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Achieving customer-management excellence in emerging markets

By Cristina Del Molino, Pavlos Exarchos, and Felipe Ize

Winners ask four critical questions about market-by-market growth, then tailor their channel-management approaches accordingly.

For producers of consumer packaged goods, the road to sustained growth still passes through emerging markets. Despite some softening of enthusiasm for investment in the so-called BRIC markets—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—over the next 15 years nearly three-quarters of the world’s GDP growth will continue to come from emerging-market countries, including Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, and Vietnam. Growth in these parts of the world is being driven by forces that don’t show any signs of weakening: steady population expansion, rapid urbanization, a proliferation of technology, and gradual opening up of economies and adoption of market-oriented policies.

Global packaged-goods producers can gain significant foothold in these markets if they manage talent shortages, infrastructure gaps, and the highly fragmented trade landscape. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to doing this. Our research demonstrates that outperforming consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) companies use a set of standardized practices or tools across markets to determine their priorities for growth in each country. They clearly define their value propositions for customers, achieve optimal distribution, and continually strive to build sustainable operations and organizations. However, to be successful, these companies customize the standardized practices and tools based on the scale and strengths of their companies in particular regions, and local market dynamics and operational conditions.

And, no matter the levers they use, the outperformers consider the use of information technologies and capabilities in advanced analytics and big data to be critical to their success. Digitization has taken hold in many emerging markets, even as other areas of infrastructure in these regions lag behind. In some African countries, for instance, poor roads and travel systems can make it difficult for consumer-goods producers to physically deliver goods to 80 percent of customers in a region—but these same customers can still pick up a mobile phone, operating on a 3G network, and use mobile-payment platforms that don’t even exist in some Western countries. The challenges are great, but so are the opportunities—and technology-enabled approaches can reveal them.

In this article, we outline the obstacles to growth in emerging markets and the potential actions that sales organizations can take to get over these barriers.

Obstacles to growth

Our research shows just how tough it is for global CPG giants—companies with more than $25 billion in global revenue—to compete with regional players. In Latin America, for instance, regional producers are 2.7 times more likely than global giants to grow ahead of the category, achieve above-average earnings, and get high returns on their trade investments (Exhibit 1).1

There are four critical questions companies need to address to achieve customer-management excellence in emerging markets.

There are a number of reasons why it’s been difficult for multinationals to gain ground in emerging markets—perennial issues for global sales and marketing executives. For one, there is typically limited visibility into point-of-sale (POS) information: the small independent players that dominate the retail industry in most emerging markets, collectively known as “fragmented trade,” rarely have the modern POS systems that most developed-market retailers have. Global players often need to invest in creating new information sources, or else risk being unable to spot clear growth opportunities.

Second, consumer heterogeneity and income inequality are the norm in many emerging markets: because of the ethnic, cultural, demographic, and economic differences across or even within countries, there is a greater need for companies to customize products and distribution strategies for local markets.

Third, unstable supply-chain infrastructures hinder consumer-goods producers from providing seamless service throughout a country; second- and third-tier markets are often just too hard to reach.

And finally, companies often face a shortage of skilled sales talent, both internally and among their distribution partners. They typically find that they need to invest more time and resources in field capability-building programs than initially expected.

Varying roads to excellence

Following a decade of work with leading fast-moving consumer-goods companies around the world, we have codified a set of customer- and channel-management best practices that allow CPG companies to address the challenges cited above and capture a disproportionate share of growth in emerging markets.

Specifically, the best-performing companies ask themselves four fundamental questions, the answers to which collectively make up a menu of approaches for achieving customer- and channel-management excellence: What are our growth priorities? What is our distinctive value proposition? How will we deliver on our value proposition? How will we enable change? Companies can apply various tools and technologies to address these four key considerations (Exhibit 2). As the following examples show, the chosen levers and approaches will be different for every company, and even for different business units within a company, depending on strategic intent and local context.

There are four critical questions companies need to address to achieve customer-management excellence in emerging markets.

What are our growth priorities?

