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Competing for the Global Middle Class

Three types of companies are jockeying for position in emerging economies, seeking to capture the loyalty of billions of new consumers.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

In the 1920s, when Alfred P. Sloan Jr. reorganized General Motors Company, he promised shareholders “a car for every purse and purpose.” Sloan tapped into a teeming middle-class market of Americans who couldn’t afford luxury cars, but nonetheless wanted product options far beyond the “any color so long as it’s black” Model T Ford. This immense U.S. middle-class cohort propelled GM past Ford into a leadership position among carmakers that lasted for the rest of the century.

Today, leaders of multinational corporations have a similarly lucrative opportunity on a much bigger playing field: a global middle-class market. This worldwide economic phenomenon encompasses a huge customer base. In 2011, it includes about 400 million people in the mature middle classes of the U.S., Europe, and Japan, and another 300 to 500 million people, depending on how the middle class is defined, in emerging economies. (The World Bank defines middle class as people who are above the median poverty line of their own countries. This might make them poor by the standards of Europe or the U.S., but gives them enough purchasing power to become consumers of manufactured goods and services.) This new global middle class is particularly evident in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, Vietnam, and other countries with relatively large working populations and rapid economic growth rates.

The middle class in each of these emerging economies has its own unique profile of demand. However, they all have one thing in common: They are recovering from the global recession with an increasingly urbanized lifestyle, and their numbers are expanding at very high rates, especially compared with the rest of the world. The value chain of companies that provide this population with goods, services, and infrastructure is becoming known as the “global middle market.” Companies that secure leading positions within that market could well become the 21st-century equivalents of Alfred Sloan’s General Motors.

One such company may be China’s Haier Group. In 1985, Haier was a bankrupt domestic refrigerator manufacturer. Product quality was so bad that general manager Zhang Ruimin (now chairman and CEO) built his case for change by lining up 76 defective units and ordering workers to destroy them with sledgehammers. Today, one of the sledgehammers is on display in corporate headquarters, and Haier is one of the world’s largest appliance makers — a multinational corporation with a reputation for world-class quality and 2010 revenues approaching US$20 billion.

Zhang put in place three successive strategic initiatives, aimed, respectively, at improving product quality, expanding globally, and diversifying the company’s product line: for example, offering washers at a range of price points for consumers in different income segments, just as GM did with its cars early in the 20th century. Then, in December 2005, Zhang announced a new thrust. Haier would stop shipping products from China to the rest of the world; instead, it would design and manufacture products elsewhere, customizing them for specific national and regional markets. Today, Haier produces extra-large-capacity washers that can accommodate the robes of Middle East consumers; electronically sophisticated washers that can cope with the frequent power fluctuations in India; whisper-quiet, timer-equipped washers for Italians who want to take advantage of the lower power rates available late at night; and other locally targeted variants.

Haier is not the only company that has transformed itself to seek a share of the global middle-class market. In a variety of industries — including consumer packaged goods, electronics, automobiles, medical products, and agricultural equipment — corporate leaders are discovering that they must rethink their product and service lines, go-to-market strategies, and operating models to build a presence in emerging economies.

Momentum in the Middle

The first step toward becoming a leading company for the global middle market is recognizing the pace of development in the countries where you hope to do business. All industrializing countries follow an “arc of growth”: an evolutionary path of economic change. They start as nascent economies (emerging from subsistence, with large numbers of young people). They gradually evolve into mature economies, with relatively flat growth and large numbers of aging people. In between, there is a critical stage of urbanization and economic momentum. During this “momentum phase,” many countries have large, relatively young populations and high economic growth rates. These countries are the seedbed of the emerging middle-class markets.

Three types of corporate players are jockeying for position in these markets:

1. Local upstarts are companies that have traditionally provided low-priced goods for bottom-of-the-pyramid customers in their home markets. They are migrating upward into their domestic middle markets as their customers become more prosperous. These companies now provide products and services with more features, better quality, and increased brand status.

