Global Equity Observer
July 19, 2019
Rebuilding Moats in the Digital Age

Global Equity Observer

Rebuilding Moats in the Digital Age

Rebuilding Moats in the Digital Age

Share Icon

July 19, 2019


Over the last 50 years, the leading staples companies have prospered in an analogue world. This was evident from their dominant market shares, compounding sales growth and sustainably high returns on operating capital. But, the digital age has presented two key challenges to this prosperity: e-commerce and new marketing platforms, including social media/search.


It is fair to suggest that the consumer staples industry has been slow to adapt. Growth rates have slowed from mid-single digit rates to low-single digit. There has been talk of “the end of big brands.” However, we see evidence that the leading consumer staples companies are starting to crack the digital code. A combination of scale and skill is allowing such leading brands to thrive, and sales growth is picking up again.

The digital age has presented two key challenges to consumer staples’ prosperity: e-commerce and social media"

Let’s start with e-commerce in China, where a domestic e-commerce company is at the technological and innovative cutting edge, providing an online ecosystem with arguably the world’s best digital brand-building platform. Unlike elsewhere in the world, brands have their own virtual stores featuring services such as loyalty programs and livestreaming. These virtual stores are segmented by the platform provider, for example ‘The Luxury Pavilion,’ which gives prestige beauty brands their own section. This avoids these brands being crowded out by mass-market offerings or being placed next to household cleaner products. Data on consumer habits is shared with the branded companies by the platform provider, helping to accelerate product innovation. The platform dramatically expands the reach of a brand beyond Tier 1-2 all the way down to Tier 4-5 cities, adding a potential 600 million consumers.1

Leading staples companies in China, including those from Europe and the United States, are seeing the payoff from their digital investment, evident in a sharp acceleration in Chinese sales. For instance, a large French beauty company we own in the portfolio posted 26% year-on-year growth in Asia Pacific in 2018, up from 11% in 2017 and less than 5% in 2015 and 2016.1

Outside China, a well-known American e-commerce site dominates the digital retail space but, in sharp contrast to its Chinese counterpart, it doesn’t share its consumer data, focuses on price rather than brand building and uses its own label as a direct competitor. This drives the consensual view that the company is out to destroy brands, whereas in reality, most of its own brands have failed against the leading consumer staples companies, which have learned how to compete on the platform effectively. Such companies make sure they are at the top of key word searches (crucial now that 55% of all product searches in the U.S. occur directly on this platform2) and work to gain top customer rankings and reviews for their products. These companies also benefit from there being more than one e-commerce operator in the U.S. – traditional retailers have invested heavily in their own e-commerce offerings. In 2018, the number one traditional retailer grew e-commerce sales by 40% while the top discount retailer grew its sales by 36%.3 This broader digital opportunity enabled the leading consumer staples companies to grow their own global and U.S. e-commerce sales by approximately 40% in the same period,4 well ahead of both the leading U.S. e-commerce platform and the industry growth rate.

The digital opportunities in the U.S. enabled leading consumer staples companies to grow e-commerce sales by approximately 40% in 2018"

Today, e-commerce generates between 5-10% of the leading consumer staples companies’ sales, versus 1-2% five years ago.4 Importantly for consumer staples companies, e-commerce has similar operating margins to selling in brick and mortar stores and e-retailers make more profit selling large rather than small brands.

On the digital marketing front, Silicon Valley’s key advertising platforms (in the guise of search engines and social media sites) have effectively acted as a tax on consumer staples companies. Over the last five years, consumer staples executives have reallocated 30% to 50% of marketing budgets4 from traditional media to digital marketing on the promise of higher returns on investment and have instead been rewarded with slowing sales growth rates.

Consumer staples companies now seem to recognise that they need to retrain and transform their marketing departments – it is not as simple as just throwing money at digital marketing. Historically, a company would brief an advertising agency up to a year in advance to come up with the creative content for a global advertising campaign as well as the tactical execution of said campaign, such as the best time of day to show the newly created advert. Today, consumer staples marketing teams have social listening teams that pick up on the latest trends among ‘influencers’. They have in-house creative teams to produce a constant stream of content for social media sites. Specialist teams mine data and monitor in real time the performance of digital spend. For example, does targeting a deodorant campaign at men aged 20-30 and who play sport produce a better hit rate than targeting men aged 20-30 who smoke? As the leading consumer staples companies gain greater know-how, from mastering the basics (clean data, buying the right key words, speeding up loading time to their websites) to producing high-quality digital content (two seconds rather than six seconds for an advert), we believe the current digital marketing platform ‘tax’ will diminish.

