Kenvue CEO says consumers are spending on brand-name health products even as they pull back in other areas

Thibaut Mongon, CEO of Kenvue Inc. a Johnson & Johnson’s consumer-health business, speaks during an interview to celebrate its IPO at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), May 4, 2023.

Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters

Most consumers have pulled back on spending as inflation squeezes their wallets, but they have not stopped paying up for brand-name health and personal care products, Kenvue CEO Thibaut Mongon said.

Mongon told CNBC on Thursday that consumers are still willing to spend on the company’s branded products – even as they reduce discretionary spending at retail stores and trade down on some essential items by changing their usual purchase size or switching brands for lower prices. 

The Johnson & Johnson consumer spinoff Kenvue beat second-quarter revenue and adjusted earnings estimates on Thursday, fueled by resilient demand for the company’s wealth of widely known brands such as Band-Aid, Tylenol, Listerine, Neutrogena and Aveeno.

Still, the company’s stock price fell after J&J announced that it would launch an exchange offer to reduce its stake in Kenvue far earlier than expected.

Kenvue noted that “private label” penetration in the consumer health product market was stable for the quarter. Private label refers to products made and sold under a specific retailer’s name that are sold at a lower price and aim to compete with branded products like Kenvue’s. 

Those trends could bode well not only for Kenvue, but also for other companies in the health, beauty and beverage spaces that may not see consumers trade down to cheaper products as often despite stubbornly high prices.

“Now, we live in a volatile environment with consistent consumer uncertainty and continued inflationary pressures,” Mongon told CNBC. “But I think people are very focused on their health and well-being right now.” 

“They want to make sure they do what it takes to improve their health,” he said. “They are looking for trusted, science-backed and efficacious solutions to take better care of their health, and that’s what we and our brands do. That’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.”

Kenvue, which spun out from Johnson & Johnson two months ago, expects to see the strong demand continue in the coming quarters. The company forecasts 2023 sales will increase between 4.5% and 5.5% from last year. 

RBC Capital analyst Nik Modi said he’s confident that Kenvue will “maintain its momentum,” highlighting consumer trust in the company’s brands and health-care products overall.

He noted that trade-down pressure has increased for certain companies, based on market share changes over the last few months. Meanwhile, Modi said Kenvue has gained market share, and could continue to do so despite the broader environment. 

“If we were going to see trade down with them, we would have started to see it already,” Modi said. “I feel pretty good about their ability.”

Who else could benefit 

Like Kenvue, some beauty and beverage companies may not see the same kind of trade downs as some other consumer staple segments are during the current period of uncertainty, according to Modi. 

He said products like lipstick and moisturizer are increasingly seen as “an affordable luxury” even as inflation shrinks consumers’ budgets.

“They don’t want to feel crappy about their situation and buy cheaper makeup,” Modi said. 

Companies like Ulta, which sells makeup, skin and hair care and other beauty products, have benefitted from the resilience of the beauty category.

Earlier this year, Ulta said its 2022 revenue exceeded $10 billion, while annual net income topped $1 billion — both records for the company. Ulta also reported first-quarter earnings that topped Wall Street’s expectations in May, largely driven by demand for its beauty products.

Oddity Tech, a beauty and wellness company that uses AI to develop cosmetics, also appeared to benefit from the strength of the beauty category when it debuted on the public market on Wednesday. The direct-to-consumer platform’s stock popped 35%.

Modi said beverage companies are also well-positioned.

He said big brand names like Coca-Cola aren’t exposed to private label penetration, and consumers are willing to make room in their budgets for beverages like Coke because it’s a “moment of enjoyment for them.”

Coca-Cola’s first-quarter earnings beat expectations on high demand for its drinks. But price hikes on its products, which were implemented to mitigate the impact of inflation, also helped to fuel the results.

Consumer trust

Mongon said consumers turn to brands and products that they “know and trust” during times of macroeconomic uncertainty. 

He said that behavior – and an increased focus on health and well-being – is boosting sales of Kenvue’s products, which have been “in households for years, for decades, sometimes for generations.”

Modi agreed, adding that the Covid-19 pandemic significantly elevated consumer attachment to brands, especially those that helped people take care of their health. 

Demand for Tylenol, for example, soared and outpaced other pain relievers during the outset of the pandemic as people scrambled to stock up on essential health products. 

“During the Covid time frame, you were looking to save your family or get your kids through a tough period of time with certain medicines and products, and I think that kind of emotional connection and engagement helped with brand stickiness,” Modi told CNBC. 

“Consumers tend to trust these brands during very traumatic moments in their lives, so I think that’s why we’re seeing brands like Kenvue’s remain so resilient despite the macro pressure,” he said. 

BNP Paribas Exane analyst Navann Ty added that the pandemic made consumers more empowered to “take their health into their own hands at home.” 

She said that shift will likely benefit Kenvue and other companies offering similar health products, which is an “additional differentiation from other consumer categories.”

For Kenvue specifically, product recommendations by healthcare professionals are also providing “some protection” from trade downs, according to Ty. 

Third-party surveys on certain U.S. healthcare practitioners from 2020 to 2022 found that Tylenol was the top doctor-recommended adult pain medication nationwide, according to Kenvue’s IPO filing in April. 

Those surveys also found that Neutrogena was the U.S.’s leading over-the-counter sunscreen and acne brand, while Listerine was the country’s top dentist-recommended mouthwash.

Mongon noted that those recommendations “ultimately foster lifelong loyalty to our brands, loyalty that is passed down from generation to generation.” 

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