2. Global aspirants are local companies that have already developed products for their domestic middle markets. Now, they seek to expand their geographic reach and power, parlaying their existing capabilities and knowledge into serving the global middle class.

3. Multinational incumbents are mature global companies, often from Japan, Europe, and the United States. They are intent on adapting their existing product lines to capture the attractive growth opportunities in emerging middle markets.

You can see all three types of competitors in most sectors in countries that are in the momentum phase. For example, in China’s automobile sector, local upstarts are represented by players that have traditionally made low-cost cars, such as Chery Automobile Company, Great Wall Motor Company, and Geely Automobile Holdings. They are moving up the product pyramid. In 2010, Geely purchased the Swedish carmaker Volvo from Ford at the bargain-basement price of $1.8 billion and immediately raised production plans to 300,000 Volvos annually, almost double the previous worldwide production.

Global aspirants in China’s middle market include South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Company. Hyundai entered China in 2002 and has since achieved remarkable success in the middle market with a major redesign of its Elantra model.

Among the multinational incumbents are long-established automakers aggressively seeking to carve out significant shares of China’s middle market. These include GM, with its Chevrolet Spark and Buick Excelle, and Volkswagen, with its Polo and Golf models. All of these multinationals pursue this market through joint ventures with Chinese partners. For example, the Guangzhou Automobile Group makes Honda-branded cars for the middle-class market. The Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation launched the Lavida with Volkswagen and is working with GM on a new-generation small car called the Baojun (Chinese for “treasured horse”).

Incumbent automakers such as Honda, Volkswagen, and GM aren’t simply exporting cars from their home countries to China. Since 2005, they have been modifying and restyling their vehicles to better align them with the needs and tastes of Chinese consumers. For example, Volkswagen installs smaller engines in some vehicles, such as the Polo GTI and the Golf 6. Such changes enable incumbents to offer two types of vehicles. They make low-priced cars for entry-level Chinese consumers who prioritize cost and value, and cars with added features for more affluent mid-market consumers who can pay for the quality and brand status associated with foreign cars. One sign of the value of the Chinese auto market to incumbents is GM’s sales there, which exceeded its U.S. sales in 2010 — the first time sales in another national market eclipsed U.S. sales in the company’s 102-year history.

The same three types of competitors — local upstarts, global aspirants, and multinational incumbents — are active in China’s construction equipment market, probably the most vibrant construction equipment market in the world right now. Local upstarts such as Zoomlion and Longking have been moving into the domestic middle-class market in China. Some, like the LiuGong Machinery Corporation and Sany Heavy Industry, have become global aspirants. In 2008, LiuGong opened a factory in India. In 2009, Sany announced it would invest €100 million ($144 million) in an R&D and manufacturing center in Germany; it also has major plants under construction in the U.S. and Brazil.

Incumbent construction equipment makers, such as South Korea’s Doosan Infracore, Japan’s Komatsu, and U.S.-based Caterpillar, are aggressively targeting the Chinese middle market as well. Caterpillar’s stated goal is to become the top brand in its sector in China by 2015. In the 1990s, the company was focused on developing government relationships to facilitate sales of its existing product lines. But as the middle market heated up, Caterpillar found its market share squeezed by Japanese and Korean competitors and rising local players. In the late 2000s, Caterpillar’s leaders recognized that the company’s traditional product line and business model were not adequate for China. It lowered its cost base through the establishment of local R&D centers and through the acquisition of Shandong Engineering Machinery, a leading Chinese wheel loader manufacturer.

Just as countries evolve over time, so do companies. Many of today’s local upstarts will be global aspirants tomorrow; today’s global aspirants often become multinational incumbents. The differences among them appear primarily in the way they choose to compete, and in the level of resources that they use to enter a market. The more intelligent they are about their approach, the more likely they are to move to the next level. Unfortunately for the incumbents, local companies are increasingly intelligent about the way they make the transition, using joint ventures or regional expansion to gain the experience they need to compete on a larger scale.

