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‘Chip’ Off The Old Block

Marketers need to discover some obvious facts about old products

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We take so many products for granted, even products that are essential to our daily lives. For example, when was the last time you thought deeply about your toothbrush, its design, colour, bristles or length? Have you reflected on why some colours appear far more often than others on toothbrushes, what the bristles you put into your mouth are really made of, or whether your elderly grandmother actually needs a different sort of brush because of her frail and shaky hands? Similarly, have you taken any time at all to reflect on your coffee mug, bucket, shoe polish or ice-cream cone?

I have found to my delight that looking at common everyday products with fresh new eyes yields fascinating insights and also many curious and useful discoveries. Since these products are used by millions of people worldwide, and because they have been around for so many years or even decades, they have gathered a lot of good consumer moss — the materials they are made of, their designs, flavours, packaging, pricing, etc. have evolved nicely over the years to address specific consumer needs.

Marketers can therefore learn a lot by examining some of these products closely, and many of these lessons are transferable or adaptable to other products too. In this section, you will find my considered reflections on honey, a product I love. I must confess that a gift I received, of some particularly delicious honey, started me off on this exploration. And as I discovered many unknown shades of honey, I was struck by the enormous marketing potential that this product holds. I am convinced that some marketer will soon do with honey what Starbucks has done with coffee.

Equally engaging for me were my reflections on the age-old umbrella, and the multiple needs that this humble household item fulfils and can potentially fulfil. I discovered a gold mine of information about tender coconut water, and how this nutritious natural beverage can be reimagined. Banana chips, the delicious fried snack from Kerala, is another product that I have studied...

If you have to look at old products through new eyes, you have to make time for such curiosity. These explorations generally require a few conversations with people in the know, some focused secondary research using Google or Bing and your local library, and often the most exciting part is experiencing these products anew yourself. For such investment of time and effort, you are likely to be amply rewarded, with multiple new perspectives and some useful insights too.

One of the most beautiful towns of Kerala is Alappuzha (Alleppey), also called “Venice of the East” because of its picturesque canals, lagoons and backwaters. As my wife and I walked towards the boat jetty located alongside one of these canals, we were suddenly drawn to a string of small shops, all of which displayed a single item proudly, in large open baskets — banana chips coloured a deep yellow. Fresh, fragrant and plentiful, you just cannot miss them. In fact, you cannot miss these “Nendran plantain chips”, as they are called, anywhere in Kerala. They are one of the most delicious snacks that God’s Own Country has given us.

Backwaters and weddings

I bought a small quantity to munch slowly as we travelled by a local boat over the languid backwaters from Alappuzha to Kottayam. Fried in coconut oil, crisp and salty with just a hint of sweetness, the chips were mouth-wateringly tasty. The next day, I once again encountered them. This time around, the chips were thicker and smaller, served on a plantain leaf at a wedding feast in Thrippunithura, near Kochi. Eaten with rice and sambar, the chips now took on a new taste, blending wonderfully into the food.

Finally, we went to a famous chips shop in Kochi, and bought a few packets of these banana chips to carry back home to Mumbai. The shopkeeper, who sold us these packets, spoke about how his Dad, who had founded this business, would fry the chips right there in front of the outlet. “That’s how we initially became famous,” he said, “But I won’t boast about the quality of my chips, you should taste them yourself and find out.” He then added that virtually all his customers came back for more. When I asked him whether he had considered branding his chips, he looked at me with surprise. The thought had not occurred to him, he said.

Chips Without Brands
Indeed, this is one of the aspects of Kerala banana chips that has surprised me — the fact that such a delicious snack, which is native to our country, has never been branded. Consider these facts. Across our country, you will find so many brands of potato chips competing for attention — Lay’s from Pepsico, Bingo from ITC, and Pringles from Kellogg’s. You will even find brands of nachos and tortilla chips, such as Cornitos and Doritos, despite the fact that these are exotic chips from faraway Mexico, relatively unknown to middle-class Indians.

