India’s consumption landscape: Consumers acquire a taste for premium as mass market lags

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January 26, 2024

Sagar Malviya, Economic Times

Mumbai, 26 January 2024

Hindustan Unilever and United Spirits together present a study in contrasts that seemingly reinforces the current purchasing trends in India’s consumption sector. At the country’s biggest consumer-goods and alco-bev companies, respectively, premium brands are flying off the shelves, but mass-priced products remain relative stragglers.

“At the premium and luxury ends, they (consumers) are continuing to spend, continuing to experiment, continuing to do repertoire drinking, especially experimenting with the white spirits, drinking at home,” Hina Nagarajan, managing director at Diageo-controlled United Spirits, told investors in a post-earnings call. “However, Middle India, or the value-oriented consumer, is actually cutting down on the number of occasions (to spend) to manage their money.”

The maker of Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff posted a 12.4% volume decline in the mass-priced segments, while pricier prestige and above categories saw a 10% growth during the December quarter. The Indian unit of the world’s biggest distiller said it expects this trend in purchasing behaviour to continue over the next couple of quarters.

At Hindustan Unilever, the country’s biggest consumer company by both sales and market value, the story isn’t vastly different. The FMCG bellwether said its premium portfolio expanded more than two-and-a-half times the mass segment over the past few quarters.

This trend was seen even in the rural areas that make up nearly half the annual sales at the maker of Dove soaps and Glow & Lovely skin creams. Pricier products now constitute a third of Hindustan Unilever’s total sales. “In rural areas, there are people who can afford and spend money, and hence, the premium portfolio in has also grown well – like it has grown in urban parts of the business,” Rohit Jawa, managing director, Hindustan Unilever, told investors after the December-quarter earnings. “We have always seen that essential and discretionary are the two realities of (the) rural (market).”

Incomes & Business Cycles

This dichotomy in purchase decisions appears to be a function of income disparity and is market-agnostic, experts believe. For instance, rural India that accounts for nearly 40% of the overall FMCG market saw a noticeable drop in demand for a year due to inflation and erratic monsoons. Cities, meanwhile, appear to be at the vanguard of overall consumption demand across categories as urban incomes, typically linked to organised sectors of the economy, are more resilient to business cycles and promise better protection against broader inflationary pressures. “Even if the consuming class, mainly upper and middle class, saw an impact on their incomes, it is still not significant to affect their discretionary spends,” said Devangshu Dutta, founder of Third Eyesight, a strategy consulting firm. “There is a buffer available for higher income growth and it will hit them later in any economic downturn. At present, it is felt in the lower-income segment.”

Over the past decade and a half, consumer companies expanded sales by pushing both pricier and affordable products. Companies still have budget-friendly options in their portfolio, but lower incomes, especially in rural areas, appear to have dented purchasing power at the budget end of the market. “The real pressure on the wallet is on the lower side, where we do see upgrades are not happening from country liquor to either the popular category or the lower end of prestige,” said Nagarajan at United Spirits.

(Published in Economic Times)

Brands rewrite their wedding story for the 2023 season

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December 12, 2023

Akshit Pushkarna, Afaqs

12 December 2023

The season for Indian weddings, usually spanning October to December, experienced an unusual twist due to Hindu calendar nuances this year, resulting in a shorter duration. The unexpected shift has upended the conventional decrease in marriage ceremonies, resulting in a condensed surge of weddings. 

A report by the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) anticipates Rs 4.74 lakh crore in business earnings from the 38 lakh marriages expected this wedding season, marking a historic high. In comparison, the corresponding period last year witnessed around 32 lakh weddings with total expenses amounting to Rs 3.75 lakh crore.

This presents brands involved in the wedding business with an ample opportunity to capitalise and drive forth their business revenues for the year to come. Three key brands associated with wedding business are steering their strategies to align with the evolving preferences of Indian consumers in the lucrative wedding market.

