A few months ago, when asked to speak about value-addition at a food industry seminar, I decided, in a deviation from the usual discussion, to dissect the meaning of “value”.
Most people in industry focus on only one dimension of value-addition – the economic value added by processing and transforming food raw materials – virtually ignoring two other dimensions which are required for most of the (undernourished) population: calorific value and nutritional value (see “Perishable Value Opportunities”).
At the end of that seminar session, an agriculturist from the audience put forth a very pointed question: “What is the cost of the potatoes in a bag of branded chips that sells for Rs. 10? Or to put it another way, how much of the retail price actually goes back to the potato farmer?”
The question, of course, was completely loaded with angst on the economic imbalance between farm and factory, supplier and buyer, small and big, rural and urban. But it also underlined missed opportunities to capture economic value, which in turn accentuate the imbalances in growth.
Economic value can be added to food through improvement, providing protection, changing the basic product and through marketing. Improvement typically focuses on seeds, growing techniques and post-harvest areas for improved quality of harvests, disease resistance, better colours, size and flavour, possibly nutrition. Protection initiatives work across cultivation, harvest and post-harvest, storage, during processing, through packaging, while change is essentially focused on processing techniques (cooking, combining, breaking down and reconstitution).
There is a lot of work going on in the food supply chain to enhance the value captured closer to the farmgate. And, certainly, the “value-added” earlier is vital to maintaining and building value later in the supply chain.
However, what is striking is the fact that as we move downstream towards final consumption, the economic value captured as a price premium also increases dramatically.
So, as depressing as the multiplier may be to the farmer, on a kilo-for-kilo comparison, the bag of factory-fresh potato chips is priced many times higher than his farm-fresh potatoes. And, the maximum economic value is created, or at least captured, by the act of branding and marketing.
The Love is in the Brand
A short quiz break: can you recall the “most valuable company” in the world in August 2011, as measured by valuation on the stock market?
The answer is Apple. It is a company that physically manufactures nothing, but tightly controls the design, development, sourcing, distribution and, yes, branding of a group of products and services, whose fans seem to grow by the minute.
Of course, one can argue that Apple “produces” by the very act of designing completely new, highly desirable, products that are not available from anyone else, and that this is what provides the premium. But similar premium – which is due to branding and marketing, rather than proprietary products – is also visible in thousands of companies, across product sectors, including food. That sustained price premium is the sign that the consumer trusts and wants a particular brand’s product more than another one. There is a hook, a strong connect, due to which that consumer is willing to lighten her wallet just that much more.
In India, surprisingly, “value-addition” discussions in the food industry focus almost entirely on cultivation, storage and transformation through processing, virtually ignoring branding and marketing. In fact, branding is usually only discussed in the context of multinationals or some of the largest Indian companies. What’s more, most of the brands discussed are focussed largely in the area of processed food products that originated in the west.
Run these tests yourself. When you think of food and beverage branded companies who do you think of? And, when you think of food brands, what kind of products come to mind first?
The answer is that the brand landscape is dominated by products such as biscuits and cookies, jams, fruit and non-fruit beverages, potato chips, 2-minute noodles, confectionary products and food supplements, mostly from the portfolio of some of the largest companies operating in the market.
Of course, there are some alternative examples.
Aashirvaad and Kitchens of India present quintessentially Indian products (albeit from the gigantic stables of ITC which also has a multinational parent).
And, yes, there are cooperatives such as Lijjat, as well as home-grown mid-sized companies such as the Indian snack maker Haldiram’s, spice brands such as MTR and MDH, pickle brands such as “Mother’s Recipe”, rice brands such as Kohinoor and Daawat.
But, given the size of the Indian food market and the width and depth of Indian cuisine, shouldn’t there be more brands that are Indian and focussed on essentially Indian food products?
This is a tremendous opportunity – a gap – not just in the Indian market (among the largest and fastest growing in the world), but also globally.
The Hurdles to Branding
So, why aren’t there more Indian brands?
Let’s face it, for most companies, marketing fulfils one need: to communicate their name to potential customers. Most of them generally hope that if they do it enough, they would actually be able to sell more volume.
Of course, no one has been able to draw a straight line graph that correlates more marketing expense with higher sales.