If you want to make digital work, you have to retool and retrain"

So as investors, how do we gauge who is doing a good job? We have also had to go back to school. In the last few years, a host of consumer staples companies cut their advertising and promotion (A&P) costs as a percentage of sales, claiming digital spend had a higher return on investment. But, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you want to make digital work, you need to retool/retrain. This means hiring hundreds – or thousands – of digital experts. The cost of this investment sits in the selling, general and administrative (SG&A) line of the profit and loss account rather than the A&P line. Once an organisation has retooled and hired the digital experts, these experts then start asking for more money to spend on digital content, so A&P spend goes back up. If successful, sales growth then reaccelerates and brings down SG&A costs as a percentage of sales.

One of the companies in our portfolio, a global leader in beauty brands, is at the forefront of this digital evolution and we believe provides a useful guide to measure where on the journey other consumer staples companies are. The consultant Gartner L2 ranks 1,872 brands on their expertise across the digital landscape. In 2018, 57 of these brands earned the title ‘Genius’ or best-in-class. The beauty holding in question owned the greatest number of Genius brands (seven) as well as reporting sales growth of 7%, its fastest growth in over 10 years and close to 1.5x the beauty market as a whole’s growth.5

Consumer staples that crack the digital code can reinforce moats, compound sales growth and sustain high returns on operating capital"

We believe consumer staples companies that crack the digital code can reinforce their moats, continue to compound their sales growth and sustain a high return on operating capital for years to come. Big brands in the new digital world can thrive if they combine scale and skill. As investors, when assessing a company’s attributes, in addition to being well invested, decentralised and entrepreneurial, we want to see digital expertise.



There is no assurance that a portfolio will achieve its investment objective. Portfolios are subject to market risk, which is the possibility that the market value of securities owned by the portfolio will decline. Accordingly, you can lose money investing in this strategy. Please be aware that this strategy may be subject to certain additional risks. Changes in the worldwide economy, consumer spending, competition, demographics and consumer preferences, government regulation and economic conditions may adversely affect global franchise companies and may negatively impact the strategy to a greater extent than if the strategy's assets were invested in a wider variety of companies. In general, equity securities' values also fluctuate in response to activities specific to a company. Investments in foreign markets entail special risks such as currency, political, economic, and market risks. Stocks of small-capitalization companies carry special risks, such as limited product lines, markets and financial resources, and greater market volatility than securities of larger, more established companies. The risks of investing in emerging market countries are greater than risks associated with investments in foreign developed markets. Non-diversified portfolios often invest in a more limited number of issuers. As such, changes in the financial condition or market value of a single issuer may cause greater volatility. Option writing strategy. Writing call options involves the risk that the Portfolio may be required to sell the underlying security or instrument (or settle in cash an amount of equal value) at a disadvantageous price or below the market price of such underlying security or instrument, at the time the option is exercised. As the writer of a call option, the Portfolio forgoes, during the option's life, the opportunity to profit from increases in the market value of the underlying security or instrument covering the option above the sum of the premium and the exercise price, but retains the risk of loss should the price of the underlying security or instrument decline. Additionally, the Portfolio's call option writing strategy may not fully protect it against declines in the value of the market. There are special risks associated with uncovered option writing which expose the Portfolio to potentially significant loss.

Head of International Equity Team
International Equity Team
Managing Director
International Equity Team
Executive Director
International Equity Team

1Holding Annual Reports.

2L2 Consulting, 2019.

3Holding Annual Report 2018.

4Holdings Annual Reports.

5Holding Annual Report 2018.

This communication is only intended for and will only be distributed to persons resident in jurisdictions where such distribution or availability would not be contrary to local laws or regulations.

