It is perhaps apt it should be Nestle that demonstrates the way the discourse about emerging markets is changing.
Nestle has been doing business in some of what are now the fastest-growing markets for over a century; last year marked 100 years since the Swiss food giant’s sales agents started work in India. Emerging markets are, of course, nothing new.
However, what is new is these markets can now account for 40-60% of a multinational’s business. And, where as a decade ago, the conversation around emerging markets was purely about growth, now it is about performance. Now, it is about returns.
“You can’t just chase growth you have to chase profit as well. They have a material impact on the bottom line,” Andrew Cosgrove, global lead analyst for consumer products at Ernst & Young, told the Consumer Analyst Group of Europe conference in London last month.
The attention on the performance of businesses in emerging markets has also increased as economies like China show signs of slowing (although of course GDP growth of 7-8% is nothing to be sniffed at when compared to Western economies).
Last week, Nestle, which says 43% of its sales come from emerging markets, reported its slowest sales growth for almost four years amid a weaker performance from its operations in parts of Asia and Africa. The world’s largest food manufacturer cited distribution problems in central Africa and said a factory in Syria – a key supplier to its Middle East operations – was destroyed. However, looking at its operations across the division, Nestle insisted it expects its growth to improve.
Nevertheless, the results for the first quarter of the year have added to the recent concern over the performance of this division. “Zone AOA was clearly not a one-off issue as it enters its third consecutive quarter with mid-single-digits growth,” Sanford Bernstein analyst Andrew Wood said.
Of course, one cannot generalise about Nestle’s businesses across three continents. There were some sweet spots; it said sales in China, for example, were increasing at a double-digit rate.
However, the scrutiny of the multinationals’ emerging market operations is increasing as the countries account for a bigger chunk of each business and amid a cooling of some economies. PepsiCo was rightly praised for its performance in emerging markets when it reported its own first-quarter results last week. And Danone‘s Q1 sales were boosted by its infant formula operations in Asia.
“There is more of a focus on: ‘Ok, emerging markets but what part of the emerging markets?” Kepler Capital Markets analyst Jon Cox says. “If you are some parts of the market where competition is very intense from the locals, you are probably not getting a very good return. In other cases, if you have grabbed a lot of share already and the locals are pretty subdued – you can talk about infant formula of course – you are doing very well.”
He adds: “Overall, I do think there is something a little bit more Nestle-specific. We’ll have to see what Unilever comes out with. Maybe some of the categories aren’t quite working so well compared to the other guys. Or, in the case of Danone, they have a lot of infant nutrition; Nestle doesn’t.”
This week, Unilever is set to publish its first-quarter sales. Whether Nestle’s issues are specific to the company or symptomatic of a wider slowdown in emerging markets will become clearer when its rival reports on Thursday.