Panasonic's Power Play

A few months back, in the course of looking at which companies stand to profit from the new wave of hybrid vehicles being offered by automakers such as Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , and Ford (NYSE: F  ) , we came across one battery maker in particular who, while it may not seem familiar, actually is a household name. The company, Matsushita Electric (NYSE: MC  ) -- better known by the name of its premier brand, Panasonic -- licenses nickel metal hydride technology from an American company, Energy Conversion Devices (Nasdaq: ENER  ) , and uses it to make the batteries used in the automakers' buggies.

That's Panasonic's cutting-edge business. The company is also a leading maker of rechargeable batteries of a size better suited to fit inside a boom box or digital camera.

So Panasonic holds leading positions in two battery markets already. And according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Panasonic is now going for the triple crown -- aiming to build a better disposable battery and capture market share there as well. Right now, the market for everyday disposable batteries is dominated by the Big Two: Energizer (NYSE: ENR  ) and Gillette's (NYSE: G  ) Duracell. Between them, these power pals control roughly 80% of the U.S. disposable battery market. As of now, Panasonic's share barely registers in comparison to those two titans.

But that might be about to change. Panasonic has found a way to cram more juice into a standard-size battery package, and at a cost that looks likely to attract any consumer capable of dividing hours of use by price to conclude which battery offers the most bzzzz for the buck. The company calls its new offering the "Oxyride," and, according to the Journal, it lasts about 50% longer than an ordinary alkaline battery but will retail for just 12.5% more.

So for example, let's say your typical alkaline costs $1.50 and will power a boom box for 10 hours. An equivalent size Oxyride would cost $1.69 and play for 15 hours. Given the choice between paying $0.15 per hour for an alkaline battery or $0.11 for an Oxyride, this should be a no-brainer for your average consumer. The key factor will be for Panasonic to overcome its reputation as a "no-name" in this market -- to convince consumers to do the math and buy its product over inferior-performing but better-branded products.

That won't be an easy thing to accomplish. Winning a triple crown never is. But if Panasonic can establish its brand as the premium performer in this space, its investors should be well-rewarded.

Fool contributorRich Smithowns no shares of any company mentioned in this article.


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