CPG companies Nestlé and Kellogg court OTC

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Could the maker of Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Krispies become a suitor for one of big pharma's OTC health lines? That's one scenario experts are pondering in the wake of multiple consumer health portfolios being put up for sale last year.

Pfizer, maker of non-Rx brands such as ChapStick and Advil, and Merck KGaA, the German drugmaker with a stable of smaller products, both announced intentions to shop their consumer health lines, fueling speculation about who could step up to buy them.

If that buyer turns out to be a consumer goods expert, we could be talking about something more than a mere reshuffling of the over-the-counter (OTC) goods deck.

Both of these pharma companies reportedly have seen interest from other pharma giants, as well as from smaller companies looking for specific products to fill out their own portfolios. Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, too, are becoming more strategic in tailoring their portfolios, points out Dave Wendland, VP of strategic relations at Hamacher Resource Group, an advisory to consumer healthcare companies.

See also: Experts say pharma's move to Snapchat is in the making

Should one of them take more of a stake in consumer health, the move wouldn't come completely out of left field. Non-pharma names such as Procter & Gamble are already in the space, and others are eyeing an entrance. For example, Reuters reported Nestlé has been named as a prospective buyer for Merck KGaA's OTC portfolio, along with generics maker Perrigo and the private equity owners of German drugmaker Stada. 

Wendland offers another possibility: Kellogg Company. Known to most people as a maker of breakfast cereals — and sugary ones at that — Kellogg in October moved smoothly into nutritionals with the purchase of protein-bar maker Rx Bars for $600 million.

“I feel this is part of a bigger movement and will potentially lead to the introduction of such high-fiber, high-protein options to patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes,” he predicts.

Of course, there'd be more regulatory hoops to jump through for that kind of health drive in an era when regulators are tightening rules related to the health claims on food and drinks. “At one time, you could slap ‘heart healthy' on just about anything without any worries. Now, the FDA considers that more of a health claim,” notes Wendland.

Nevertheless, newly minted Kellogg CEO Steven Cahillane brings a strong history in the health and wellness market. His former company, Nature's Bounty, is a global maker of vitamins, nutritional supplements, and other consumer health and beauty products.

See also: How Lauren Schulz is shaping Dr. Reddy's OTC brands

As Kellogg looks to cash in on the trend toward healthier snacks, big food is going in the same direction as big tech. Companies such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft have flexed their relationships with consumers to push ever more deeply into health.

Retailers including Walgreens Boots Alliance have also sought to do so by empowering consumers with self-directed tools and the guidance necessary to make health-related decisions.

“These are big moves,” says Wendland, who sees parallels between search engines pivoting to become health information hubs and retailers looking to become integrated health providers.

Meanwhile, all of the above hasn't been lost on marketers. Healthcare agencies have restructured to be in a better position to win more health and wellness business. And when it comes to padding out their consumer-health holdings, don't count big pharma out of the running just yet.

GlaxoSmithKline has expressed interest in Pfizer's consumer health business, which may well point to a strategic vision in that it follows first a joint venture and then an asset swap with Novartis. The two companies formed the GSK Consumer Healthcare joint venture in 2014. (In March 2018, GSK will have the option of buying out Novartis' shares in that partnership, and there have been some indications it plans to do so.)

It was the following year that GSK traded its oncology business in exchange for Novartis' vaccine line. Although GSK suffered in the immediate aftermath of the swap, then-CEO Andrew Witty told investors at the time that the company's oncology business stood to benefit from Novartis' distribution reach.

See also: Pfizer campaign aims to keep boomers healthy

Other companies that have sniffed around the Pfizer unit include Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, and Reckitt Benckiser. The latter is forming two units in its consumer health operations: RB Health, which will focus on OTC, and RB Hygiene Home, which will handle cleaning and laundry brands.

During Reckitt's Q3 earnings call, Rakesh Kapoor, the CEO of Reckitt Benckiser who will also lead RB Health, touted his company's ambition to be a “global leader in consumer health and the only one really focused on the broader consumer health market beyond just [OTC] medicines.”

And then there's Sanofi, which acquired OTC health firm Chattem several years back and stands as one example of a pharma company that seems quite happy with its consumer health assets.

Wendland describes Chattem as “a bellwether” for Sanofi. “Evidenced by their most recent Rx-to-OTC launches, Sanofi has an eye toward additional growth opportunity within consumer health,” he says.

Sanofi's consumer-health entrance dates back to its 2010 acquisition of Chattem for $1.9 billion. At that time, Chattem employed 580 people and was a $500 million per year business. The company, which has since rebranded under the Sanofi name, employs 825 people and expects to generate $1.5 billion in gross revenues in 2017. This past year, the company bulked up its consumer health portfolio, exchanging Sanofi's animal health business for Boehringer Ingelheim's consumer healthcare unit.

See also: Pfizer bolsters Eucrisa launch with two DTC campaigns

All things considered, one would be hard-pressed to conclude the impending sale of two consumer healthcare units is in some way a harbinger that big pharma is fleeing the space. A more careful tailoring and targeting may actually be what is happening.

Consider the recent partnership between Bayer and Walgreens, in which Bayer's hydraSense line of nasal care products will be sold exclusively through the pharmacy chain. This is a classic case of partnering to take advantage of each other's strengths, with Bayer leaning on Walgreens for its marketing reach.

“Pharma companies are realizing where their strengths are,” explains Wendland.

Pfizer and Merck may simply be recognizing where their own strengths lie as they consider divesting their OTC lines. Nevertheless, if Nestlé and Kellogg find that their marketing reach is a good match for these consumer health product lines, we may see a sea change in this sector.

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