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Case Study: Come, Meet Rani

“True cultural connection is the Holy Grail for brands if they want to create an enduring emotional relationship with people.” — Adam Chmielowski

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Karan Walia stepped off the plane and switching on his phone read a message from Dave Wilkins, global appliances head of Elwoods International. “I am at the Irish Bar. We can walk to the next terminal after a sandwich.” Dave had flown into Frankfurt from Washington and Karan from New Delhi and both were heading for a product management conference with R&D. A unique item on the agenda of this conference was introduction of a competitor product or a new product that a competitor was doing well in, but in which Elwoods had no presence in that region. Or, if an Elwoods product was making waves in one region whereas it was slow in another, then the successful region would present the success.

Routine greetings followed and finally Karan pulled out a photograph and slid it before Dave. In the dim light of the Irish Bar, Dave figured this was going to be Karan’s point at the conference.

Dave: Who is this?

Karan: Rani…. A regional brand that is sweeping the East and South.

Dave: So, what’s with her?

Karan: A model of success. We need a brand like her…. She can give our Elsa a run for her money.

Dave: Oh! Then, you don’t have an Elwoods success to talk about? I know I know, you are making a point about making our brand locally relevant. But you are changing Elsa’s script itself now, isn’t it? You want Elsa to change! I have always told you, give us a brief and we will develop what suits your market. We will come to that later. For now, sell what we have in our stable —our toasters, juicers, food processors, sandwich grills, waffle irons, coffee machines…

Karan: Dave, we try very hard. The promos on these have exceeded budgets. I have told you that we have been totally unable to make inroads into the South and the East markets, entirely because their cooking styles are different from the
North where Elwoods has a good market.

Dave: But then, we are selling very well in western India! Their cooking can’t be so different?

Karan: It actually is. You take Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra. Grinding is predominantly a feature in Maharashtra. I analysed this recently when I went about studying every market. It seems to me Maharashtrian cooking involves more of lighter grinding like coconut, as against grains and lentils in the South.

But West Maharashtra — those districts that are closer to Mumbai — have chosen to run with Elwoods and our competition. But going eastwards, buying behaviours in districts such as Nagpur, Yavatmal… their buying behaviour matches those in the East — Bihar, Kolkata, so you will see less and less of Elwoods there.

India is different, I have told you. To the extent of urbanisation, you will sell toasters and juicers. But what about the rest of India, which is vaster than urbanised India? The lady in Dharwad, for example, also serves juices to her family, but she does not buy an Elwoods Juicer, noiseless or not. She seems to vest her faith in the local brands — Sparrow, Dharani…

Then, there is the matter of after-sales service. The prime mover behind a brand is the assurance that the brand follows you wherever you go, with cheap and accessible after-sales service, not merely a bored call-centre. We will do some retail visits and you can observe how every prospect invariably asks about ‘after-sales service/cost of spares’. The common refrain ‘Service kaise hai iski?’ is the equivalent of ‘How much does she give?’ in cars. And that is something Elsa hasn’t been able to build due to pressure on margins. I know you will say an MNC has royalty to pay, higher overheads, etc., unlike an Indian brand. But frankly that is not the consumer’s problem! She wants to know who will look after the product once I bring her home. And for that, she wants service that knows the product, that is happy delivering it and dependable. Dave…. Our after-sales is very bad; you know and I know.

Dave: Well! What can I say! I have never understood why we need such a high servicing level in India when in the other Asian countries, in Australia in Europe… we have not needed after-sales with such intensity!

Karan: And I can tell you why. Elsa is not entirely in sync with Indian cuisine needs. You need 750 watts, very simply. If not, the lady is going to overwork Elsa. The other thing, of course, is the most annoying power fluctuation and sudden failures that damage the product. This is a given in India, hence your offering has to come with built-in protection.

Our brands are not in sync with Indian cooking methods and eating habits. Yes, I eat a toast at breakfast. But do I want to occupy 16” x 8” space in my kitchen with a toaster? No. Most kitchens are small. Juicer, yes, we do juices but twice a week. It takes me as much time to clean the juicer as it takes for me to wash the vegetables in the Kent. So, we end up just eating them. Food processors cannot cut okra or bottle gourd or French beans or bitter gourd or pumpkin the way we use them in our cooking. And we cook a lot of these. I have an Elwoods FP 299, but we use them in winter for grating red carrots for halwa. Yes, that red stuff I got you last year. Sometimes we make pesto. But the FP occupies half my island in the kitchen for which space there are other strong contenders! Yes, the coffee machine is a winner… so too the coffee grinder, which we use for dry masalas as we get ground coffee…
Dave: And you forget Elsa, the mixer-grinder-blender (MGB).

Karan: Dave, I asked for a heavy duty mixie. I told you grinding of lentils and rice is huge in India. You gave me a 500-watt machine that does not handle rice and dal. It gets overheated. The Indian woman does a lot of the home management herself. Then again, she has to wager with the power supply. Now he is there, now he is not.... And he is more not, than there!

How much can we trade off for good looks?

Dave: Well, I heard a lot about Plim’s Food Processor and its lavish entry into the Indian market. Are you saying it is not doing well?

