|A consumer walks past a promotinal billboard in the commercial district district of Beijing, China.
Their presentations showed colorful ad campaigns, such as one for Procter & Gamble Co.'s Crest toothpaste that drew heavily on imagery of Mao's Long March -- the grueling year-long journey of 6,000 Chinese Communists, pursued by nationalist forces, as they sought to relocate their headquarters across China in 1934. The parallel to its brand's own victorious march into new geographies was clear.
But after three major economic crises in five years, including most recently one in Brazil, emerging markets are starting to look more like another conflict: Vietnam.
$4.3 billion in losses
Six household and personal products companies covered by Alliance Capital Management's Sanford C. Bernstein have in the past five years written off a whopping $4.3 billion in currency-related losses from emerging markets. Those companies are Avon, Colgate-Palmolive Co., Gillette Co., Clorox Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Procter & Gamble.
"Currency-related losses" are caused when the collapse of local economies deflates the value of the country's currency and, hence, the value of the marketer's local inventories and other assets. Thus, massive losses can happen even
The overall effect of this widespread phenomenon has been muted because currency write-offs don't show up on the corporations' top or bottom lines. But they're equivalent to a tenth of the companies' net incomes over the period. One company -- Colgate-Palmolive -- has lost half of its total book value over the last five years as a result of such emerging market economic trauma.
Analysts smell hype, not hope
The write-offs, combined with suspicions that economic growth and consumption of package goods in emerging markets may never match initial rosy projections, has Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Jim Gingrich and other industry observers beginning to smell hype amid what was once hope.
"In part, it was wishful thinking," said former P&G Chairman-CEO Durk Jager. "We all needed growth, and these markets provided the convenient answer. ... We have now learned that these markets are volatile."
Though still a believer in the long-term potential of emerging markets, Mr. Jager says the focus on them in the 1990s may have come at the expense of fortifying or launching brands in developed markets.
"Our growth for the next five to 10 years, at a minimum, will have to come from growing the mature North American and European markets," he said. This will require focus on innovation, resulting in new-to-the-market products. "That's the course I tried to put P&G on."
It's a course P&G still is on, Mr. Gingrich said, noting that Mr. Jager's successor, A.G. Lafley, has focused on the 10 countries where P&G already does the most business -- a list that excludes most emerging markets.
A P&G spokeswoman noted that P&G's
Currency-related asset write-offs may simply be an unavoidable cost of doing business in emerging markets for the foreseeable future, said Banc of America Securities analyst Bill Steele.
"But for companies to turn their backs on 80% of the world's population would be shortsighted," he said.
Mr. Gingrich sees signs that marketers are tempering their enthusiasm. Beyond P&G, others are taking a harder look at emerging markets.
A few weeks after his company reported $62 million in Argentine currency write-offs, Dial Corp. Chairman-CEO Herb Baum, discussing with analysts and investors
|Kimberly-Clark's 'Huggies' packaging in Argentina.
Dial also recently restructured its Mexican business to license its brands rather than sell them directly.
Kimberly-Clark, meanwhile, ended talks with a Venezuelan papermaker earlier this year prior to last week's currency devaluation there. Even Colgate, despite dominant shares in Latin American toothpaste and household-products categories, is picking fights more selectively in emerging markets -- it last year sold its laundry detergent brands in Mexico to Germany's Henkel.
Michael Hoye, president of consultant Hoye & Partners, Stamford, Conn., and a former Colgate executive, expects more companies to focus on only their strongest brands in emerging markets.
"If somebody ends up with a relatively weak market position [in an emerging market category]," he said, "I think the days of trying to change that are just about over."
Colgate's unique story
But companies are still pushing abroad. Few have been so transformed by
Colgate Chairman-CEO Reuben Mark recently told investors Colgate toothpaste has developed a leading 35% share in China, despite competing with a state-owned brand marketed by Unilever and P&G's Crest. Colgate will branch into other personal and household products in China, he said.
In some ways, emerging markets offer a return to the glory days of U.S. package-goods marketing in the 1950s through 1970s. TV in emerging markets is still cheap and effective while retailers are still relatively small and weak.
But the retail landscape is changing. In Brazil, the market share held by the top five retailers climbed from 26% in 1997 to 43% in 2001, and six of the top seven now have some form of foreign ownership, compared to only one 10 years ago. As global retailers gain power in emerging markets, Mr. Gingrich expects private-label development to accelerate, noting that Clorox has already cited private-label development in Argentina as a factor slowing sales there.