Those are two self-destructive notions. Obviously, if marketing is an expense, then it must be minimised! And secondly, if it cannot be proven to be effective, why would you spend money doing it? For most people, branding is even fuzzier in that regard, in terms of what it is and what it achieves.
However, the picture changes when you look at marketing as an investment rather than an expense. As we evaluate any investment, there should be an expected return that should be quantifiable. Examples of Apple and other brands make it amply clear that branding and marketing, when done well, can certainly create quantifiable financial returns on the investment.
The second hurdle to branding and marketing is that they require consistency, which is not a strong point for most wannabe brands. They end up with too many messages to the consumer, or the messages keep changing and shifting. The company, the name, end up representing many things, sometimes everything, and eventually nothing.
The third, enormous, hurdle is the time needed to develop a brand with a decent sized marketing footprint and a deep relationship with the consumer. Most small and mid-sized companies, constrained as they are for resources, focus on areas that seem to offer more immediate returns, such as distribution margins or discounts, or even expansion of production capacity. Especially in the early years of the business, the benefits of branding and marketing seem to be too far in the future to be a priority for investment.
Due to these one of these reasons or a combination, many companies are unable to see their brands through to success. In fact, sadly, most companies do not last long enough to become owners of successful brands.
Even those who do achieve success and even market leadership, sometimes choose to cash-out on their success by selling their brands to larger competitors, rather than competing with the financial might of the giants (such as Thums Up being sold to Coca Cola; Kissan, Kwality and Milkfood being sold to Hindustan Unilever).
In the past, one of the other barriers in India was the hugely fragmented retail and distribution system, which essentially sapped energy, resources and focus for any company that wished to grow a brand across regions. In fact, one of the key lessons from the western markets is that the growth of brands has been closely linked to the expansion of retail chains. So, certainly, we should view the growth of modern retail in India as a platform for the emergence of regional, national and global Indian food brands.
However, there is a flip side to this retail growth. In the west, most retailers were focussed on running shops, and were content to leave product development and brand development to their suppliers, the national brands. These retailers began looking at private labels only as an additional source of margin well after they had gained scale, and even then they ventured rather carefully into the space. In India, on the other hand, private label is very high on the priority list of our nascent modern retailers, precisely because the effectiveness of that business model has been proven elsewhere and because there are such few national brands that have a strong, irrevocable connect with the consumer.
Should You Invest in Branding?
The short answer is to that question is: yes.
It doesn’t matter if you run a small company or start-up, or a more mature company. It doesn’t matter whether you are selling a consumer product directly, which is the most effective and most necessary playing field for building a brand, or an intermediate product or service where you can still achieve a premium within the trade.
If you are committed to selling only commodities, where your selling prices are determined only by the tug-of-war between supply and demand, government policies and Acts of God, then you wouldn’t be reading this article.
Since you are reading this, you should brand.
In the short to medium term, if you do the job well, your customers will pay you a premium. And in the mid to long term, financial investors looking to ride India’s economic growth are more willing to put their money in a company that has a recognisable hook and a trading premium over its generic competition.
The brand can be built on any platform for which there could be a discernible premium. This can be trust (quality, quantity), simplicity and convenience (prepared snacks and meals, pre-ground spices, flour instead of grain), or even novelty (fizzy coloured sweetened water, reconstituted potato “chips” so uniform in shape and size such that they fit into a cylinder). Organic, vegan, fair-trade – you take your pick of the platform on which to build the brand.
Possibly the strongest driver of premium and brand value is a properly maintained heritage. Some brands have a past, some of them even have a history, but very few have a heritage. If your business has a history, there is a heritage waiting to be discovered, and it is worth a lot.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that a brand should become anchored at a certain historical time point and expect to only milk its age. Heritage is always viewed in a cultural context and culture evolves over time, so the most effective brands maintain a link between the attributes of their past to their ever-evolving present.
As with most other things, it is good idea to start early. Take on board the lessons of branding early in the company’s life so that the foundation is strong, and the brand can grow organically. As a side benefit, strongly branded companies also have strong and cohesive organisation cultures, a fantastic defence during times of high employee attrition.
The Global Branding Opportunity for Indian Food Companies
One of the most important ingredients of a good brand is clarity of identity and origin.