A more region-specific focus for Shaadi.com’s marketing communication

In a conversation with afaqs!, Adhish Zaveri, VP-marketing, Shaadi.com, a prominent online matrimonial and matchmaking service, speaks about how digital media is more relevant for brand building for wedding-oriented businesses now, eclipsing the relevance of traditional TV and out-of-home advertising. He sees mass media serving only reminders to prompt registrations, while the primary focus shifts towards digital platforms.

This change involves a robust regional focus within our marketing playbook, recognising the dynamic shifts in matrimonial behavior across diverse geographies

Adhish Zaveri, VP-marketing, Shaadi.com

“This season, we have incorporated a paradigm shift in our marketing strategy, driven not only by the upswing in weddings but also by observing how Indians approach finding life partners, with nuances varying across regions. This change involves a robust regional focus within our marketing playbook, recognising the dynamic shifts in matrimonial behaviour across diverse geographies,” he says.

The campaign is driven by the company’s commitment to assure individuals of finding a match within a specified timeframe. The pledge to successfully matchmake within 30 days, with a refund guarantee, serves as the crux of their messaging this season. “Tailoring our approach to each market, we’ve executed this promise uniquely.”

This approach sees the company partner with people of influence across markets to drive better visibility. For the Hindi market, they’ve forged a strategic partnership with Jasleen Royal, the acclaimed singer behind popular wedding songs like Din Shagna Da and Hiriye. Leveraging her association, Zaveri says they have orchestrated a robust social media engagement strategy.

“In the Tamil market, we’ve employed celebrities who recently tied the knot as our ‘matchmakers.’ Adapting a viral reel from this region, featuring the celebrity couple, became a cornerstone of our campaign. While regional focus has always been part of our strategy, this time we’ve approached it through a celebrity lens, creating bespoke strategies for each South Indian market. Although distinct, each strategy is unified by a celebrity-centric approach. From featuring Supriya and Sachin Pilgaonkar for Marathi audiences to enlisting Jasleen Royal for the North, and partnering with Ashok Selvan and Keerthi Pandian for the South – we’ve delved deeper into regional dynamics,” he adds.

Zaveri believes the success of the approach is evident, particularly in the South, where the company’s market presence has increased dramatically post-campaign, providing them an opportunity to further invest in the region. 

A focus on the Wedding planning business for Vikaas Gutgutia’s Ferns N Petals

In the backdrop of a season that signals prosperity, Vikaas Gutgutia, founder and managing director, Ferns N Petals (FnP),  reflects on the trajectory of its business, navigating through the challenges of a pandemic-induced wedding lull.

He says FnP strategically sustained its business in 2022, aligning with the resumption of the wedding business. With the focus shifting to a year poised for business takeoff, the company plans on exploring the wedding planning business with their new business line Shaadi Central. 

“With a legacy in the wedding industry, FnP has historically undertaken various wedding-related tasks, albeit not comprehensively under one roof or in an organised manner. This year marks a strategic shift as the company introduced ‘Shaadi Central,’ a luxury wedding company offering a one-stop solution for all wedding needs.”

“This holistic approach aims to streamline and elevate the wedding planning experience, allowing partners and their families to focus on the approaching wedding date with ease. The innovation and consolidation under ‘Shaadi Central’ have sparked notable interest and engagement in the new business venture. Having weathered a less-than-ideal summer season and traditionally subdued winter numbers, we anticipate a robust revenue surge, making the current season particularly promising,” he asserts.”

The business setup was sparked by Gutgutia’s assertion that, with the evolving landscape of wedding planning, which has made destination weddings and grandeur now necessary for some, the role of wedding planners has become significantly prominent. The launch’s alignment with the business boom anticipated with the wedding season of 2023, Gutgutia underscores the importance of timing in business.

The innovation and consolidation under ‘Shaadi Central’ have sparked notable interest and engagement in the new business venture.

Vikaas Gutgutia, founder and managing director, Ferns N Petals (FnP)

Delving into the marketing approach for this new business vertical, he explains, “The momentum generated by word of mouth for the growth of its wedding planning vertical. Each wedding becomes a nexus of potential customers, and social media plays a pivotal role in amplifying references. With clear and specific messaging in the realm of social media, we have successfully driven business, recognising the platform as the primary point of reference in shaping preferences.”

