Is P&G Overextending Itself?

Recession-smacked Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) may not be making all the right moves these days, but it certainly isn't sitting still, either.

Fall 2009 saw the consumer-staples bellwether lower prices on roughly 10% of its products. Shortly thereafter, management was talking up fresh product strategies, dropping phrases such as "value messaging" and "value-tier offerings" -- possibly indicating a permanent push into lower-priced segments.

The latest development, however, sees P&G trying to squeeze more sales out of its most popular brands. That move could flop badly.

Let's take the example of the Olay skin-care brand, which brought in sales of roughly $2.8 billion in fiscal-year 2009. The Wall Street Journal reports that P&G is planning to roll out a wrinkle-fighting body wash next month under Olay's Total Effects line, which currently consists exclusively of facial products.

But given Olay's history as a facial treatment, why connect the head bone to the arm bone?

Well, in terms of marketing and development, it's both cheaper and faster to extend established brands into new categories than to build a fresh brand from scratch. And the current Olay strategy is nothing new: P&G has recently made similar moves with its Tide and Febreeze brands, and the Olay brand itself has been expanding across categories and price points for years, with body washes already offered under the Body Cleansing line.

The trouble, argue some marketing experts, is that offering too many products under the same brand runs the risk of confusing consumers. Said differently, at what point does an effort to expand brand sales give way to brand dilution?

The question applies equally to value-oriented versions of traditionally premium brands, a move that P&G has made with Pampers and Tide. In order for such a move to succeed, the consumer messaging leaves no room for error. Shoppers must believe that the premium product is still worth the extra cost while also viewing the value version as a step up from the store brand. That's a tricky task, which is why no matter how deeply the economy ever slumps, we'll likely never see Porsche competing with Ford (NYSE: F  ) or Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN  ) going after TJX (NYSE: TJX  ) .

I've supported P&G's entrance into the value segment, and sales results indicate that consumers are responding positively. The Olay strategy, however, strikes me as potentially more challenging. It's not competition that I worry about: Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT  ) Equate-brand body wash and Unilever's (NYSE: UL  ) Axe products appeal to separate demographics. Rather, it's the potential consumer mentality. I mean, if a body wash is good enough to smooth wrinkles on my elbows, why not save an additional purchase and use it on my face, too?

P&G plans to introduce 30% more new products this year versus last, so in all seriousness, investors should keep an eye on the consumer reception. Depending on how things proceed, P&G may not be able to have its cake and eat it, too. Which means either investing the time and money in new brands, or expanding through acquisition.

Regarding the latter, I've often mused whether P&G might have its sights locked on the fast-growing Church & Dwight (NYSE: CHD  ) , especially because 40% of the latter's product portfolio is positioned in the value segment.

We'll have to wait to see about that. In the meantime, I'll be studying up on the differences between Olay Definity, Regenerist, Professional, Total Effects, and, dare I say it, Complete.

Procter & Gamble and Unilever are Motley Fool Income Investor choices. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value recommendation. Ford Motor is a Stock Advisor selection. Unilever is also a Global Gains pick. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Mike Pienciak owns shares of Church & Dwight but holds no financial interest in any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has an anti-aging disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2010, at 6:10 PM, MrOppy wrote:

    This is a problem with the Nordstrom vs. TJX comparison; Nordstrom is attempting to go after TJX. Even is it is only in its own space. The Nordstrom Rack brand is their version of an off-price retailer and it certainly is not just a clearance center for the flagship Nordstrom brand. They buy for this outlet. Maybe the automotive comparison is still clean, but unlike automobiles, P&G does not completely control its distribution network. Ultimately, both premium and value consumer outlets carry P&G brands and the control over exclusivity can be easily lost.

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