As consumers continue to gravitate toward smaller beauty brands, multi-nationals with billion dollar brands, namely Procter & Gamble, are struggling to maintain their relevance.
“When you look at Sephora and Ulta, there has been a movement toward smaller brands, where people feel they are discovering things that are not necessarily coming from the big players,” said Don Frey, a Principal Consultant at Don Frey Consulting, who earlier in his career held various posts at P&G. “[Niche brands] are still not a huge piece of the pie, but they have taken the steam out of some of the larger players. Because P&G doesn’t have much excitement going on, they may be hit disproportionately.”
And thus fuels P&G’s mission to get leaner and meaner at the expense of its beauty business.
When the CPG firm announced last year it would shed up to 100 of its total 165 brands, attention immediately turned to its ailing beauty division—with good reason. P&G quickly dispatched a slew of its less significant beauty brands, including DDF, Noxzema, Camay and Zest, as well as the Naomi Campbell, Avril Lavigne, Puma and Rochas fragrances. Now it is taking aim at meatier marks, but which of the company’s beauty assets will next get the axe remains to be seen.
As P&G drops brands, mass beauty industry rivals are snapping up emerging beauty companies: Unilever recently acquired REN Skincare, while L’Oréal has snapped up Carol’s Daughter and NYX. If the major brands P&G retains can’t similarly interest consumers, it will be left behind.
Fueling speculation about its contraction plans, Bloomberg reported earlier in March that P&G could disentangle itself from a large chunk of its beauty operation through an IPO of a separate beauty entity or via a single, massive sale to another company. As Bill Schmitz, a Managing Director at Deutsche Bank, pointed out in a recent research note, there is precedence in P&G’s history for spinning off a sizable piece of its business. In 2008, the company used a tax-free divesture mechanism called a reverse Morris Trust to pass Folgers on to J.M. Smucker Company for almost $3 billion.
Some of P&G’s formidable beauty competitors might be in on the action. One such competitor, Unilever, has already nabbed Zest and Camay. “Other big players could be looking to have better scale across sales and manufacturing. The likelihood of a smaller player buying it is not as obvious. There might be a private-equity investor doing a roll-up of a bunch of brands,” said Drake Stimson, a partner in boutique management consultancy The Partnering Group, and a former P&G Marketing Director.
Emerging beauty firms and international conglomerates seeking growth, however, could also be in the mix of possible buyers, especially if P&G continues to excise its beauty brands in a piecemeal fashion. In a research note following P&G’s 2014 divestiture announcement, Lauren Lieberman, a Managing Director in equity research at Barclays Capital, forecast 12 to 18 transactions would rid P&G of the brands targeted for disposal.
Don Frey of Don Frey Consulting, said, “I could see an overseas brand looking for entrée into the U.S. market [acquiring P&G beauty brands]. Kao did that with Jergens, and they have been pretty successful at keeping that going.”
The brands on the chopping block represent a decent portion of P&G’s beauty undertaking. All together, Bill Schmitz estimated P&G expects to eliminate brands pulling in $12 billion in sales, or around 14% of 2014 sales volume. To date, the company has publicized deals accounting for $5.3 billion of that amount or roughly 6% of its 2014 sales. With the beauty brand cuts, Lauren Lieberman projected beauty’s share of P&G’s revenues would shrink from 24% with sales of nearly $20 billion to 17%.
Several experts made the case for P&G jettisoning prestige beauty, which encompasses the skin care brand SK-II, as well as Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Hugo Boss fragrances.
SK-II, a $1 billion-plus skin care pillar, doesn’t complement P&G’s strength in the mass market. “If you take someone who is used to dealing with Costco, Walmart, Walgreens and Kroger and then, all of a sudden, they are dealing with Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Japanese department stores, there could certainly be a misstep,” said Don Frey, who added that SK-II would be an easy sell.
“That is a great jewel to be able to buy,” said Don. “It could have a very high value in a lot of people’s portfolios, and it is a pretty big distraction [at P&G].”
In prestige fragrance, P&G trails L’Oréal and LVMH, although scent hasn’t been as weak as salon sales, which is anchored by Wella, and ranks behind leaders L’Oréal and John Paul Mitchell Systems. At a combined $4 billion or so in sales, Lauren emphasized prestige and professional as among P&G’s smallest beauty businesses, responsible for 3% and 2% of the company’s sales, respectively, not great fits for its broader beauty strategy. But, she questions the impact selling these businesses will make.
“Importantly, divesting these two businesses would have a negligible impact on overall sales growth,” wrote Lauren.
Beyond professional and prestige, a huge question mark hangs over CoverGirl. Drake Stimson wouldn’t be surprised if the color cosmetics brand, barely moving the needle in the extensive P&G universe with its contribution of 2% of company-wide sales, was discarded. “CoverGirl is antithetical to the way P&G wins in its most successful categories. There is a large number of sku’s. It doesn’t move a lot of volume per sku,” he said. “P&G doesn’t handle that complexity very well.”
Olay and Pantene could have comparably stable futures. Barring an IPO involving P&G’s beauty business, most beauty industry observers anticipate those brands, jointly generating $5 billion in yearly sales, will stay in P&G’s beauty stable. “The biggest surprise to me would be if they offloaded Olay,” said Drake. Sales of Olay, the leading facial moisturizer in the world, have dipped at an average rate of 2 percent annually over the last five years. During Olay’s better times, Drake explained, the brand “had the most incredible growth rates. I don’t think anyone in the industry realizes how fast and consistently that brand was growing year-on-year. They have had a lull now. I think they will try to figure it out.”
Pantene has been showing improvement, and P&G’s Chief Executive Officer, A.G. Lafley, told analysts at a meeting last year that “the renaissance of Pantene has only just begun.”
Lauren Lieberman said, “While P&G has not been able to call hair care ‘fixed’, as trends are choppy at best, we do believe this segment is much further along in its turnaround than skin care. After many years of share declines in hair care, P&G has not only stemmed its losses on Pantene…but its overall share of the category increased.”
Once P&G pares back excess brands, it could emerge a stronger company. “They have got too much going on, and that is the point of their recent corporate strategy, to downsize and focus more on a narrower range of products they do well with,” said Jack Russo, an analyst at Edward Jones.
“They have admitted they have had too much on their plate. Hopefully, as they get rid of some of these products and categories that maybe don’t fit, they can refocus on what matters most to them.”