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Fractal Branding – Voice or Noise?

July 16th, 2009 by Devangshu Dutta

The grocery market is loud. From the times when food markets were in streets and town squares, hawkers have cried out their wares, and the freshness or newness of everything made evident to the customers passing by. So, I guess, it is no surprise that today’s FMCG and food market is also tuned to high-decibel promotion.

You don’t need to search too long for the reason – margins are generally thin on these frequent-use products and inventories need to move fast. And what you don’t make a noise about may not be visible to the customer and may remain unsold.

But if that was the whole story, most players should be focussing on one brand, or at most a few brands, and should be using their advertising budgets to maximum effect on these.

Instead we see exactly the reverse phenomenon in the market – more brands, more sub-brands, more varieties of everything. Why? Because newness sells – it creates excitement, anticipation, and in customers with a sense of experimentation it creates the urge to buy.

The old proven method of doing this was the “New Improved” starburst on the pack. The slicker, updated method is to launch a new variety that is apparently different in some way. For instance, if the old supplement helped to strengthen bones, the new line might contain separate “child” and “adult” versions (growth vs. osteoporosis). The old shampoo might have helped to keep hair clean and prevent dandruff – the new one might leave the customer wondering if she should pick the dandruff-fighter that also reduces hair loss, or the variety that makes her hair glossy, or even the one that provides a date for the next weekend! By the time she reaches the end of the shelf, she might have forgotten that her need essentially was to prevent dandruff.

Due to this, the grocery and FMCG product mix is fractal. Each grocery shelf or grocery store is susceptible to fragmentation. Each such fraction is supposed to act as the seed that can allow a new segment in the market or a new use occasion to grow, and provide the FMCG company or the retailer with an avenue for additional business. This phenomenon is particularly visible in a growing consumption environment – consumption feeds proliferation, while proliferation provides further occasions to consume.

However, an unfortunate outcome of this proliferation of brands and SKUs is the heightened noise, in which the brand often loses its unique voice. Also, over time, the brand may be too thinly spread or be undifferentiated from its competitors, and its sales only sustained through ever increasing bouts of expensive advertising – a vicious spiral.

Another issue is the real estate availability and the cost. Chris Anderson wrote about “the long tail” about 5 years ago – the myriad products for which the market is limited, but demand may be sustained over a long period of time through internet sales. However, while the long tail works for e-commerce businesses such as Amazon that carry limited inventory, the physical store runs out of space for micro-segment items very quickly.

All of these factors obviously start hurting visibly when the market turns down, and when marketing investments start being evaluated against the returns. This is when proliferation starts giving way to “rationalization”, reduction of the brand portfolio, narrowing the SKU focus.

We are already seeing signs of this in many of the developed modern retail markets currently, where retailers and their suppliers are closely analyzing which parts of their portfolio they need to sustain, and which they need to drop.

The story in the Indian market is slightly different for a variety of reasons.

First, the market is still growing, and for most FMCG suppliers there are vast expanses of the market are still blank canvases.

Secondly, India has been a branded supplier driven market for a long time, and remains so, by and large. However, the SKU and brand density is nowhere close to what is seen in the West. There is plenty of headroom still for new varieties to be added and new brands to be developed.

But possibly the most important factor is the new modern retailers, who are desperately seeking additional sources of margin. When there is a limit to the traffic that you can divert from traditional mom-and-pop stores, and when you hit the glass ceiling on transaction values per customer, proliferation becomes the game to play. Therefore, these retailers are either busy introducing own labels or encouraging new branded vendors who would offer them higher margins than the more established brands.

Own label is obviously the tricky one. The customer needs to feel comfortable with the switch – in the US, a study showed that consumers would more easily switch to own label merchandise in categories where the “risk” was perceived to be low (such as household goods, rather than children’s products). Also, the best own label gross margins typically come from products that are presented to the consumer as “brands” comparable to national branded products, because the pricing is more on par.

So, on the retailer’s part, this requires sophistication of product development and brand management that may be expensive and may need time to develop. A short-cut could be the acquisition of an existing brand, its entire assets including the organisation, as some retailers have been reportedly looking to do. How well they integrate the brands into their businesses remains to be seen.

In the long term, like their counterparts in more developed markets, these retailers may also come to the point where they wonder whether these owned brands offer them enough return on the expense and the management effort spent on them, or whether they would be better off just buying brands that consumers are already familiar with through multiple channels.

In the short term, however, we can expect proliferation, fragmentation, fractalization in all its forms. We can expect the illusion of plenty of choice to continue driving sales, and more and more products to fulfil needs that even the customer doesn’t know he has.

Posted in Branding, COLUMN-Progressive Grocer, Consumer, Food & Grocery, India, Marketing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Strategy, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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