Summary:

  • Business leaders like consistency
  • Consistency leads to repetition, sameness, and lower rates of return
  • Kraft's product lines are consistent, but without growth
  • Kraft's value has been stagnant for 10 years
  • Disruptive competitors make higher rates of return, and grow
  • Disruptive competitors have higher valuations – just look at Groupon

"Needless consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds" – Ralph Waldo Emerson

That was my first thought when I read the MediaPost.com Marketing Daily article "Kraft Mac & Cheese Gets New, Unified Look." Whether this 80-something year old brand has a "unified" look is wholly uninteresting.  I don't care if all varieties have the same picture – and if they do it doesn't make me want to eat more powdered cheese and curved noodles. 

In fact, I'm not at all interested in anything about this product line.  It is kind of amusing, in an historical way, to note that people (largely children) still eat the stuff which fueled my no-cash college years (much like ramen noodles does for today's college kids.)  While there's nothing I particularly dislike about the product, as an investor or marketer there's nothing really to like about it either.  Pasta products always do better in a recession, as people look for cheaper belly-fillers (especially for the kid,) so that more is being sold the last couple of years doesn't tell me anything I would not have guessed on my own.  That the entire category has grown to only $800M revenue across this 8 decade period only shows that it's a relatively small business with no excitement!  Once people feel their finances are on firm footing sales will soon taper off.

Kraft's Mac & Cheese is emblematic of management teams that lock-in on defending and extending old businesses – even though the lack of growth leaves them struggling to grow cash flow and create a decent valuation.  Introducing multiple varieties of this product has not produced growth that even matched inflation across the years.  Primarily, marketing programs have been designed to try keeping existing customers from buying something else.  This most recent Kraft program is designed to encourage adults to try a product they gave up eating many years ago.  This is, at best, "foxhole" marketing.  Spending money largely just to keep the brand from going away, rather than really expecting any growth.  Truly, does anyone think this kind of spending will generate a billion dollar product line in 2011 – or even 2012?

What's wrong with defensive marketing, creating consistency across the product line – across the brand – and across history?  It doesn't produce high rates of return.  There are lots of pasta products, even lots of brands of mac & cheese.  While Kraft's product surely produces a positive margin, multiple competitors and lack of growth means increased spending over time merely leaves the brand producing a marginal rate of return. Incremental ad spending doesn't generate real growth, just a hope of not losing ground.  We know people aren't flocking to the store to buy more of the product.  New customers aren't being identified, and short-term growth in revenues does not yield the kinds of returns that would enhance valuation and make the world a better place for investors – or employees.

While Kraft is trying to create headlines with more spending in a very tired product, across town in Chicago Groupon has created a $500M revenue business in just 2 years!  And new reports from the failed acquisition attempt by Google indicate revenues are likely to reach $2B in 2011 (CNNMoney.com, Fortune, "Google's Groupon Groping Reveals the Shifting Power of the Web World.")  Where's Kraft in this kind of growth market?  After all, coupons for Kraft products have been in mailers and Sunday inserts for 50 years.  Why isn't Kraft putting money into a real growth business, which is producing enormous value while cash flow grows in multiples?  While Groupon has created somewhere around $6B of value in 2 years, Kraft's value has only gone sideways for the last decade (chart at Marketwatch.com.)

Kraft has not introduced a new product since — well — DiGiorno.  And that's been more than a decade.  While the company has big revenues – so did General Motors.  The longer a company plays defense, regardless of size, trying to extend its outdated products (and business model) the riskier that business becomes.  While big revenues appear to offer some kind of security, we all know that's not true.  Not only does competition drive down margins in these older businesses, but newer products make it harder and harder for the old products to compete at all.  Eventually, the effort to maintain historical consistency simply allows competitors to completely steal the business away with new products, creating a big revenue drop, or producing such low returns that failure is inevitable.

Lots of business people like consistency.  They like consistency in how the brand is executed, or how products are aligned.  They like consistency in the technology base, or production capabilities.  They like consistency in customers, and markets.  They like being consistent with company history – doing what "made the company famous."  They like the similarity of doing something again, and again, hoping that consistency will produce good returns. 

But consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.  And those who are more clever find ways to change the game.  Xerox figured out how to let everyone be a one-button printer, and killed the small printing press manufacturers.  HP's desktop printers knocked the growth out of Xerox.  Google figured out a better way to find information, and place ads, just about killing newspapers (and magazines.)  Apple found a better way to use mobile minutes, taking a big bite out of cell phone manufacturers. Amazon found a better way to sell things, killing off bookstores and putting a world of hurt on many retailers.  Netflix found a better way of distributing DVDs and digital movies, sending Blockbuster to bankruptcy.  Infosys and Tata found a better way of doing IT services, wiping out PWC and nearly EDS.  Hulu (and soon Netflix, Google and Apple) has found a better way of delivering television programming, killing the growth in cable TV.  Groupon is finding a better way of delivering coupons, creating huge concerns for direct mail companies.  Now tablet makers (like Apple) are demonstrating a better way of working remotely, sending shivers of worry down the valuation of Microsoft. These companies, failed or in jeapardy, were very consistent.

Those who create disruptions show again and again that they can generate growth and above average returns, even in a recession.  While those who keep trying to defend and extend their old business are letting consistency drive their behavior – leading to intense competition, genericization, and lower rates of return.  Maybe Kraft should spend more money looking for the next food we would all like, rather than consistently trying to convince us we want more Mac & Cheese (or Velveeta).

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