of Citigroup said: “There’s so many excuses . . . And I just say to myself, God, where is the mea culpa?”
Mr McDonald’s tenure has been a humbling comedown for the famously disciplined company from Cincinnati, Ohio, whose household names include Crest toothpaste, Tampax tampons, Ariel detergent and Olay skin cream.
Its $84bn of sales last year make it the giant of its sector. Its $9bn advertising budget, the world’s biggest, means media owners jump to its commands. Its $210bn market capitalisation makes it a staple of fund managers’ portfolios.
The company is also a renowned management academy whose alumni include the chief executives Jeff Immelt of General Electric and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. That influence explains why so many people care about its fortunes.
By most objective measures it is far from being in crisis. Its products are staples of the world’s bathroom cabinets and kitchen cupboards and its sales and profits both grew in the three months to March 31.
But the stock market is a capricious judge. It wants companies to show they are gaining momentum and outperforming their peers. This week’s results suggested that too many parts of P&G are doing neither.
The global economy, which Mr McDonald calls “choppy”, is making life tough for everyone. Research by YouGov in the US has shown that more consumers are opting for supermarkets’ cheaper own brand, or private label products. But analysts say P&G is losing ground to its rivals Colgate-Palmolive, the toothpaste and soap maker, and Unilever, which makes Dove shampoo and Sure deodorant. “[P&G] are spending more and growing less,” says Mark Astrachan, analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.
P&G gets a lower proportion of its sales from Asia, Africa and Latin America, but Jon Moeller, chief financial officer, said it had made “significant progress” in shifting the balance. By the end of 2013 emerging markets will be 40 per cent of sales. Still, Morgan Stanley analysts say three consecutive quarters of 7 per cent sales growth in emerging markets suggest momentum is not building.
Unilever, which struggled in a similar way from 2004 to 2009, is now led by an ex-P&G manager, Paul Polman, who is a favourite of investors. Another alumnus, Fabrizio Freda, chief executive of Estée Lauder, is taking business from P&G in cosmetics, and so is L’Oréal.
In cosmetics, “a favourably growing category, they are haemorrhaging [market] share”, says Mr Astrachan. Mr Moeller acknowledges that it is “a good example of where we have more work to do” on making mid-price products and communicating better.
Dean Crutchfield, a branding consultant, says P&G’s marketing is too traditional and rarely achieves the “empathy” of a recent ad from Unilever’s Dove soap, in which an artist drew sketches of women based on their self-descriptions. He applauded an amusing P&G Superbowl ad for Tide detergent this year, which P&G says got half of its viewers on television and half on social media. But Mr Crutchfield says digital successes are the exception. “P&G brands don’t really have a story. It’s old school.”
P&G likes to say that product innovation is its lifeblood, but its talk can run ahead of reality when its comes to “disruptive” inventions that change the way people clean their homes or tend to themselves. Its Tide Pod laundry capsules and its ZzzQuil sleep aid have been successes. But analysts say too many other innovations are only incremental. Mr Crutchfield calls them “renovation innovations”.
P&G insists that all new products are tested with consumers, but there is room to debate the wow factor of Duracell Duralock batteries that stay powered for up to 10 years in storage.
Mr Moeller says P&G is conscious of returns on investment and urges patience. “The point is that we’re executing against the plan and we’re on track or ahead of the plan. Are we optimistic? Yes. Are we satisfied? Not yet,” he says.
One or two quarters is too short to assess returns, he adds. Three to five years is P&G’s preferred horizon. But that may be more time than investors are ready to give Mr McDonald.
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