Often we confuse identity with the name, the logo, fonts or colours associated with a brand. Yes, a brand’s identity is certainly indicated by these – as much as our name and our physical appearance indicate our identity. However, the identity itself is much larger; in fact, it is helpful to think of the brand’s identity as a personality. The personality gets expressed in many different ways, but is tied together in a definable manner and has some strong traits that define its actions.
There are clear statements that can be associated with effective brands, whether or not they have been expressed by the company or brand in any of its formal communications. For instance, some globally relevant Indian brands include Tata Nano (“frugal engineering”), the Taj Mahal (“timeless beauty”), Goa (“party”), Rajasthan (“royal exotica”), and Kerala (“bliss”).
(I am deliberately picking “global relevance” as a theme to keep in mind that there is, literally, a world of opportunity that we could be looking at.)
We find a high number of tourism-related brands in this list, because these are destinations that pull the customer in – as long as they are true to themselves and relevant to the context of the consumer, they will be successful.
More conventional consumer product brands, on the other hand, must work harder to fit into the consumer own context, especially as they move away from their geographical origin, their home market.
This is particularly true of food, which is widely divergent across geographies. Some products can be adopted into multiple cuisines, offering more easily accessible opportunities and potentially greater scale. Rice and generic spices fit the bill here. However, for most other food items, the context of the home country cuisine is vital. Therefore, the growth of food brands, not surprisingly, is linked to the expansion of cuisines across borders. It is partly driven by the movement of people, and partly by the movement of culture (television and movies being the most important in current times), mostly both together.
For Indian companies, there is certainly an opportunity to ride on the back of the Indian diaspora across the world. And now there is an additional opportunity: expatriates who spend a few years living and working in India can also help to carry the cuisine and its associated brands out.
Finished product brands such as Tasty Bite, Haldiram’s and Amul are good examples of diaspora-led expansion, where the original driver was to bring people of Indian-origin a taste of home. In fact, Amul has recently announced that it wants to set up a manufacturing plant for cheese and other dairy products in the US, to service the Indian-origin population more effectively. Should it be restricted only to that? Certainly not; availability, if supported well by branding, can help it to cross into other segments as well.
As the consumption of Indian food grows across ethnic lines, it is likely to drive the growth of Indian ingredients as well – a perfect vehicle for branded ingredient suppliers. What’s more, Indian recipe books could even specify Amul Cheddar Cheese, MDH Chaat Masala or MTR’s Dosa Mix as ingredients – they wouldn’t achieve a 100% hit rate, but it would certainly be significantly higher than zero!
There is an opportunity to capture economic value that branding offers, which is very often greater than any other process in the food supply chain. Remember two phrases made famous by Hollywood: “show me the money” and “show me some love”. In the business of brands, these are one and the same.
It’s worth asking: do we have the patience to live through the lifecycle of a brand, and can we commit resources to nurturing it? If the answer is “yes” to both, we are most likely to benefit from branding.
Here’s to more Indian food brands that grow within India and across the world.
(If you need support with growing brands, do connect with us.)
REVIEW: FLIP THE FUNNEL: Joseph Jaffe (John Wiley & Sons)
I’ve read Joseph Jaffe’s book across multiple air journeys, nationally and internationally. I agreed with the principles described and saw parallels with excellent services businesses over the past few years. However, the implications didn’t quite strike me in the gut until I realised – while writing this on board an aircraft – that the journeys I had taken with this book had also been with just one airline.
My loyalty to this airline is not because of the mileage card I hold, although their mileage programme is certainly among the best in the world. It is not because they were the cheapest or the most on-time, though they compete favourably with other comparable airlines.
My loyalty to them is because of what they did during the Mumbai floods in July 2005. Those who remember the chaos, through personal experience or through media, wouldn’t blame airline staff for abandoning their counters, and leaving the airport to try and reach home as early as they could. Certainly most of them must have felt helpless in the face of increasingly desperate passengers who couldn’t expect to depart any time soon. Jet Airways stood out as being the only one in Mumbai’s Terminal 1-B whose team felt responsible enough to stay back at the airport to be available to the passengers. Not only did they ensure that the passengers stuck in the terminal were safe, but that all waiting passengers got three meals a day! Whether or not they were flying with Jet Airways.
