Prabha Narasimhan took over as the MD & CEO of Colgate-Palmolive India in September 2022 after a long stint at HUL. She took over at a challenging time for the oral care major, with inflation crimping demand for consumer goods. But, as she says, the opportunity is huge to grow oral care consumption. Excerpts from an interview:
Colgate has the highest brand awareness among FMCGs and is highly penetrated across the country. How do you intend to increase usage of the brand?
Colgate exists in nine out of ten households in this country, and the significant advantage over the next brand is 5X the awareness and perhaps 3X the penetration. So, Colgate will be at the centre of anything that happens in oral care. So, how do you build oral care consumption in the country? In rural India, only about 45 per cent of consumers brush their teeth every day, so the challenge is to get the other 55 per cent to brush every day. The challenge of good oral health is consistency. Brushing twice daily, as advised by dentists, in urban India is only 20 per cent; moving the remaining 80 per cent to brush twice a day becomes the second opportunity. Once we get consumers adopting the right oral care habits, there is a significant opportunity to boost volume, and on top of that layer the whole premiumisation journey, moving people to electric brushes, and similarly in toothpaste also.
How many stores do your brands reach directly and indirectly?
Colgate’s distribution is an exceedingly efficient powerhouse. The company reaches about 1.7 million outlets directly, which then eventually ends up with the product being available in about six-and-a-half million stores, and the remaining through indirect coverage, which is why the value-weighted distribution of this brand, as befits a brand this size, is also the highest in the oral care category. And this has been worked on a lot, particularly to bring tech into how you reach and service these stores.
For example, for the Smile stores launched last year, the machine learning algorithm takes in data of what has been the history of an outlet, what is the area the outlet’s in, the kind of profile, and what are the other stores in the area. Therefore, what is the right assortment for that given outlet and then it pushes that recommendation down to the field force so that we are constantly upgrading what is available in these stores.
High inflation has been impacting FMCG consumption. How has Colgate been coping?
Last year has been difficult; there has been value growth but not volume growth. And as the prices have increased and with decadal high inflation rates, consumers are obviously feeling the pinch. And, particularly in rural India, we see that the titration of consumption is where the category volume is getting hit. However, we are optimistic that as we go back to the roots of building the oral care habit and talking about the need to brush every day, we expect that consumption will come back because this is the foundation of good health. We are already beginning to see some green shoots on that, particularly in rural areas though it’s early days yet.
How are you leveraging your relationship with dentists?
We’ve recently launched a dentist-first e-commerce platform for information and sale to dentists to allow them to access our specialty products that don’t go through our regular 1.7 million outlet sales system. We are leveraging this relationship to ensure that we are working with them to provide the right technology, for example, mouthwash for when you have braces or mouthwash for when you’ve had implants, and what is the recommendation of oral care in those moments.
Your Q3 results were probably not as good as expected, but how do you see the year panning out for you?
I’m super optimistic about the year. As I said, it just funnels back into whether we see the opportunity for growth and believe that we’re well-placed to take advantage of that opportunity. Sitting where I sit and have a fresh pair of eyes, I think the answer is unequivocal yes to both. The opportunity in this country remains huge, and when one has the joy of having the Colgate brand in your portfolio, you’re certainly best placed to take advantage of that opportunity. So I’m quite optimistic about 2023.
Colgate has launched recyclable tubes and recyclable toothbrushes. Are consumers open to buying this, and is there a price premium?
No consumer is willing to pay (extra) for anything sustainable. At Colgate, we have an unwavering commitment to make sure that we are pushing the sustainability of our portfolio, and that is why we launched recyclable toothpaste tubes, and we’ve made that technology available to everybody; it’s a Colgate patent, but it’s an open patent that allows any company to use it because it’s the right thing to do to make sure that more and more people are using recycled tubes.
However, the intent is not to get consumers to buy it because it’s recyclable. She will buy it because it offers guaranteed protection of fresh breath or whatever benefit she seeks. And our job is to ensure we are providing sustainability in parallel.
As far as recyclable toothbrushes are concerned, it’s an early start to the journey. So far, so good. We’re certainly getting the interest of consumers with this high on their agenda. And this is a space where you will see more launches and action because there’s an opportunity here.
Are recyclable tubes now covering most of your portfolio?
In phases, we are moving it to cover most of our portfolio. It does take some amount of rewiring from the tube suppliers and at our end. In phases, we are constantly moving that up, and in the next couple of years, we will have most of our portfolio.
Is there a price premium to pay for the consumer?
Not to the consumer because our evidence suggests that consumers are unwilling to, actually. It’s not only in India but everywhere globally consumers are not willing to pay incrementally for sustainability. By and large, there are a few green consumers who are potentially eager, but the core of the market is that they’re not.