Mark Dziersk, Stacey Haas, Jon McClain, and Brian Quinn:

Our analysis of the food and beverage market from 2013–17 reveals that the top 25 manufacturers are responsible for 59 percent of sales but only 2 percent of category growth. Conversely, 44 percent of category growth has come from the next 400 manufacturers.1 Our experience in working with large consumer companies suggests that they don’t suffer from a lack of ideas; where they struggle is in knowing where to make bets, moving products quickly to launch, and then nurturing them to scale. Effectively driving growth through innovation requires CPG companies to evolve many of the assets and capabilities already in place and adopt significantly different and new ways of working.

This change will not be easy. Many of the innovation systems that need to evolve are deeply entrenched. They have their own brand names, dedicated IT systems, firmly established management routines, and more. However, our work with CPG organizations has convinced us that these changes are necessary and can return significant value. Our analysis of ~350 CPG companies across 21 subcategories found that growth leaders excelled at harnessing commercial capabilities, including innovation. Additional McKinsey analysis has shown that CPG “Creator” companies—those that consistently develop new products or services—grow more than their peers. These winning Creators have adopted a formula that borrows the best from progressive new players while fully leveraging existing advantages in scope and scale.

How did we get here?

For the past two decades, CPG innovation models have been designed to maintain and steadily grow already at-scale brands. This meant that most innovations were largely incremental moves with the occasional one-off disruptive success. This slow and steady approach worked because CPGs didn’t really need disruptive innovation to grow. Geographic expansion, pricing, and brand extensions were all successful strategies that kept the top line moving. As a result, most of the systems designed to manage these innovations were optimized for fairly predictable and low-volatility initiatives. They emphasized reliability and risk management.

That very success, however, led to calcified thinking as companies built large brands and poured resources into supporting and protecting them. In recent years, as they have tried to respond to new entrants and rapidly changing consumer needs, CPGs found their innovation systems tended to stifle and stall more disruptive efforts. As the returns from innovation dwindled, companies cut marketing, insights, and innovation budgets to cover profit shortfalls. This created a negative cycle. As a stopgap, many large consumer companies have turned to M&A to fill holes in the innovation portfolio—but on its own, M&A can be a very expensive path to growth with its own difficulties in scalability and cultural fit.