A More Complex Market

The world is far from homogeneous. The buying power, needs, and desires of the middle classes vary by nation and region. In developing nations, for example, middle-market customers are seeking products that have some of the premium features and quality that customers in developed nations are used to, but at lower price points. Furthermore, customers in each geographic market are drawn to buy products that fulfill local needs and desires. As Pankaj Ghemawat, professor of global strategy at IESE Business School, notes in World 3.0: Global Prosperity and How to Achieve It (Harvard Business Press, 2011), there are

numerous casual examples of cultural difference [in consumer products]…. The Czechs drink way more beer than people in Saudi Arabia, and even more than the Irish, who come in second. Pakistanis google sex more often than any other national population, just slightly more than the Vietnamese and far more than the Irish and Czechs. Eritreans google god the most as well as figuring in the top five nationalities searching for sex. India and China are so close geographically that they still haven’t resolved their territorial disputes, but couldn’t display more distinct food cultures, particularly around which animals and parts of animals should or shouldn’t be eaten. Argentines see psychotherapists more than other nationalities, and Brazilians spend a higher proportion of their income on beauty products than the citizens of any other major economy.

To successfully serve middle-market customers, companies must identify which product attributes the customers in a specific market value and don’t value. Then, they must either add those attributes to or cull them from their existing products. Ghemawat uses the examples of McDonald’s, KFC, and Coca-Cola, all of which vary their products geographically: Coke, for instance, uses cane sugar as sweetener in some countries and corn syrup in others. This type of variation adds complexity across product and marketing mixes, and in all the operations and functions related to them. It can require much extra expense and attention from companies, especially those with heavily centralized, scale-driven business models.

But companies that seek leadership positions in their industries may have little choice but to pursue the global middle market. The developed middle markets are a huge and indispensable source of sales volume, and market share can decline precipitously as local upstarts or global aspirants redouble their efforts. In most of these markets, competition is already intense: Companies track their market share gains and losses in tiny increments — a point or even a fraction of a point at a time. In addition, most developed middle markets are driven more by the rise and fall of macroeconomic cycles than by underlying fundamentals, such as an unusually fast-growing customer base. This means that during the stable parts of the cycle, the gains that new players make will come out of the pockets of incumbents.

The global middle market is also spawning game-changing new products that can migrate to and eventually threaten the status quo in developed markets. Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble have coined the phrase reverse innovation to describe the process by which products designed for developing economies become hits in developed economies because they fill undiscovered needs and desires of customers in those nations. (See “How to Be a Truly Global Company,” by C.K. Prahalad and Hrishi Bhattacharyya, s+b, Autumn 2011.)

Myths and Realities

Because the case for pursuing the global middle market is compelling, and the complexities are daunting, it is understandable that many senior executives at major consumer and industrial product companies are ambivalent about — or even resistant to — the idea. Their resistance, however, should be reconsidered. It is usually based on one or more of the myths below.

Myth: It’s too early to enter the middle markets in emerging economies.

Reality: It may already be too late. The competitive collisions between local upstarts, global aspirants, and multinational incumbents are occurring at different speeds in different industries, and some industries are already becoming saturated with competitive rivals. In major appliances, for example, most countries now have offerings from Haier (which not long ago was an upstart); South Korea’s LG and Samsung (which were recently considered global aspirants, but now operate as full-fledged global incumbents); and GE, Whirlpool, and Electrolux (multinational incumbents trying to win share in emerging middle markets and defend their shares in the mature middle markets of developed nations).

The fortunes of companies will be made or lost depending on the timeliness of their entry into the emerging middle markets. If the current pattern holds true, those that fail will likely become the acquisition targets of global aspirants. This has already happened to some carmakers, such as Volvo and Saab. Midsized domestic companies in developed markets will also become targets as new competition enters their home markets and their home markets become an ever-smaller percentage of the global middle market.