CPG companies can use a range of tools to collect the information required to gain a comprehensive view of the potential POS opportunities and areas for operational improvement.

One fast-moving consumer-goods company used prioritization mapping to uncover growth opportunities at the regional, neighborhood, and outlet levels in Latin America. In a pilot study, the company started with a data-driven hypothesis of how various cities in emerging markets would grow over a 20-year period. Sales and marketing leaders worked with internal data analysts to look at age profiles, gender and household behaviors, socioeconomic levels, and other demographics to better understand where and how consumption of its products could change over the next two decades. They also analyzed the consumption of various product categories and saw that, for every category, an increase in purchasing power didn’t necessarily translate into increased consumption. For some products, consumers did not “trade up” to premium lines as their income increased.

The company cross-referenced these city and category perspectives to get a detailed view of those Latin American cities and even those neighborhoods where there was potential to sell more of the company’s products, as well as those pockets where growth had slowed. In addition, the company relied on geospatial analytics technologies to see, store by store, the sales of its products, its on-site share of market for these products, and, therefore, the growth potential. As a result of these findings, the company was able to determine the trade packages, investments, pricing schemes, and product mix that would yield the best results in certain stores and neighborhoods (based on factors such as store size and format, and local consumer income and population). The company was able to boost its sales in the pilot outlets by 40 percent. The new approach also allowed the company to increase penetration by 25 percentage points and its market share by up to 4 percentage points in the pilot outlets.

Once the company identified its highest-priority categories, cities, and outlets, it was able to allocate resources more effectively and make decisions relating to distribution, sales-force effectiveness, and change management more easily.

What is our distinctive value proposition?

Despite not having the breadth and depth of retailer and consumer data that they’re accustomed to having in developed markets, innovative CPG companies are finding ways to tailor their retail and consumer value propositions in ways that will enable success in emerging markets.

One major multicategory food producer was looking to increase its market share in Mexico. The company had been using basic outlet-segmentation strategies to define its service levels and product assortment in various locations, but it had little information about retailers’ and consumers’ behaviors and purchase triggers: which occasions and offers prompted which purchase decisions? Without this data, salespeople struggled to optimize returns from the large number of food categories they managed and from the installation of in-store materials.

The company instituted new IT systems for collecting retailer and shopper insights. Using the newly available data, the company was able to develop a detailed understanding of outlet economics and, consequently, a more sophisticated outlet-segmentation strategy. It was thus able to customize its retailer value propositions, with clear directives and differentiated incentives for outlet owners. For each category or location, the company provided certain customer investments, or “gives”—such as refrigeration, discounts, or training—and it required certain commitments, or “gets,” from the retailer, such as pricing compliance or exclusivity. The specific gives and gets varied, depending on what the retailer valued most and on the potential returns for the company. In certain outlets, the company installed coolers, which ultimately allowed it to sell 20 percent more beverages and other refrigerated goods in those venues. In other locations, the data prompted the company to invest in developing retailer loyalty by visiting stores more frequently or advising them on remodeling and finance issues. In still other locations, the company invested in exhibiting price labels more prominently.

For each category or location, CPG companies should have a list of demand-generation and loyalty offers companies can provide to retailers, and a list of commitments that companies can require from retailers. Insight analysis and other tech-enabled approaches can help companies find the ideal investment situation that will support the desired retailer and consumer value propositions.

How will we deliver on our value proposition?

Global producers of consumer goods often cite unstable supply-chain infrastructures and sourcing conditions as an obstacle to providing seamless delivery and high levels of customer service. The best-performing companies in emerging markets are meticulous about distributor segmentation and view account management from a holistic perspective.

A global spirits company looking to grow its business in Asia conducted an end-to-end transformation of its route-to-market model. The company sought to capture a burgeoning middle class of consumers with a desire for better product access by providing them with a wider selection of whiskies, rums, and vodkas. But the company had to contend with outdated road and rail networks and congested seaports, making product deliveries and sales visits difficult. The company’s sales in this region were inconsistent; promotional displays were often not visible, opportunities for bundling spirits with other beverages were mostly missed, and there were pricing challenges due to regional trade regulations and lax retailer compliance.