Karan: India is a mixed bag, Dave. You have a sharp skew among the urban educated in high-paying, top jobs where a point comes when you start looking for ‘What else can I buy?’ That segment definitely bought the Plim FP. But the few who are really hands-on cooks have found the user manual pointless. While it tells you how to assemble that monster, and it tells you how you can make coleslaw, for God’s sake, you need to understand that your Plim FP is not just being sold to a person, but it is being sold to Indian cuisine. Is there a good fit? I would examine that first. In fact, if you recall our tiny tiff over the launch of our smoothie maker. I had told you to rename it as the lassi maker. Smoothie is not Indian. Yes, Janardhan (India Marketing Head) has a smoothie for breakfast. He is a fitness freak. The average Indian is not fitness conscious when it comes to food; he may go to the gym, but will still lust for his paneer makhni and bisi-bele or amras pooris. India drinks lassi in every state, throughout the year. All we needed to do was adapt your recipes using the Indian lassi habit. But our smoothie maker is still an alien. Four families I met, kept their smoothie maker in the cupboard!

Dave (smiling): And you are saying?

Karan: The most used appliance gets pride of place on the kitchen platform. Nobody else. All the other guys — smoothie makers, juicers, waffle irons, sandwich irons… neatly in their cartons under the bed storage or in the lofts. Dave, the cook must be in the kitchen not on top of a cupboard! Never mind, we are talking about a mixie now.

My point is, don’t enter India. Enter our kitchen and our habits.

Dave: So, let me understand, where did Plim go wrong?

Karan: I am not saying they went wrong. I am saying there is a heck of a lot of money in the entry, just make sure you have a seat earmarked for you. Like Philips’ air fryer. At first, everyone was peering at it through the glass…. And imagining, ‘What can this do?’ I went to buy one and the fellow said, “Oh, no. We don’t do demos”. You won’t do demos? And you want me to chip out Rs 8,000? And then, Foodhall did the most brilliant act. There, in their cold storage, they began to use the air fryer — for you to see! They pulled out their marinated meat and potato things from the freezer, they air fried it right before you and let you eat it too. So many conversions they got!

The Plim FP did not do that. The stores created an exclusive aura by saying, “The Plim rep will be in on Tuesdays. Why don’t you come and ask him?” This is the arrogance I address. You, the brand, need to be dying to sell! My point is, you have four blades, three jars, and a gaggle of other attachments. Show me how you work it and I will figure what parts of my cooking your Plim can do. They have been in the market two years, they have not made a serious dent other than selling to some super high income homes. Your serious cooks are in India, Dave. Find them, take your product to them, ask them, ‘ Where does a product like mine fit into your cooking habits…?’

Dave: And for all your talk, I have inputs from the market that the air fryer is good for only French fries and nuggets that come out of the freezer.

Karan: The thing is, if you get a good demo, then the good mind knows what else it can do. I know any number of people who are creating magic with the air fryer. India has a vast repertoire in cuisines. There is just so much you can do with it! Yes, it is meant to cut out oil, so don’t look for dhabha dripping deliciousness.

Let it be, Dave, what is my point? Understand the cuisine and sell to the cuisine. Because to do that, you would have truly understood what your product can do for the cuisine. The consumer is a given, thereafter.

Dave: And you are saying we have not understood Indian cuisine.

Karan: Yes, I am saying precisely that. And how you sell, that speaks for your care. This, I learnt from you. Possible that many men in the West rustle up their lunch and know knobs and buttons and stuff. In India, the cook and the kitchen management is predominantly the woman even now; and you, the manufacturer, must therefore have in place a person who has experienced the product. We had a modular kitchen installed by our builder and he had chosen a top drawer combination oven for which the manufacturer sent a technician, repeat, a technician to show us how it works. The man did not know what broiling was; did not know under what conditions I need to use the fan and the oven icon and under what conditions not to use the fan. He could not get to the thaw function, which was actually a combination of two functions but he told my wife, “You will be able to figure it out”. This points to a marketing that is male led, male thought, male felt and male decided. How can a man sell to a woman products that are used predominantly by women?

Dave: And that translates to?

Karan: To this: you quite clearly don’t give a damn whether you are liked or not, what you care about is top line, pushing a sale, entering a home, signing an AMC, making your brand visible in the home. This is the kind of brand that we should not be! It should make a difference to us how the consumer feels about our brand! If you are truly smart, you will go back and visit your buyer and see how she is using your product. I recall the time we had bought a second refrigerator because we thought our first was old and ailing. This first, we had bought overseas, it was 16 years old and working well, and my wife had an emotional attachment to it. The second refrigerator was delivered and two guys came the next day to instal it. One of them, the senior, looked at it and went misty eyed. Knew the parts intimately and told us about the greatness of the brand. He was touching it like you would your child who has come home for the holidays. He told my wife, “Don’t ever get rid of this beauty. In case you face a problem, which you won’t, call me. I will have her up and singing in no time. They don’t make refrigerators like this anymore…” he said.

See how well he knew the product and the brand! That is how our people need to know the appliances.

