The value of brands is a subject that has arisen in many discussions over the past few years. Whether they are weakening as a moat, and what the future holds for them, is frequently debated.
Let us start by venturing back in time to look at why brands exist, why they have prospered, and the effect they have had on the companies that own them.
Each industry had different drivers for the emergence, persistence, and success of brands. Some, like jewellery and other luxury goods, had to do with quality, heritage, aspiration, and signalling. Those, we believe, will continue to be relevant and have arguably increased in importance in a globalized world.
Others had drivers that are now more under threat. An example of that is the packed goods (CPG) industry. Brands became popular in the industry because they signalled safety and consistency.
When buying a box of Kellogg’s cornflakes, 100 years ago, purchasers could rest assured it would be safe to consume and uncontaminated by bugs, unlike some of the unpackaged stuff that sat in open bins. Consumers of this era also knew that a bottle of Coca-Cola would taste the same wherever they bought it.
That gave brands an advantage over traditional competitors, which translated into higher volumes, then to economies of scale in manufacturing, distribution, and advertising, and to further volume increase on and on in a virtuous cycle of growth. National and international expansion and widening these companies’ brand portfolios further deepened that advantage.
As retailers consolidated in the latter part of the 20th century and controlled an increasing portion of the end market they were able to start selling their private labels and because they didn’t need to advertise as much, they were able to sell somewhat similar products for a lower price.
The branded companies reacted by investing in more innovation, wider variety, better packaging and marketing and seemed to have weathered that storm reasonably well. Then in the mid- to late-2000s, several smaller brands started to pop up and capture significant shares from the incumbents.
Two factors, I believe, contributed more than others to the disruption we’ve been observing in the CPG industry over the past 10-15 years. The first is the internet. The second is a prolonged period of low interest rates.
The internet did two powerful things for smaller brands. First, it substantially reduced the scale needed to acquire new customers. You no longer had to spend millions on TV and magazine advertising. Instead, you could buy advertisements by the click on Google and Facebook.
Second, it enabled small and sometimes single-brand companies to sell directly to consumers online, removing the advantage that big CPG companies had in controlling shelf space at major retailers.
The second factor is the low interest-rate environment of the past decade. That encouraged entrepreneurs to start companies and, with access to cheap funding, build volume and the infrastructure that supports it without the conventional” old-fashioned burden” of having to provide a decent return on capital to their investors.
Start-ups started to engage in what were arguably uneconomical activities such as shipping small batches of low-priced personal care products to consumers’ homes. Consumers loved that. Established companies with the need to make a profit simply couldn’t compete.
Some of these new start-ups eventually figured out how to make money, often by moving into traditional retailers after they had gained enough scale.
While that brought them into an arena where the major CPG companies still had home field advantage, the two factors mentioned above have already decimated the historical barriers to entry in this industry, allowing a lot more competition than would have emerged otherwise. Time will tell if future higher interest rates will change things or not.
We have seen companies react to the current status of the marketplace in different ways. Initially, they all started trimming their portfolios and refocusing on a handful of “super brands.” This, I would argue, was a way for them to focus on their strengths and play more to their edge.
It is not, however, a good long-term strategy because the forces mentioned above, possibly with the exception of interest rates, are not going away. In a world with many smaller, specialized brands emerging you want to have many niche brands, not a few super brands, at least not exclusively.
Luckily, a few of the incumbents have also started a three-prong approach to the problem by developing some in-house niche brands, investing in some emerging brands, and acquiring successful brands and helping them scale.
We believe that some of the major CPG companies will be able to navigate this environment successfully. They will need to combine their scale advantage in existing areas of strength with the more nimble approach of smaller brands. A change of culture will be required. It will be hard, but not impossible.
We also believe that higher interest rates and higher inflation—should they come—could help the big guys through their better access to capital, in-house manufacturing, distribution capabilities, and experience in dealing with procurement on a global scale.
Brand alone was never the sole advantage or source of moat for major CPG companies, and it was never enough for us to make an investment case. Its importance and how it interacts with other factors will undoubtedly change in the future.
Our job over the next few years will be to continue to observe and learn. We will find evidence in comparable sales figures, the stability, or lack thereof, in market share data, and in whether the current efforts of the major CPG companies will bear fruit. In a sense, brands are not actually dying in the CPG industry. Older brands are being replaced by younger ones that are doing a better job satisfying their customers’ needs and desires.
The brand is dead, long live the brand!