Ireland: Morgan Stanley Investment Management (Ireland) Limited. Registered Office: The Observatory, 7-11 Sir John Rogerson’s, Quay, Dublin 2, Ireland. Registered in Ireland under company number 616662. Regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland. United Kingdom: Morgan Stanley Investment Management Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered in England. Registered No. 1981121. Registered Office: 25 Cabot Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 4QA. Dubai: Morgan Stanley Investment Management Limited (Representative Office, Unit Precinct 3-7th Floor-Unit 701 and 702, Level 7, Gate Precinct Building 3, Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai, 506501, United Arab Emirates. Telephone: +97 (0)14 709 7158). Germany: Morgan Stanley Investment Management Limited Niederlassung Deutschland Junghofstrasse 13-15 60311 Frankfurt Deutschland (Gattung: Zweigniederlassung (FDI) gem. § 53b KWG). Italy: Morgan Stanley Investment Management Limited, Milan Branch (Sede Secondaria di Milano) is a branch of Morgan Stanley Investment Management Limited, a company registered in the UK, authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), and whose registered office is at 25 Cabot Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 4QA. Morgan Stanley Investment Management Limited Milan Branch (Sede Secondaria di Milano) with seat in Palazzo Serbelloni Corso Venezia, 16 20121 Milano, Italy, is registered in Italy with company number and VAT number 08829360968. The Netherlands: Morgan Stanley Investment Management, Rembrandt Tower, 11th Floor Amstelplein 1 1096HA, Netherlands. Telephone: 31 2-0462-1300. Morgan Stanley Investment Management is a branch office of Morgan Stanley Investment Management Limited. Morgan Stanley Investment Management Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom. Switzerland: Morgan Stanley & Co. International plc, London, Zurich Branch Authorised and regulated by the Eidgenössische Finanzmarktaufsicht (“FINMA”). Registered with the Register of Commerce Zurich CHE-115.415.770. Registered Office: Beethovenstrasse 33, 8002 Zurich, Switzerland, Telephone +41 (0) 44 588 1000. Facsimile Fax: +41(0) 44 588 1074.

A separately managed account may not be suitable for all investors. Separate accounts managed according to the Strategy include a number of securities and will not necessarily track the performance of any index. Please consider the investment objectives, risks and fees of the Strategy carefully before investing. A minimum asset level is required. For important information about the investment manager, please refer to Form ADV Part 2.

Please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses of the funds carefully before investing. The prospectuses contain this and other information about the funds. To obtain a prospectus please download one at or call 1-800-548-7786. Please read the prospectus carefully before investing.

Morgan Stanley Distribution, Inc. serves as the distributor for Morgan Stanley funds.


Hong Kong: This document has been issued by Morgan Stanley Asia Limited for use in Hong Kong and shall only be made available to “professional investors” as defined under the Securities and Futures Ordinance of Hong Kong (Cap 571). The contents of this document have not been reviewed nor approved by any regulatory authority including the Securities and Futures Commission in Hong Kong. Accordingly, save where an exemption is available under the relevant law, this document shall not be issued, circulated, distributed, directed at, or made available to, the public in Hong Kong. Singapore: This document should not be considered to be the subject of an invitation for subscription or purchase, whether directly or indirectly, to the public or any member of the public in Singapore other than (i) to an institutional investor under section 304 of the Securities and Futures Act, Chapter 289 of Singapore (“SFA”); (ii) to a “relevant person” (which includes an accredited investor) pursuant to section 305 of the SFA, and such distribution is in accordance with the conditions specified in section 305 of the SFA; or (iii) otherwise pursuant to, and in accordance with the conditions of, any other applicable provision of the SFA. This material has not been reviewed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Australia: This publication is disseminated in Australia by Morgan Stanley Investment Management (Australia) Pty Limited ACN: 122040037, AFSL No. 314182, which accept responsibility for its contents. This publication, and any access to it, is intended only for “wholesale clients” within the meaning of the Australian Corporations Act.