Dave: Make your point, you story teller…

Karan: Hire women to sell appliances not disinterested men, for heaven’s sake. Men can’t talk food unless it’s around a table and over beer. You must hear women talk food… it is music…. Especially the gals who seriously cook.

Dave: And all this spiel was for hiring women in appliances sales?

Karan: Dave... we must buy Rani.

Dave (startled): Eh? What’s going on?

Karan: Dave, I am serious. Rani is the kind of mixie we should have made. She has all the gusto, the power, the verve, the grandeur that will sit so well with us.

Dave: This is now getting absurd. Why do you want a local brand?

Karan: A local brand is a sigma of your entire culture; an MNC grown brand is not. A local appliance brand, has clearly been grown organically — at least, this one seems to be, as there is so much structure… it understands what the needs from the product are, and has no pretences. To build such a brand takes years, Dave... years!

Dave: Karan, Elsa’s brand equity is very visible, renowned. We cannot do
these fly-by-night acts. We should develop our own brand. We have an international portfolio. You are thinking India. But I need to think Japan, Australia, Europe... We have an image of elegance world over. I see your passion, I know how sincerely you are committed to bringing good cooking processes to the Indian user. I promise you, I love your attitude. But we cannot buy a local brand, my friend!

Karan: Look, allow me... first of all, food is a very regional business. How people cook also varies is what I found in my research. In some regions, women add the masalas into the hot oil. But in some other regions like Rajasthan, they mix it in dahi or water and then add it. In the same way, how they use the appliances depends on their kitchen environments, cooking styles, food habits, etc. So on and so forth. All this is part of the entire learning process behind Indian cooking, and cooking appliances, that I have been watching and studying and assimilating the last 12 months. Anyone wanting to enter appliances has to go the whole nine yards painstakingly. If you have a lady manager who is a hands on cook, on this you halve your time. Company learns gradually how regions prepare their food, how they cook, what appliances they need and accordingly the equipment offerings from us also develops.

Can we afford this long haul? Say yes, and I am game.

Dave: Give me a prototype Karan and I will grow you an Indian brand out of our stable — 700 watts, 750 watts... whatever the demand is. Exactly as you want it.

Karan (recalling Amarinder’s words): I feel anything that comes out of an MNC stable will be alienating or inhibiting. One or the other.

Dave: Now that is new! Where did this come from?

Karan: A lot that the Indian woman does is with her hands. Indian cooking is like that. You need equipment to work for you, not be delicate and elegant. So, we have wooden muddlers, stone mortars, iron woks, marble rolling pins…. No plastic and glass and la-di-dah. Your mixie has to have that ‘I am a toughie’ appeal. But importantly, the experience has been that stylish glass and steel finish fellows leave the woman cook in doubt and hesitation.

All this has to enter the personality of your mixer-grinder. That learning and development by an MNC will take time and effort. It makes more sense to buy a brand that is already successful and with it the learning, than reinvent the wheel. This is what I feel. The second reason: all said and done, the go-to market, which is the distribution in India is still very unorganised. About 92-93 per cent is still very unorganised. All mom and pop. Which means they go by a lot of loyalty towards brands and distributors than the company and that takes time to develop and cannot be built for the asking. Dave, the minute a product comes from your stable it is seen as an MNC offering and channel can be standoffish.

So yes, channel loyalty and retail advocacy is huge to the success of an appliance brand. A lot of wooing and worship will be needed to have the channel look your way. But crucial is the consumer-habits-learning. What we learnt from exploring the market was way, way beyond what any first-hand study could have brought for us. Add channel friendship, and Rani is your bet. She captures the mood perfectly. Yes, yes, yes… I used the product and speak from the little I experience as a Sunday cook.

Dave: This is crazy. And you are saying Elsa is not good enough for the Indian kitchen?

Karan: Dave, I think I am so sold on Rani that anything we do will be a waste of time. Here is your formula for market supremacy. All we need to do is make them an offer. I hear they may not be averse to selling as they are entering new business. But if you think like I do, then this is the point: Can an MNC enter the Indian kitchen with a will to deliver the performance that the Indian woman (cook) wants? What is the point selling to them a mixie that whips and blends? If she is not getting from your 450-watt machine the joy of easy cooking, why put more money on Elsa’s advertising? I dare say she is not even being heard!
And this, Dave: The Indian woman comes with a ‘value for money’ mindset. Even if you develop a hardy home appliance for India, it is going to be premium priced. Whereas the Indian housewife wants a hard working appliance at a value price — may not be the Miss World in looks. Seriously, why are you wasting costs on conforming with global standards in appliances on environment, RoHS compliance, etc.? These are not mandatory in India and simply add to cost of selling.

Dave: Bottom line, Karan?

Karan: Three point strategy: a) We cannot wait for 2-3 years for global R&D to start thinking. The market is in the here and now and people will not stop eating. I would like to go buy out Rani. b) And on its back you can push the international range in these cities since we are facing a barrier in the South and East markets. c) I want the appliances business to be woman centric hence thought out by women. So, we need to get the gals in!
Please come to India, I want you to meet Rani...

To be continued...

Read Case Analysis: Debabrata Mukherjee | Shireesh Joshi

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