Myth: We can’t make money in the middle markets of emerging economies.

Reality: Yes, products aimed at the middle classes of developing nations are usually priced 20 to 40 percent lower than their counterparts in developed nations. But in emerging economies, lower prices do not necessarily mean lower profits, because the sales volume is potentially two to three times greater than the volume in more mature markets. Multinational incumbents need to develop the capability to profitably address consumers in these price segments, because that is often where emerging competitors gain their initial foothold.

Moreover, the cost of making products tends to be lower in emerging economies than in mature markets. These products usually have fewer premium features and often, as with the smaller engines in Volkswagen’s Polo and Golf, have less-expensive parts. The producers of these goods tend to rely on a simpler value chain, with more of it located in low-cost countries, which also reduces costs and boosts margins. Finally, companies earn additional dividends in shareholder value as they expand into new, higher-growth markets.

Myth: We don’t need to alter our products — we just need to educate our customers.

Reality: In the near term, many newly minted middle-class consumers cannot afford developed-market products no matter how much they might value them. As the middle classes mature and their purchasing power grows, this will change. Nonetheless, customers in countries such as India, Brazil, and Turkey will continue to want distinctive features and options. Many of their needs, wants, and tastes stem from unique cultural or environmental conditions, and are unlikely to change soon.

Too often, companies try to create middle-market variants of higher-priced products by subtracting a few features and pushing them through the existing business model and value chain. This results in compromised products at overly high prices. The better alternative is to rethink the value chain entirely. For example, the papermaking machinery industry in China is a rapid-growth, low-margin sector with many local upstart competitors. Multinational incumbents that want to enter this market must provide integrated manufacturing packages, including fiber systems, environmental solutions, automation, and rolls and fabrics. To accomplish this, they often build their capabilities through acquisitions and partnerships.

Myth: Entering the global middle market will be too disruptive to our operations.

Reality: Companies need a business model suited to the task. The R&D function, for example, should avoid innovation races and the creeping elegance associated with sophisticated and expensive products. Instead, take a more local approach to innovation, designing products for specific markets. The products can then flow elsewhere, finding support and additional markets wherever they strike a chord. Investing in local R&D that can rapidly turn middle-market customer insights into products and services is another key to success.

The manufacturing footprint will likely expand in many companies as the number of products designed for specific middle markets begins to grow. In lower-income markets, manufacturing processes may need to emphasize volume and efficiency over customization. Farther back in the value chain, suppliers will be rewarded for minimizing complexity and meeting the value and cost expectations of middle-market customers.

Marketing will need to identify distinct middle-class markets and gain an intimate understanding of the customer segments within each one. It will have to craft and effectively communicate tailored value propositions that don’t undermine more expensive offerings, especially when they bear the same brand names. Sales and service will need to be rightsized for each market — often, this will entail more of a self-serve approach that keeps costs low.

For executives of multinational corporations, it may take a change in the conventional business mind-set to tap into global middle markets effectively. The most successful companies are establishing new business units; rethinking their decision rights and other practices; and giving their leaders the freedom, authority, financial resources, and talent needed to develop and run these businesses. The opportunities in the global middle market are worth the effort.

Reprint No. 11309

Author profiles:

  • Edward Tse is a senior partner with Booz & Company and the firm’s chairman for Greater China, based in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He is the author of The China Strategy: Harnessing the Power of the World’s Fastest-Growing Economy (Basic Books, 2010).
  • Bill Russo is a senior advisor with Booz & Company. Based in Beijing, he has more than 20 years of experience in the automotive industry, most recently serving as vice president of Chrysler’s business in Northeast Asia.
  • Ronald Haddock is a former partner at Booz & Company, where he helped companies build businesses in China, India, Korea, Russia, and other emerging markets.
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