What’s Consumer Products Companies’ Best Defense against Inflation?
In evidenza
  • In today’s inflationary environment, price increases and standard playbooks won’t be enough.
  • Revenue growth management can help consumer products companies deliver value for retailers and consumers.
  • Leading companies will take bold actions now, while laying the groundwork for a sustainable RGM program in the long term.

In June, the US inflation rate hit 9.1%, the highest since 1981, causing input costs to surge and compressing margins. Supply chain bottlenecks and shortages continue to strain operations. Truckload, less-than-truckload, and specialized transportation costs jumped 25% between January 2020 and January 2022. And widespread labor shortages persist.

As the building pressure of these forces squeezes their profit pools, manufacturers and retailers are fighting to deliver value to consumers. For consumer products companies in particular, these massive macroeconomic disruptions call for a sweeping and dynamic response across several pillars: supply chain resilience, operational productivity, design-to-value programs, and revenue growth management (RGM).

Of these, RGM tends to deliver value the fastest. In this environment, consumer products companies need to proactively develop comprehensive RGM strategies that enlarge the overall profit pool. Those that do will emerge from the current storm with stronger margins, win-win retailer relationships, clearer value for their consumers, and a stronger position for future RGM actions.

The RGM imperative

During the first waves of inflation, most consumer products companies increased prices to partially cover rising input costs. They hoped for a quick return to normal, or at least the ability to cover any remaining pressures by containing costs. However, as high inflation has persisted over the past year, many companies have found their initial increases were insufficient. Some have already made multiple rounds of additional pricing adjustments; others are deliberating more.

At the same time, retailers are looking for partners that can help them deliver value for consumers. As John Furner, CEO of Walmart US, said, “At a time when prices are rising in so many parts of the economy, being able to offer customer value and fight inflation is what we do. It's what our merchants do.”

In addition to market turbulence, the rules have changed for many categories. The Covid-19 pandemic shook up consumption habits and patterns, prompting shifts in product offerings and channels. Many of those changes have endured, but others are reverting, further muddying the waters for consumer products companies and retailers as they try to meet consumers’ needs.

Today, it’s more important than ever for consumer products companies to build durable and flexible strategies that can withstand continued inflation and supply pressures. With no clear end in sight, programs that address the full suite of RGM elements—including pricing, assortment, price-pack architecture, promotions, and trade terms—will be vital value-creation muscles.

Four steps to sustainable RGM

Winning companies will be those that can seize the current moment with bold, decisive actions to address the near term, while building strategies for the medium and long term. They won’t simply revert to a standard playbook of changing line prices and restarting previous programs. Instead, leaders will take four steps to exhaust the full RGM tool kit and unlock value for both retail customers and consumers.

No. 1: Evaluate the total portfolio mix and prices

Industry leaders will find opportunity in turbulence by optimizing portfolio pricing for their company, retailers, and consumers. They understand this is a chance to take corrective action that can be harder to execute under standard conditions.

Companies can start by reevaluating the entire portfolio and the price gaps against both competitors and private label products. By understanding shifts in consumer behavior, they can get the price-incentive curve right. They can also use pricing changes to shift their product mix toward their most profitable offerings. Finally, leading companies are mindful of key price points or thresholds, taking the opportunity to break through price stickiness where possible, while leaving headroom for future price increases.

For instance, one household products manufacturer recognized the consumer trend in bulk buying—a shift partially resulting from the pandemic stock-up frenzy. Yet compared with competitors, the company had historically underpriced its larger pack sizes. It implemented a thoughtful, weighted, single-digit price increase across the portfolio, with a disproportionate increase for larger packs. This move effectively corrected its curve and aligned the value-for-money equation for retailers and consumers.

No. 2: Reset promotional investments

As leading companies restart promotions after the pandemic, they’re pausing to reevaluate their promotional strategies. They’re rethinking how they can expand the category and create a win-win-win situation that maximizes value for themselves, retailers, and consumers.

Historically, around 80% of promotional investments have failed to contribute to category growth. To avoid the common pitfalls, leadership teams can start by asking themselves several questions: What’s the role of promotion within our category—for instance, to increase household penetration and consumption incrementally, or win share? Is that role different in an inflationary environment? If so, how?

Once they define the role of promotions, they’ll need a deep understanding of promotion performance—one that goes beyond measuring sales increases to collecting granular data on the return on investment (ROI). Best-in-class companies take an unconstrained view, then diligently factor in customer and supply constraints, to limit low-ROI promotional activities.

To break their prepandemic status-quo promotions, a test-and-learn approach will be crucial. Companies can identify and scale winning promotions for all customers to build stronger, battle-tested promotional strategies. For example, one food manufacturer recently started comparing its different promotions across different regions to determine which were performing best. It was able to pivot its focus to the highest-ROI events, improving margins.

No. 3: Rebase total customer investments

Industry standouts are completely rebasing their customer investments, including consumer promotions, fulfillment efficiency programs, retailer media, in-store assets, sales rep coverage, and data.

These companies determine the right consumer-back programs for online and in-store, in order to encourage innovation, push specific activation, and more. Leading consumer products companies also address inefficiencies, lower the cost-to-serve across the system, and allocate investments to the highest-value areas. We’ve seen companies do this through three steps.

  • Analyzing individual costs by channel and customer at each step of the value curve, in order to isolate channels and retailers that order higher-cost products.
  • Sizing up the total value on the table from best-in-class partnerships, by determining which retailer ordering patterns and inventory management practices lead to the lowest system costs for the company and its partners.
  • Rewarding retailers for the right behaviors with the right incentives and give them teeth, in order to establish efficient win-win partnerships.

For example, facing rising freight costs, one leading food and beverage company implemented a program that required customers to order full truckloads of specific SKUs. The program significantly improved truck fill rates and helped mitigate system costs.

Finally, as companies rethink their investments, they’ll also need to rebalance them between customers and fulfilment models, to put their dollars behind areas of future growth.

No. 4: Capitalize on the present, while planning for the future

Best-in-class consumer goods companies are acting now to capture the opportunity at hand. But they’re also building the right capabilities and strategies for the future, understanding that a strong RGM program requires a long view. With every action they take today, they’re conscious of their next round of actions, ensuring flexibility for the future.

A programmatic approach is critical. Companies can build a two- to three-year integrated RGM roadmap for each channel and customer. They can also invest in the analytic capabilities necessary to unlock more precise insights in areas like the ROI of promotions or the total cost-to-serve.

The companies that do this best will differentially invest in more frequent conversations and planning with key retailers. They’ll use win-win-win promotional strategies and total customer investment plans to cocreate medium- and long-term strategies.

Pricing is the most critical tool to address consumer products companies’ challenges in the near term. Inflation-based list-price increases won’t be enough to navigate today’s turbulence. Those that come out on top will redefine their RGM strategies now, maximizing growth and profitability not only for themselves, but also for their retail partners.

The authors would like to thank Bain Senior Managers David Fall and Will Ficken for their contributions to this brief.


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