Now, in telling you about incident, I have closed the loop and given you a living example of the “flipped funnel” that Jaffe describes in the book.
The normal marketing funnel is described by the process Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action (or “AIDA”) which underlies the spray-and-pray approach of traditional marketing. The result of AIDA is that a lot of customers become aware of a business, brand or product. Some are interested enough to seek out the product. However the number who move on to the next stage of actually expressing desire to buy is lower, and those who actually buy are fewer still, as amply demonstrated by carts being abandoned before actually checking out.
Jaffe points out that the AIDA principle was created in times of abundant growth in the US, but is a suicidal funnel to fall into when resources are scarce. It is lopsided, with more money being spent on customers who will not buy. It is linear and does not capture the complexity of buying behaviour. It is open and incomplete because it only handles potential customers up to the point where they become actual customers, but does nothing with them thereafter. AIDA also inherently assumes customer churn, hence the opening focus on creating awareness among potentially new customers.
The alternative principles Jaffe describes are simple: getting more customers to buy from us and more often (repeat purchases), to spend increasing amounts with us (loyalty), and finally, to recommend us to their friends and associates (referrals). However, to do this requires dramatically different thinking from AIDA spray-and-pray. Jaffe’s alternative model – ADIA (Acknowledgment, Dialogue, Incentivisation and Activation) – focuses on customers more than prospects.
Acknowledging customers itself is such a major stumbling block for so many companies, such as the retailer whose front-line staff would prefer to fold and put away garments than meeting the eyes of the customer who has walked into the store. In some cases it may be about using technology effectively rather than as a barrier. When the taxi company can recognise the number you are calling from and close your order in less than 120 seconds, why does the telephone company that issued that number make you jump through burning hoops for 5-10 minutes before they will allow you to request a duplicate bill?
That acknowledgement should lead to an on-going dialogue, before, through and well after the purchase is done. This would be supported by constant incentives for the customer to buy more from you. It is not about having a loyalty programme, as Jaffe quotes studies that demonstrate that loyalty programmes alone don’t produce loyalty; in fact there are enough businesses that do not run loyalty schemes but have what can only be called fan followings.
The final link in that funnel is building that community of evangelist enthusiasts who will carry your brand message farther and far more effectively than any traditional form of marketing could. Religious organisations have known this for thousands of years – it is high time that businesses and other organisations recognised the power of the community as well.
Jaffe acknowledges that Seth Godin actually came up with the term “flipping the funnel” over 3 years ago, when he released the e-book of that name (available on sethgodin.typepad.com) primarily about using social media effectively. Jaffe, to his credit, has applied the principles more fully across the marketing and customer service process.
Jaffe recently sold his business, crayon, but has kept his title “Chief Interruptor” at the acquiring company. If you want to make your marketing really pay, you’ll find it worthwhile letting “Flip the Funnel” interrupt your normal marketing thought-process.
(This review was written for Businessworld.)
Are you being carried, or are you carrying others?
To know the answer to that question, bear with me while I take you on a short mental journey through the emerging landscape of “ethical business” and to the stories at the end of this piece. (Okay, you can cheat and skip ahead, but I would really prefer you to read through the whole thing.)
For the most part sustainability and responsibility – or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) to use the proper jargon – is seen as more relevant to the western economies, rather than the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.
The pressure to do the ‘right thing’ is like a carpenter’s vice, whose one jaw is public opinion and the other is regulation, together squeezing ever tighter on corporate business. Clearly, there is a significant portion of customers in western markets who are vocal in expressing their opinions on business practices that are seen as wrong or unethical. On the other side, judicial implementation of regulations is also extremely stringent.
In fact, in the last 10-15 years CSR and sustainability have become far more important to top management in western economies since the real penalties in terms of negative impact on the brand and financial penalties through regulation and litigation are extremely high. Multi-billion dollar businesses certainly have much at risk, as demonstrated by well-documented PR disasters of large brands and retailers in the last decade or so. The variety of issues they have faced has covered sweatshop factories, child-labour, product safety, food adulteration and many others.