Looking ahead, FnP anticipates a substantial increase in business revenue across all its verticals. The wedding services vertical, in particular, is expected to bring in significant growth in revenue for the company. The belief stems from the observation that the wedding planning sector remains largely unorganised, and he believes that FnP stands out as a formidable player in terms of size and brand image. As the business charts its course forward, the wedding services vertical emerges as a key focus, poised for substantial expansion.

Senco Gold & Diamonds leveraging virtual try-ons for delivering business growth

Joita Sen, director- marketing and design, Senco Gold & Diamonds, says that the company, with a legacy of 80 years, is uniquely equipped to understand the evolving landscape of bridal desires.

Sen elaborates that the company started the year fresh after initiating their Rajwada Collection, a campaign with which the brand aims to weave together traditional designs infused with modern touches and patterns in their offerings. These offerings, thus, can resonate with the essence of the contemporary woman.

The move also sees the brand shifting its focus towards diverse designs, moving away from region-specific choices. Herein lies a unique selling proposition (USP) for the brand—fulfilling a diverse range of needs while ensuring accessibility across various price points. From high-end designs to more budget-friendly options, the brand aims to leave every customer content upon leaving the store.

“The evolution of groom preferences and competitive pricing have further shaped our approach. A significant aspect of our marketing strategy here revolves around social media, leveraging its targeted reach compared to traditional approaches like billboards and footfall. 50 percent of the marketing budget is allocated to digital channels, where advancements have allowed for more precise consumer outreach.”

50 percent of the marketing budget is allocated to digital channels, where advancements have allowed for more precise consumer outreach.

Joita Sen, director- marketing and design, Senco Gold & Diamonds

However, the digital realm poses a challenge in providing a comprehensive array of options compared to the immersive experience offered in showrooms. To address this, Sen acknowledges the importance of virtual try-ons.

“While currently available for select products,  we are actively working on expanding our offerings in virtual try-ons. This approach proves instrumental in effectively communicating the design, look, and feel of the jewellery to consumers, bridging the gap between the digital and physical shopping experiences.

Importance of strategic visibility and multi-modal presence for short-term success

According to Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight, the ongoing mega-season of weddings presents a favourable outlook for formalwear and traditional wear brands across various categories. This surge in weddings is not limited to the upper-income segment but extends across the income spectrum, reaching the middle class and towns of all sizes.

Thus, to effectively capitalise on the wedding season, brands must establish a strong position in customers’ minds well in advance, he believes.

“Products and brands associated with brides, grooms, and close family members, as well as those intended for gifting to the extended family, are inherently perceived as “premium” within their respective consumer segments. This holds true regardless of the targeted population segment. Success as a “wedding brand” requires a long-term perspective, with continuous investments in product development, service enhancement, and marketing expenditure to ensure that the brand stands out prominently amid competition,” he says.

”In the current market landscape, achieving visibility demands a multi-modal approach, encompassing both offline and traditional channels, along with tactical online advertising.”

Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight

In the short term, however, he opines that the visibility and availability of products just before the wedding season play a crucial role in influencing specific performance during that period.

”In the current market landscape, achieving visibility demands a multi-modal approach, encompassing both offline and traditional channels, along with tactical online advertising.”

(Published in Afaqs)

Decathlon FY23 sales shoot up 37% in India

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October 26, 2023

Sagar Malviya, Economic Times
26 October 2023

Surging demand for fitness wear and sports equipment for disciplines other than cricket and football helped Decathlon’s India unit expand sales 37% to Rs 3,955 crore in FY23. With more than 100 large, warehouse-like stores selling products catering to 85 sporting disciplines, the French company is bigger than Adidas, Nike and Asics all put together in India.

In FY22, sales were Rs 2,936 crore, according to its latest filings with the Registrar of Companies. The retailer, however, posted a net loss of Rs 18.6 crore during the year ended March 2023 compared to a net profit of Rs 36 crore a year ago.