The company’s solution was to refine elements of its route-to-market model. Its previous one-size-fits-all structure gave way to a model that encourages differentiated distribution according to customer needs. The company was able to extend its coverage to small or hard-to-reach stores by developing a portfolio of route-to-market options—for instance, continuing direct store delivery with large trucks to critical accounts, while convening “recon” teams with motorized handcarts to visit between 500 and 700 more remote stores per week and validate POS data, inspect promotional displays, and perform price checks as needed.

The company also systematically studied and refined elements of its third-party distributor management. It evaluated distributors based on criteria such as warehousing and logistics capabilities, financial strength and infrastructure, and willingness to partner. The company ranked distributors based on an aggregated score and developed programs in which trade terms were more explicitly linked to the distributor’s performance. Rather than partner with many distributors, it narrowed its relationships to only a few. For these few, the company created plans to address capability gaps. Under this model, partner distributors are managed as an extension of the global spirits company, with standard operating processes, shared sales expertise and incentives, common systems and metrics, and tight performance management.

How will we enable change?

By purposefully embracing and incorporating new tools and technologies, such as geospatial tools, into their organizations, consumer-goods producers may be better able to streamline their sales and distribution processes, train and motivate staffers across the globe, and improve sales results and general performance. Particularly in emerging markets, where the use of mobile technologies is rising rapidly, IT has a central role to play in ensuring standardization and rolling out new and faster ways of working.

Sensor and scanning technologies are already helping many companies improve their sales-force effectiveness in emerging markets: field representatives can use handheld devices to scan coolers in even the most remote outlets, collecting data that can be monitored (via tablets and smartphones, in some cases) and used to forecast sales, demand, and other relevant metrics. As mentioned previously, companies are also using geospatial analytics to create comprehensive outlet and distribution plans.

On the horizon are corporate gaming apps that can be rolled out to sales forces across international locations, even in the most fragmented markets. Imagine a multiplatform gaming program in which sales representatives are challenged on every call to go on a designated number of “missions”—they are given the sales route they need to follow, the tasks to be completed at each outlet, and the time frames in which those tasks must be completed. If they achieve the requisite number of missions, they are rewarded with a certain number of virtual points that can be traded in for both financial and nonfinancial rewards. In this way, sales representatives may be motivated to perform even those tasks that are usually considered uninteresting—for instance, checking competitors’ price lists in certain outlets. Missions are tracked using a common software application and website that salespeople can access through laptops, smartphones, tablets, and social media. A graphic interface allows users to see at a glance, and in real time, not only their own status and productivity levels but those of their colleagues; they can quickly give and receive feedback.

Through these and other technologies, companies can develop new in-house capabilities as well as a mechanism for continuous learning and development. These capabilities can be reinforced by having a dedicated in-market operations unit to, for instance, handle analysis of local data and redesign regional sales routes on the fly. Technology is a powerful ally—but the best-performing companies are those that commit sufficient time (at least three years) and resources to their initiatives in emerging markets.


The companies mentioned in this article systematically and intensely considered the four key questions. But the actions they decided to take to create change or competitive advantage were not fixed or rote; they were based on the local trade environment and on the company’s strategic intent. These companies focused on building partnerships in emerging markets—creating relationships on the ground that could serve as extensions of the organization. They continually monitored their progress against stated goals as well as changing market conditions. And they focused on technology as a means to deal with the channel fragmentation found in emerging markets.

Our research suggests that by asking each of the four critical questions and developing a tailored approach to customer channel management, companies can capture a disproportionate share of growth in emerging markets.

About the author(s)

Cristina Del Molino is a specialist in McKinsey’s London office, Pavlos Exarchos is a director in the Athens office, and Felipe Ize is a principal in the Mexico City office.

The authors wish to thank Simon Land and Matteo Zanin for their contributions to this article.
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