Yet I have not come across a single national or really significant brand of banana chips.

I wondered why. My uncle, who owns and manages a reputed snacks manufacturing unit in Mangalore (where he also makes superb potato and banana chips), had a few reasons to offer for the lack of large, national brands. One reason, he told me, is that nendran plantains, which are the raw material for these chips, are grown only in coastal Kerala, Karnataka and some other parts of South India. They are not easily available everywhere to makers of chips, and certainly not in the Northern parts of the country, he added. This is quite true, because many North Indians whom I know have never heard of the nendran.

Another reason he put forward was that these banana chips have been largely manufactured by the unorganised sector all these years. This sector has had neither the inclination nor the capability or resources required to build big brands that could compete with global and Indian majors.

A third reason we discussed was that potato chips and tortilla chips have Western origins. These are products that have first been created and branded in Western countries, and have only thereafter entered countries such as India. Marketers in the US and Europe, the original citadels of branding, have been quick to seize the opportunity to brand these products which had already become popular in their home countries.

Since banana chips have never been native to these advanced nations, there has really been no focus on branding them.

The most important reason, however, could be that consumers across the country (and across the world) are yet to discover the exquisite, delightful, different taste of Kerala style banana chips.

These chips are well known to people in a few pockets of South India, and in most other parts of India, they are entirely unknown, even in unbranded form. So there is no latent demand for banana chips that brands can exploit. On top of that, a new category has to be built — a task which no major brand or marketer has seen worthwhile to undertake until now.

Chips for many needs
What all this means is that there is opportunity waiting, for marketers who wish to seize it. A branding opportunity inevitably exists where there is an existing or latent consumer need that is not currently being met. Here are a few unique and relatively unmet consumer needs that banana chips can surely deliver to:

A segment of chips-seeking consumers will always seek an alternative to potato chips, from time to time. No one wants to eat the same snack all the time. Banana chips offer an excellent alternative to these consumers, equally crisp yet offering a very different taste.

Another segment of consumers will want the satisfying taste and crunch associated with fried chips, yet will also seek a healthier offering. Banana chips can be the answer to this “taste with health” need because they absorb far less oil than potato chips, particularly if fried at the right temperature and in an optimal environment.

Yet another segment of consumers may want chips that retain their shape better, and are more durable. Here again, banana chips can deliver very well, because they do not easily crumble, unlike most potato chips. Banana chips have more body, and are robust in character.

A fourth segment of consumers may want chips which go very well with chilled beer. Here, some of my knowledgeable friends from Kerala (a State which guzzles a lot of beer these days) tell me that banana chips, with their subtle hint of sweetness, make a most wonderful accompaniment — far better than potato chips, and even better than fried peanuts.

There is also the fascination of exotic origin. For some consumers, the fact that these banana chips come from the hinterland of the beautiful backwaters of Kerala, will add to their romantic appeal in a manner that potato chips can never hope to match. This is somewhat like wasabi-flavoured snacks and peanuts, which have begun appearing in many affluent parties today, not just on account of their taste, but also because of their exotic Japanese appeal.

These points constitute just a preliminary exploration, and there may be many other unmet needs too that banana chips can fulfil.

The opportunity awaits I think the branding and marketing opportunity here is not just Indian, it is global. Recently, I heard the story of a German lady tourist, who was fascinated by Kerala-style banana chips during her visit to India, and has now ordered a large consignment to market in her own country. There are similar Kerala-style-banana-chips stories emerging out of the US and Australia. Closer home, in India, fashionable cafes in Mumbai and Delhi have begun offering banana chips as trendy accompaniments to cappuccinos.

In my view, it is only a matter of time before someone builds a huge and successful brand in the category of banana chips, both in India and worldwide, much like Pringles has done in potato chips, and Doritos has done with tortilla chips. I wonder who this will be, but whoever it is, one thing is certain – the successful player will rake in the chips, for sure!


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