P&G Has Little to Show a Year After Investor Face-Off

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last October, it felt like Procter & Gamble Co.'s annual meeting might end up being a turning point in the effort to revitalize the company behind brands such as Tide detergent and Crest toothpaste.

Activist investor Nelson Peltz had been agitating for a spot on P&G's board as he called for a long list of changes, and the consumer-goods giant had spent big money to try secure enough votes to deny him a seat at the table. Ultimately, after an extremely close vote, Peltz ended up joining the board, and the feeling was that things were going to change.

But here we are, a year after all that drama, and P&G doesn't have much to show for it.

P&G Has Little to Show a Year After Investor Face-Off

Organic sales — or revenue excluding currency swings and the impact of M&A — only grew 1 percent in the latest fiscal year over the previous period, a figure that came up short of the company's guidance of 2 percent to 3 percent growth.

P&G’s baby-care business had a particularly rough year, as its Luvs brand was pummeled in the U.S. by private-label diaper lines with ultra-low price tags. And the Gillette razor business remains under pressure several years after Dollar Shave Club and others of its ilk first began rattling the market share leader.

P&G Has Little to Show a Year After Investor Face-Off

To be fair, there are some signs of change. P&G acquired upstart deodorant brand Native and skincare line Snowberry, both of which appeal to consumers' growing desire for niche products that promise better-for-you ingredients. Such insurgent brands are a threat to the mass ones in P&G's stable, and the behemoth was right to bring them under its tent.

P&G has also made demonstrable improvements in its China business, an important pillar of its future. Its Olay skincare brand, for example, is growing explosively in that market, thanks to spiffier packaging, updated in-store counters and an effective ad campaign.

P&G Has Little to Show a Year After Investor Face-Off

If P&G were a painting, you could get up close to it and see individual brush strokes that look like progress. Problem is, when you look at the whole canvas, you see much the same picture you saw at this time last year: a giant consumer-goods company that must move more quickly to adapt to a transformed retail environment and that needs to be bolder in its pursuit of change.

It may be that it simply will take more time for us to see the results of P&G and Peltz putting their heads together. While the nail-biter shareholder vote took place a year ago, Peltz only officially joined the board in March. But investors seem to be growing skeptical, and I don't blame them. 

P&G Has Little to Show a Year After Investor Face-Off

With the U.S. economy as strong as it is, there is little excuse for any consumer brand that doesn't perform well in this geographic market. 

And big retailers don’t appear to be letting up in their pursuit of more enticing private-label goods. Target Corp., for example, just announced this week a new private brand called Smartly, which will include products such as razor blades and dishwashing powder, with many items costing less than $2. P&G and its competitors must do more to show they can withstand that fresh pressure and come up with answers of their own.

P&G may yet find fresh momentum with some help from Peltz. But so far, after all the money and effort thrown at the proxy fight, the showdown doesn't appear to have catalyzed true transformation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.