Japan: For professional investors, this document is circulated or distributed for informational purposes only. For those who are not professional investors, this document is provided in relation to Morgan Stanley Investment Management (Japan) Co., Ltd. (“MSIMJ”)’s business with respect to discretionary investment management agreements (“IMA”) and investment advisory agreements (“IAA”). This is not for the purpose of a recommendation or solicitation of transactions or offers any particular financial instruments. Under an IMA, with respect to management of assets of a client, the client prescribes basic management policies in advance and commissions MSIMJ to make all investment decisions based on an analysis of the value, etc. of the securities, and MSIMJ accepts such commission. The client shall delegate to MSIMJ the authorities necessary for making investment. MSIMJ exercises the delegated authorities based on investment decisions of MSIMJ, and the client shall not make individual instructions. All investment profits and losses belong to the clients; principal is not guaranteed. Please consider the investment objectives and nature of risks before investing. As an investment advisory fee for an IAA or an IMA, the amount of assets subject to the contract multiplied by a certain rate (the upper limit is 2.16% per annum (including tax)) shall be incurred in proportion to the contract period. For some strategies, a contingency fee may be incurred in addition to the fee mentioned above. Indirect charges also may be incurred, such as brokerage commissions for incorporated securities. Since these charges and expenses are different depending on a contract and other factors, MSIMJ cannot present the rates, upper limits, etc. in advance. All clients should read the Documents Provided Prior to the Conclusion of a Contract carefully before executing an agreement. This document is disseminated in Japan by MSIMJ, Registered No. 410 (Director of Kanto Local Finance Bureau (Financial Instruments Firms)), Membership: the Japan Securities Dealers Association, The Investment Trusts Association, Japan, the Japan Investment Advisers Association and the Type II Financial Instruments Firms Association.

EMEA: This marketing communication has been issued by Morgan Stanley Investment Management (Ireland) Limited (“MSIM Ireland”). Registered Office: The Observatory, 7-11 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin 2, Ireland. Registered in Ireland under company number 616662. Regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland.

There is no guarantee that any investment strategy will work under all market conditions, and each investor should evaluate their ability to invest for the long-term, especially during periods of downturn in the market. Prior to investing, investors should carefully review the strategy’s / product’s relevant offering document. There are important differences in how the strategy is carried out in each of the investment vehicles.

A separately managed account may not be suitable for all investors. Separate accounts managed according to the Strategy include a number of securities and will not necessarily track the performance of any index. Please consider the investment objectives, risks and fees of the Strategy carefully before investing.

This material is a general communication, which is not impartial and has been prepared solely for informational and educational purposes and does not constitute an offer or a recommendation to buy or sell any particular security or to adopt any specific investment strategy. The information herein has not been based on a consideration of any individual investor circumstances and is not investment advice, nor should it be construed in any way as tax, accounting, legal or regulatory advice. To that end, investors should seek independent legal and financial advice, including advice as to tax consequences, before making any investment decision.

Except as otherwise indicated herein, the views and opinions expressed herein are those of the portfolio management team, are based on matters as they exist as of the date of preparation and not as of any future date, and will not be updated or otherwise revised to reflect information that subsequently becomes available or circumstances existing, or changes occurring, after the date hereof.

Forecasts and/or estimates provided herein are subject to change and may not actually come to pass. Information regarding expected market returns and market outlooks is based on the research, analysis and opinions of the authors. These conclusions are speculative in nature, may not come to pass and are not intended to predict the future performance of any specific Morgan Stanley Investment Management product.

MSIM has not authorised financial intermediaries to use and to distribute this document, unless such use and distribution is made in accordance with applicable law and regulation. Additionally, financial intermediaries are required to satisfy themselves that the information in this document is suitable for any person to whom they provide this document in view of that person’s circumstances and purpose. MSIM shall not be liable for, and accepts no liability for, the use or misuse of this document by any such financial intermediary.

The whole or any part of this work may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted or any of its contents disclosed to third parties without MSIM’s express written consent.

All information contained herein is proprietary and is protected under copyright law.


It is important that users read the Terms of Use before proceeding as it explains certain legal and regulatory restrictions applicable to the dissemination of information pertaining to Morgan Stanley Investment Management's investment products.

The services described on this website may not be available in all jurisdictions or to all persons. For further details, please see our Terms of Use.

Privacy & Cookies    •    Terms of Use

©  Morgan Stanley. All rights reserved.