Experts said a host of factors – from pricing products about 30-40% lower than competing products to selling everything from running shoes, athleisure wear to mountaineering equipment under its own brands – has worked in its favour. “They have an extremely powerful format across different sporting activities and have something for both active and casual wear shoppers. For them, the market is still under penetrated with the kind of comprehensive product range they sell for outdoor sports beyond shoes and clothing,” said Devangshu Dutta, founder of retail consulting firm Third Eyesight. “Even their front end staff seem to have a strong domain knowledge about products compared to rival brands.”

By selling only private labels, Decathlon, the world’s biggest sporting goods firm, controls almost every bit of operations, from pricing and design to distribution, and keeps costs and selling prices low.

Decathlon uses a combination of in-house manufacturing and outsourcing to stock its shelves. In fact, it sources nearly 15% of its global requirement from India across sporting goods. And nearly all of its cricket merchandise sold globally is designed and made in India.

(Published in Economic Times)

The Classic pivot: Charting ITC’s FMCG growth story

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October 13, 2023

Anand JC, Economic Times
13 October 2023

Once the butt of jokes in Dalal Street circles, 113-year-old ITC has turned a new leaf in recent years, as its strategy to derive higher revenue from its consumer business is bearing fruit, bit by bit.

Registered in Calcutta as the Imperial Tobacco Company, the FMCG major has always relied on its cigarettes and leaf tobacco business for a major chunk of its revenues. ITC’s true diversification move might have begun with the launch of its hotel in Chennai in 1975, including a failed attempt at the financial services business, but it wasn’t until August 2001 that the tale of the FMCG behemoth came to be.

Having relied on its cigarette business since 1910, ITC has increasingly sought to earn more from its ‘cleaner’ consumer goods products. In a 2018 interview, CEO Sanjiv Puri admitted that while the journey to diversify the company started a long time ago, it only got traction around 2008. Under Puri’s first term as the ITC chairman, the company embarked on the ‘ITC Next’ strategy. The first decade was focused on preparing the company for the transition, he said. ITC now can innovate products, create brands and allow “pro-neurs” or professional entrepreneurs to build businesses in FMCG.

The plan has worked

ITC, a darling of dividend-led investing lovers, has always been a long-term growth story in the making. Nearly two decades after entering the food business, the company holds a leadership position across categories.

As per the company’s latest annual report, it holds the leadership spot in the branded Atta market through Aashirvaad, cream biscuits segment via Sunfeast, bridges segment of snack foods via Bingo!, notebooks via Classmate and dhoop segment via Mangaldeep. Its Yippee noodles trails Nestle’s Maggi, as the latter continues to lead in a highly consolidated market. However, Yippee has managed to gobble up Maggi’s share at an enviable pace. Capturing these positions, this quickly is no easy feat either.

One of the things that worked for ITC is their understanding of the distribution of products, stemming from their strength in the tobacco business. ITC started exploring aggressively diversifying away from the tobacco business around the 90s, says Devangshu Dutta, head of retail consultancy Third Eyesight.

ITC’s foray into the food business was supported by its presence in the hotel business. “Some of the marquee products that used to be served in their hotel restaurants, packaged dal and so on, they packaged and sold but it was not a humungous success. It was marginal at best.”

“But they started understanding the distribution aspect because those were sold through traditional distribution channels,” Dutta says.

ITC also put in a lot of financial muscle behind the brand building, given no dearth of resources, Dutta says. This helped them grow rapidly in product categories in which they didn’t have a presence earlier on.

“Starting from scratch, particularly on the foods side, ITC has been one of the most successful companies in the last 15-20 years. Their overall revenue this year has been roughly Rs 19,000 crore, out of which Rs 15,000-16,000 is purely from foods segment,” Amnish Aggarwal, Head of Research, Prabhudas Lilladher told ET Online.

“For a company which started this business, maybe, say, two decades back, this is a very big achievement,” he says.

Unlike its commanding position in its cigarette business, ITC’s ‘other-FMCG’ ambitions faced stiff competition from local and national companies in categories including soaps, shampoos, atta, snacks, biscuits, noodles and confectioneries.

