HUL revs up amid stiff competition from Patanjali

Riding on better rural demand, growth is back at India's largest consumer goods company

After studying law I vectored towards journalism by accident and it's the only job I've done since. It's a job that has taken me on a private jet to Jaisalmer - where I wrote India's first feature on fractional ownership of business jets - to the badlands of west UP where India's sugar economy is inextricably now tied to politics. I'm a big fan of new business models and crafty entrepreneurs. Fortunately for me, there are plenty of those in Asia at the moment.

g_102881_patanjali_280x210.jpg Image(from left to right): Priyanka Parashar / Mint Via Getty Images; Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Recent quarterly numbers at Hindustan Unilever (HUL) showed why it is so hard to bet against India’s largest consumer goods company. Despite the increased competition from rivals Patanjali Ayurved, Dabur and Marico, the company clocked an 11 percent year-on-year volume growth. The better-than-expected numbers can partly be explained by a 4 percent decline in volumes during the same quarter last year but they were equally the result of an uptick in growth in rural India.

“While it would be fair to say that rural markets have shown better growth, I would like to wait for another two quarters before I can point to a definitive trend,” said Sanjiv Mehta, CEO of Hindustan Unilever during the results press conference. For the company, and the consumer goods sector in general, the scars of two successive bad monsoons in 2015 and 2016 as well as the demand shock brought about by the demonetisation of high-value currency notes are still raw. More recently, the implementation of the goods and services tax also caused some turbulence in their distribution channels.

What surprised analysts was the fact that the company cut expenses marginally by 0.4 percent while at the same time increasing advertising expenses by a whopping 25 percent to ₹1,107 crore. The company said it plans to continue with the increased advertising as the competitive intensity among consumer companies has increased. What they’ve saved in the form of lower GST rates has either been passed on to the consumer through price reductions or increased grammage or ploughed back in the form of advertising. Clearly, HUL is planning to fight tooth and nail rival Patanjali, whose co-founder Baba Ramdev has said that he plans to beat HUL’s topline in the year ending March 2019.

g_102861_hul_280x210.jpg
While refusing to brush aside the Patanjali threat, Mehta did point out that “we’ve added Patanjali’s topline of ₹12,000 crore over the last five years”. As of now, HUL is more than two and a half times larger than Patanjali at ₹34,400 crore. HUL has also boosted its presence in the herbal and Ayurveda space with its Ayush and Indulekha brands. The company internally termed the opportunity in naturals as the next megatrend and is expected to launch toothpaste, shampoo, conditioners and facewashes under the Ayush brand, according to a report by Edelweiss Securities.

What could trip growth? First, rising commodity prices mean that HUL and its rivals would have to pass on price hikes to consumers. This could trip growth in low unit price packs where consumers are sensitive to price rises. Second, a poor monsoon or a pull back in government spending or a lower-than-expected rise in minimum support prices could result in less money in the hands of rural consumers and lesser sales.

Show More
Meet The Fixers: 8 Experts Who Have Reinvented Cyber Security
Govt must focus on reforms in direct tax, job creation: Shobana Kamineni