Since the mid-1990s there has been a steady increase in CSR initiatives, or at least an increase in initiatives that are labelled under the CSR umbrella. There is no doubt that there is good intent behind many CSR initiatives.
Some of these are focussed on improving the core business processes and practices of the company, and have measurable improvement goals that also have a positive impact beyond the company itself. These can truly be called socially-responsible corporate initiatives.
However, one can’t help but question many others which are fuzzy in their impact on both within the business and outside. The motivation of this type of initiative seems to be a two-pronged PR effort: firstly to get positive PR for “good work” mostly unrelated to the business and secondly, more importantly, to avoid negative PR for poor or questionable business practices in the company’s mainstream products or services.
Lest I sound too cynical about the corporate efforts, let me say this: there is also lack of clarity and agreement in non-corporate circles about what constitutes “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible business”. The label is relatively new to mainstream management thinking and very mutable. Social responsibility, ethical business, sustainability are all terms that are broad-based, used interchangeably, and are open to interpretation which can change with the context. (I wrote about this in an earlier column “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel” about 18 months ago.)
And that brings me to four separate incidents that happened recently, which are (in hindsight) neatly threaded together with a common thought process. (Thank you for your patience so far!)
The first was a discussion recently initiated by an international organisation about what could motivate Indian brands and retailers to make moves in the area of corporate responsibility, whether regulations needed to be tighter or whether it would be consumer pressure that would bring about a change. The underlying assumption – right or wrong – was that, as corporate entities, Indian retailers and brands were not sufficiently motivated to take significant and visible steps towards making their businesses more sustainable and socially responsible than their current state. The discussion was inconclusive, with many different, all potentially valid, points of view on the subject.
Very soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Gurcharan Das, the philosopher-author who, in his last corporate role, was Managing Director – Strategic Planning for Procter & Gamble worldwide. The dialogue primarily centred on his latest book: “The Difficulty of Being Good”. There was much debate and discussion on the wider consequence of individual actions and especially of those in positions of authority, highlighting the importance of individual choices.
A few days later, in a totally different context and with an entirely different person, the third incident occurred, when I was told an updated version of an old story to demonstrate the power of “a few good men” (and women). The story was as follows:
“50 people were travelling in a bus. Part-way through the journey, the weather suddenly turned stormy, with massive thunder and lightning bolts cracking all over the place. At times it seemed as if lightning would strike the bus and kill everyone on board. Then, someone proclaimed that there was someone on the bus whose end had come, who the lightning was seeking, and that it would be better for everyone else to get that person off the bus. The driver stopped the bus, and each person was sent off by turn, to go and touch a tree at a distance. 49 people got off the bus and returned unharmed after touching the tree. Then, as the last person got off and walked away from the bus, the bus was struck by a massive bolt of lightning.”
I thought this was a gruesome but effective moral science tale! During the next few hours I went about my activities, but kept mulling over the lesson(s) in that little story.
Then, that very afternoon, I got an email containing the following thought: “…when it looks like the whole place is going to implode – with pollution, disease, and war; famine, fatigue, and fright – there are still those who see the beauty. Who act with kindness. And who live with hope and gratitude. Actually, they carry the entire planet. (Mike Dooley)”
In looking back to the article 18-months ago, I closed the loop: it is the individual manager, who is also a citizen in a community, a consumer, and as a parent a stakeholder in future generations, who has to make the choices. His or her choices – both right and wrong – do have an impact beyond his or her own life and business. The so-called triple bottom line – profit, people (community) and planet (environment) – are irrelevant unless the first question is answered: “what does this mean for me?”
So as we go about our day, launching and growing brands, opening new stores, creating new products, I offer you this thought to reflect upon: are we carrying, or being carried? Is the bus safe because of us, or are we the ones the lightning is seeking?
[Go to the earlier post: “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel“, December 2008]
For someone who loves books and dislikes naming favourites, it’s tough to quickly make a list of only 10 must-read books. There are so many valuable books an entrepreneur can learn from that this list is only a starting point, rather than “the Top-10”. But, then, one of the most important things an entrepreneur can do is to overcome his or her own resistance at some of the most inconvenient times. So here goes!
The thing about lists is that even if you find one item on the list that makes a substantial difference to you, the list has been useful. Among the above, I believe you will find more than one that will create such an impact. Happy reading!