Supporting ITC’s ‘other-FMCG’ ambitions is its core competency, the cigarette business. ITC’s consumer business’ growth has weathered storms, in part, thanks to the cash flows generated by its cigarette business which has helped it create stronger brands, an essential part of any consumer-centric business. Through its cigarette business, ITC also gets unparalleled access to a network of brick-and-mortar stores that have a diverse presence across India.

Also complimenting its growth is ITC’s agri-business, a segment which has also grown in strength over the years. From 10 per cent in FY14, the agri-business in FY23 contributed around 24 per cent to the company’s revenue from operations, as per ET Online’s calculations. ITC over the years has invested in building a competitive agri-commodity sourcing expertise. Some of these structural advantages have facilitated the company’s sourcing of agri raw materials for ITC’s branded packaged foods businesses, be it towards its atta, dairy or spices.

Like its peers, ITC too has given a fair deal of importance to its digital push, with more and more companies launching their D2C platforms. These platforms help customers buy products directly from the company website without the hassle of dealing with channel partners, and at the same time, the companies get their hands on first-party data. Such access can help the company market its offerings better. ITC, like some of its other peers, has also been investing in start-ups to diversify its product portfolio. It recently invested in Yoga Bar and Mother Sparsh.

The numbers behind ITC’s consumer business behemoth

Built to engage in the tobacco business, ITC got into cigarette packaging nearly 100 years ago. Another intent in recent decades has been to focus more on the non-cigarette business.

Puri saw it coming.

Upon being asked about the FMCG business overtaking cigarettes, Puri had said “We do not give guidance. But it will certainly happen because the other businesses are growing faster.”

After contributing nearly 62 per cent to the overall revenue in FY14, the cigarettes business in FY23 contributed only around 37 per cent.

ET Online calculations show that the other-FMCG business contributed 17 per cent to the overall revenue in FY14, which grew to 25 per cent in FY23.

Data confirms the claims made in the above segment. ITC’s non-cigarettes businesses have grown over 31-fold and currently form over two-thirds of its net segmental revenues. The company’s other-FMCG business didn’t start turning consistent profits up until FY14. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength.

ITC’s Other FMCG segment (the second largest contributor to sales) is also witnessing strong earnings and growth momentum, unlike most consumer staples peers.

The segment clocked a revenue of 19 per cent YoY while Nestle and Britannia saw 21 and 11 per cent growth each. FMCG EBITDA performance was even better, with the margin expanding by 430 bps YoY to 13.3 per cent & EBITDA growing 2.1x YoY.

Laughing stock no more

For years, the cigarette business has funded the growth of ITC’s other businesses like non-cigarette FMCG products, sometimes to the ire of shareholders who weren’t happy with the slow growth in financials and scrip value.

A slower growth in scrip value meant that for years ITC was also the laughing stock among social media circles. The stock often remained elusive during market rallies in the previous decade, offering poor returns in comparison to FMCG peers. Between 2014 and July 2022, ITC rose with dividends rose 53 per cent while Nifty50 rose 200 per cent, as per moneydhan.com, a SEBI RIA. ITC’s shares trailed the Sensex for five out of eight years through 2020.

“In the last ten years, HUL has done far, far better than ITC. And if you look at other companies in the same universe, say Dabur, it has also given superior performance. ITC has actually underperformed many of the large consumer names,” Aggarwal said.

But fast forward to 2023, not only is it among the best performers within the benchmark index, ITC has even trumped it. While Nifty50 has gained around 17 per cent in the last year, ITC has grown nearly 40 per cent. The ITC scrip in July crossed a market capitalization of Rs 6 lakh crore, beating HUL to become the largest FMCG company.

Sin stock

Prompting a move away to other segments is the nature of the cigarettes business. Tobacco is toxic, and investors are increasingly recognising it as such. Sin stocks are shares of companies engaged in a business or industry that is considered unethical or immoral.

While Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing may be at a nascent stage in India, it is a serious parameter for global investors. Asia’s largest cigarette maker ITC cannot ignore it.

