Harsh Mariwala’s face lights up while recounting his favorite story. In the late 90s, Keki Dadiseth, the then Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever) chairman, wanted to buy his company, Marico. Many of his friends advised him to cash out when the going was good, but Mariwala dug in his heels. “Marico is a dream for me and I was in no mood to sell my dream,” he says. So, one of the high points in his life was when Marico bought the multinational giant’s hair oil brand, Nihar, for Rs 240 crore in 2006.
The dream run of Mariwala and his counterparts at other mid-sized FMCG companies is continuing, and much of the robust growth they are enjoying is at the expense of the FMCG behemoths. Companies such as Marico, Dabur and Godrej Consumer Products (GCPL) have been growing at a compounded annual growth rate of over 20 per cent over the past three years, compared to HUL’s 14 per cent. The respective sales volume growth are 10-15 per cent and 5 per cent.
Analysts say their relatively smaller size is one reason why the mid-tier companies found it easier to respond to the market. For example, towards the end of 2008, raw material and packaging material prices started sliding as oil prices dipped, and these companies were quick in passing on the benefit to consumers by paring product prices. HUL also cut prices but took its own time to do so. Result: HUL’s volumes dipped four per cent in the quarter ended March 2008-09, while the mid-sized FMCG firms clocked a volume growth of over 20 per cent in the same quarter.
Innovative strategies are another reason. For example, Marico’s mantra is to find niches where MNCs are not present, making it easier for the company to dominate that space. The leadership position in products like Saffola and Parachute (over 48 per cent marketshare) is evidence of that. Last year, Marico launched ‘hot oil’, which does away with the need to heat the oil. Likewise, it forayed into services with Kaya clinics (a space vacated by HUL). Kaya clocked close to 60 per cent growth year-on-year in the last financial year.
"We are continuously prototyping and at any given time, have at least five to six products in the test market," said Sameer Satpathy, chief marketing officer, Marico. In the last financial year, the company saw its revenues grow by 25 per cent, to Rs 2,388 crore.
Sunil Duggal, chief executive officer, Dabur, attributes the winning away of market share from established MNCs to the company’s new products and variant launches, and inorganic growth strategy (acquisition of Balsara and Fem). "We saw the fastest organic growth in a decade last year,” Duggal said.
A large part of this growth was volume-driven; Dabur had the highest volume growth in the FMCG industry. In the shampoo market, for instance, Vatika has been the fastest selling brand for three years in a row. Dabur Red Toothpaste has become a Rs 100-crore brand within just five years of its launch. Its skin care portfolio, with Dabur Gulabari, saw a 40 per cent growth in the last financial year.
So, too, for the Rs 1,450 crore GCPL, the soaps and hair colours major, which has been pursuing both organic and inorganic growth. Its international operations now account for Rs 300 crore of its overall revenues, post the acquisitions of Rapidol, Kinky and Keyline. Soaps account for Rs 800 crore of its Rs 1,150 crore domestic revenues. In the last financial year, Nielsen says the company saw its marketshare grow from 9.1 per cent to 9.9 per cent in this category.
Most agree that price is not the only reason why the mid-sized firms have gained marketshare. For example, GCPL Managing Director Deepak Sehgal says Godrej No 1 soap has been gaining marketshare in the downturn even though several rival brands like Breeze, Nirma and Diana were at lower price points. “Others such as Santoor, Rexona and Lux have also dropped their prices and are now in the same price band as us. But we are still gaining traction and are market leaders in five states, which shows there is a preference for the brand," Sehgal said.
Profits of mid-sized FMCG companies also grew at a faster clip than big competitors, due to their better rural focus. GCPL , for example, is planning to increase its marketshare in rural areas to 50 per cent from 38 per cent now, through better pricing and focus on regional advertising. "We have plans to increase our small-town distribution reach from 3,000 to 6,000 and village reach from 17,500 to 50,000 over the next two to three years,” Sehgal said.
Dabur, whose rural sales are now almost half of its overall sales, covers villages with a population of under 3,000 across seven states.