[Column written for The Economic Times, 13 November 2009]
It has been around 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and about 150 years since the publication of his and Alfred Wallace’s thoughts on evolution by natural selection. In their honour, let us remind ourselves of the basic theory that all of us learn at school. (So I’m a few months late acknowledging it – please bear with me!)
On Evolution: Change Happens
(1) Species differ from each other, but individuals within a species also differ from each other quite a bit.
(2) These differences are due to changes to the basic genetic framework of the organism (mutations) which can get passed on to following generations.
(3) The environment keeps changing physically, climatically and biologically.
(4) In the new (changed) environment some of the mutations survive better than others (“natural selection”).
(5) The effect of these changes over several generation results in the evolution of species, and the rise of new species.
The primary reason I am highlighting this theory is because, to my mind, businesses are like living beings. Businesses are conceived, given birth to, they grow, and most of them die after a few years or a few decades. During their life some businesses get married (merged or acquired), and sometimes they give birth to other businesses.
About 2-3 years ago, the business climate seemed predictable and only looking upwards – the biggest challenges in the food and grocery sector seemed to be whether your ambition was bigger than your competitor’s. Many predictions were made about how the large – more “organised” – businesses would quickly kill the small.
However, with much turmoil in the business environment in the last year or so, it is evident now that it is not just the small companies that are vulnerable. The change in the environment is also giving new growth opportunities to the smaller or younger, previously vulnerable, businesses. While some of the larger businesses have died or are in the process of dying, some of the smaller businesses are mutating even more to survive better in the changed surroundings.
Although small businesses are always looking for growth, the new environment can bring such a surplus of opportunities that, in the helter-skelter growth the learnings are quickly lost and the business may actually go off the tracks.
On Process: Passing On the Genes
The challenge for the smaller businesses now is to pass on their genes down the generations; for the management to ensure that the newer stores and the newer recruits gain from the learning and the adaptations already in the organisation.
At an entrepreneurial stage, the core team handles critical activities and is on call to guide others. The team is knit quite tightly, and located geographically close together. The stores are few and in locations with a similar environment. “Knowledge” is inherent in the way you do things, guided rather than taught.
You may recall my stressing culture and organisational personality, the “people” end, in a previous article. At the early stage of the business, very often, that is all there is. But growth needs replication and predictability.
Biology again gives us a great lesson in how to replicate learnings and functionality: genes (DNA) provide the template for cell functions, and are reproduced almost faithfully from previous generations.
In a business, such replication comes from well-designed processes incorporating the intent, the activities and the desired outcomes. For growth, processes are a must; they are the genetic code of the business. Processes provide the design for how a customer would interact with the store, how the store would interact within itself and with other points in the organisation, and how the organisation would interact with external agencies.
You may ask, “How much process should we depend on, and how prescriptive or restrictive should we make them?” You may also point out that processes start off with very good intention, but with time – and often distance from head office – the processes decay.
And you would be right.
On Decay: Bad or Good
Even in bureaucratic organisations, adjustments are made to fit people or situations, and that causes the process to mutate. Sometimes the change is temporary, at other times the process may change completely and permanently. If changes happen passively and are not channelled the existing process will decay.
I use the word “decay” carefully. While the process change itself may be good at a point (e.g. responding to a customer need), the organisation as a whole may not learn much from it, or the change may affect one part of the organisation and not others. If that happens, the organisation and its systems will become dysfunctional at some point.
For instance, it could be the little leeway that the merchandising head provided to some managers that erupts into an uncontrolled working capital epidemic across the chain. Or a margin adjustment with a vendor at a certain point in time becomes a deadly norm.
So, back to evolution: mutations are a fact of life. Adaptations are happening because of the changes in the environment. Managers need to critically question: does this change meet a current ongoing need or provide an ongoing advantage, and can it apply to the rest of the business? If the answer is no, ask people to read the rule-book (the process manual).
If the answer is yes to both, change the rules, and make sure the new process is implemented quickly and smoothly across the organisation. Then it will be “adaptation” rather than “decay”.
After all, the conclusion that Darwin, Wallace and many others have given us is this: it is not the strongest, the biggest, the fastest, but the most adaptive who survive.