“The company sustained its ‘AA’ rating by MSCI-ESG –the highest amongst global tobacco companies– and was also included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Emerging Markets Index,” Puri noted in the company’s 2022 sustainability report.

Cigarettes, a bitter but essential overhang

For all the accolades for its gains in its other-FMCG business, ITC is nowhere close to ending its love for cigarettes, not that we are claiming it wants to. The Gold Flake-maker currently controls nearly 80% of the cigarette market.

The numbers in recent years suggest that the segment is flourishing more than ever before.

On an annualized basis, the return on depreciated cigarette assets is approaching a staggering 240%, three times the level two decades ago, as per a Bloomberg report. The entire legal cigarette industry was bleeding in the recent past due to punitive and discriminatory taxation on cigarettes. Taxes on cigarettes in India are multiple times higher than in developed countries viz. 17x of USA, 10x of Japan, 7x of Germany and so on, data shows.

But, companies are now recovering due to stable taxation. ITC’s three four-year cigarette sales CAGR are at their best levels since FY15 despite the company not taking material price increases over the last 13-14 months, as per a Motilal Oswal report.

ITC, which accounts for three out of every four cigarettes sold in the white market in the country, is currently seeing its best growth levels in over a decade, and is far superior to the flattish volumes of the past ten and twenty years.

(Published in Economic Times)

All charged up

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September 25, 2023

Akanksha Nagar, Financial Express

September 25, 2023

Adding to the fizz in the energy drink market, NourishCo, a division of Tata Consumer Products (TCP), has unveiled Say Never — a caffeine-based energy drink priced at Rs 10 for a 200 ml cup — in two variants of red (berries) and blue (tropical flavours). In its initial phase of launch, the brand will be available largely through general trade outlets in Karnataka and some key markets of the north, including Delhi, NCR, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Vikram Grover, MD, NourishCo Beverages, TCP, says, “With Say Never we are celebrating the heroes who carve their own path.”

As a functional beverage, the energy drinks segment has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years to stand at Rs 3,500 crore in 2022. Experts reckon the market will touch Rs 10,000 crore by 2027. Red Bull is the category leader with a 61% market share of the market.

PepsiCo’s debut of Sting a few years ago at an inviting Rs 50 for 250 ml (as opposed to Red Bull’s Rs 125 for 250 ml can) had shaken up the category. With a 7% market share Sting has surpassed PepsiCo’s older products like Mountain Dew to become the company’s fastest-growing brand. Charged by Thums Up kept up the buzz for Coca-Cola during the 2023 edition of the Indian Premier League on Star Sports. Grover says Say Never will stand out for two reasons — the attractive price point and the cup delivery format, which the company has used with Gluco+. “The rapid growth in this energy segment in the recent past has come on the back of price disruption, and we feel that we can take that disruption forward,” he adds.

As energy drinks still operate in a niche segment with a premium play, an affordable price point can be a game-changer, say experts. “Affordability is a significant driver in India, especially for pre-teens, teens and college students,” says Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight. For many years energy drinks were treated as a niche premium opportunity, but the availability of lower price options has opened up the mass market as demonstrated by PepsiCo’s Sting in PET bottles with a much lower price point.

While the cola giants have an obvious advantage in terms of shelf space accessibility, given the market’s trajectory even smaller players stand a good chance to create a space for themselves. “Clarity in positioning, techniques to make the brand stand out, and ensuring availability with strong distribution and replenishment is imperative to get ahead,” Dutta suggests.

TCP plays in the energy space with Tata Gluco+, a glucose-based energy drink targeting a young consumer set; for Say Never the target is the youth between the ages of 18 and 35.

Besides pricing, what will be make or break is marketing muscle and a differentiated appeal, says Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting. “Say Never can position itself as a party-drink — akin to how Red Bull is equated with active lifestyles. There are enough opportunities to create nuanced differences in attributes, functional benefits and most of all, emotional benefits.”

NourishCo contributes 4% to the TCP overall business and in Q1 of FY23, its recorded a strong revenue growth of 60%. TCP’s flagship drink Tata Gluco+ registered a growth of 61% in the same period.

(Published in Financial Express)