Unicharm Moves West: Japanese Nappies/Diapers to be Sold in Latin America

In 2012, Japanese manufacturer Unicharm announced plans to expand its nappies/diapers operations in Latin America via production sites in Brazil and Mexico. Production in Brazil, where nappies/diapers/pants sales reached US$3 billion in 2013, is set to commence in early 2014.

But what brings Unicharm to Brazil? Growth in nappies/diapers is set to slow, with a 2.3% constant value CAGR predicted over the 2013-2018 forecast period compared to 8.5% over 2008-2013, which suggests that the company may well have missed the boat. The market is reaching maturity, at least in volume terms, with penetration standing at 65% in 2013, and there is also the difficulty in gaining distribution in what is becoming an increasingly competitive retail channel.

Pants Just for Potty Training? Not in Asia Pacific

At first glance, it appears that Brazil offers less growth potential than, for example, emerging markets in the Middle East and Africa, where nappies/diapers usage is still in its infancy. However, Unicharm could gain a foothold in the market by focusing on disposable pants, in which it holds a competitive advantage. The company has developed highly efficient production techniques which have already helped it to succeed in low-income countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, where disposable pants account for (a somewhat surprising) 50% of total nappies/diapers sales.

Parents in Asia Pacific appreciate the convenience of disposable pants, especially when changing children outside the home, and the price difference with open-type nappies/diapers is less significant. In addition, in Asia Pacific disposable pants are less often regarded as training pants and are available in sizes from extra small to triple extra large.

Disposable pants in Brazil has remained something of a niche due to a lack of product choice. Only recently, Kimberly-Clark launched Huggies Turma da Mônica Proteção Veste Fácil training pants, whereas Procter & Gamble offers only swimming pants. Manufacturers have been hesitant to launch disposable pants due to prohibitive costs compared to traditional open-style nappies/diapers. The experience with Unicharm to date suggests that the company is about to turn this preconception on its head.

Competitive Landscape

With growth decelerating and sales in disposable pants remaining negligible, the category’s value growth opportunities will depend partly on Unicharm’s efforts to penetrate the market and, ultimately, its success in convincing consumers that what is a novel format is relevant to them.

Leading players Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Hypermarcas held a combined market share of over 70% in 2013. Smaller manufacturers have lost share amidst such competition so Unicharm will certainly face resistance and this is most likely to come in terms of price.

It would not be unrealistic to expect Unicharm to gain a foothold in the market because parents seem to be fairly content with the quality of its products. On leading parenting forums, parents praise Unicharm’s disposable pants for being very convenient to change while also leaking far less than leading competitor brands. Quality seems to be the main driver behind consumer product choice in retail hygiene because no parent wants a leaking nappy. Satisfied customers could spread the word and so word-of-mouth recommendation could work in Unicharm’s favour.

From a Regional to a Multinational Player

Unicharm’s decision to expand in Latin America underpins the company’s ambition to become a truly international player and compete with the likes of Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark. However, with the Brazilian market slowly reaching saturation, volume growth will be much slower than in the recent past and it will not be easy to steal share from well-established brands.

Offering disposable pants at a competitive price point and encouraging parents to trade up from open-type nappies/diapers could be the right strategy for Unicharm in this market and could also reinvigorate the category’s value growth. However, as disposable pants have not yet been able to gain momentum in the Brazilian market, it might be difficult for an Asian company to draw consumers into a niche category.

But, if Unicharm succeeds in Latin America, the world will be its oyster and the company could tap into other countries which have traditionally been dominated by Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark.