Consumer

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

Unilever has gone A-List.

After snapping up Dollar Shave Club, the cheeky razor blade subscription service, for $1 billion in July, Unilever has expressed an interest in buying actress Jessica Alba's natural consumer products company.

The mooted price tag for Honest, co-founded by Alba, is more than $1 billion -- significantly less than a $1.7 billion valuation put on the company in a fundraising round last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Honest generates sales of $300 million, according to the report, so if the deal does go ahead, Unilever would still be paying a pretty top-notch price. Deals worth $500 million to $2 billion for food, beverage, personal care and household goods targets struck over the past two years had a median revenue multiple of 2.1 , according to Bloomberg data. Unilever declined to comment.

The possible purchase continues the trend for fusty consumer goods companies to snap up companies that make sort of products that appeal to millennials -- and pay up to do so.

This has already led to some pretty pricey M&A. Think Danone's $10 billion purchase of WhiteWave, the U.S. maker of dairy alternatives, and Johnson & Johnson's $3.3 billion acquisition of Vogue International, maker of OGX shampoo. Most recently, Prosiebensat.1 snapped up dating website Parship Elite for 300 million euros ($335.1 million).

At least Unilever buying Honest would fit with its strategy of lessening its reliance on food and developing its higher-margin personal care business. So far it has focused on premium skincare, adding brands such as Murad, Dermalogica and Ren to its stable.

Baby Love
Products for babies and children are growing faster than most other categories of premium personal care
Source: Euromonitor
Annual sales growth. 2016 to 2020 are forecasts.

Honest would provide it with an entrée into the market for natural household and beauty products, as well as diapers. Many of Honest's products are for children. That's a particularly fast-growing part of the market, says Deborah Aitken, analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, as raised health awareness and increased demand for natural ingredients in adults transfers to the sorts of products they want for their children.

Unilever chief executive Paul Polman has also put sustainability at the heart of his strategy. So in finding a home in Unilever, there might be less of a clash between Honest's green goals and the constraints of a big corporate parent.

With Honest selling mostly through online subscriptions, Unilever would increase its exposure to selling via the internet. That should also give it better information about customers, particularly the many millennial mothers who buy from Honest.

A Step Too Far
Unilever shares were already under pressure, and then investers gave a cool reception to reports of its approach to buy Honest
Source: Bloomberg

But as well as the price tag, the potential deal has other risks. Last year Honest defended its sunscreen in a blog post on its website, amid complaints from consumers that they got a sunburn after using the product. Unilever will need all its product innovation and development skills to make sure such incidents don’t happen on its watch.

Investors so far seem less than enthusiastic -- shares in Unilever fell slightly on Friday morning. In contrast, they rose on the day when the company announced the Dollar Shave deal.

But given the huge increase in the market for childrens' products, the deal makes some sense. And as my colleague Chris Hughes has argued, the task of building nimble start-ups from scratch is just too onerous for the big consumer goods companies. They have little choice but to acquire if they are to reach young customers.

As Honest may demonstrate, that means an A-List price tag too.

--With assistance from Gadfly's Tara Lachapelle and Chris Hughes

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andrea Felsted in London at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net