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Case Study: The Journey To Rani

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. [Instead] build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — R. Buckminster Fuller

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Robin Verghese heard the door of the apartment open and the familiar sounds — the key dropping into terracota bowl, the door shutting with double lock clicking and the whoop of his dog bounding breathlessly, barking his welcome bark... told him his wife had returned from work. Exactly three minutes later, Robin mimed in sync with Jahnvi as she yelled, “Good Lord, what is this?”

Robin knew the reason for her invoking the Lord — the huge mixie box on the kitchen table. He got up from his desk and walked into the kitchen to find her peering at the rather brightly coloured box, her face clearly speaking her mind, as she poked the box. Turning to him she said, “Rani”? Really? Is that even a name for a mixie? What got into you to buy third-rate stuff? I told you I have seen the Plim 200 and the chap has promised a demo at Foodhall... Rani! Gawwwwwd,” she growled.

As Robin laid the table for dinner, Jahnvi warmed up the food from the refrigerator and on her way to the table, she poked the carton again and this time, she took a step back, ducked and read the print. “Ooh, 750 watts! And where did you find this relic?”

Robin: You can’t think on an empty stomach. I know you too well. We will test it in the morning.

the next morning, Robin woke up to happy sounds from the kitchen. Jahnvi and the housekeeper were laughing away as he entered for his tea. The two had ground the rice that had been soaked the night before and were cooing over the resultant batter.

“I don’t believe this!” said Jahnvi seeing Robin leaning by the doorway. “I have tried out the blender and the mixie and oooh, is she swingin’!” she went on, now kinder towards ‘Rani’. “And how quickly the rice was ground! Who gave it to you?”

Robin: Somebody at work. He wanted me to check its performance...

Work was the marketing department of Elwoods India, a TV and refrigeration company with a growing home appliances division, where Robin was the assistant product manager for Elsa — the mid-level range of home appliances. Elwoods’ home appliances division was small, but confident of growing with its premium silent juicers, food processors, stick blenders, toasters, coffee grinders and coffee machines.

Rani was a small Indian brand from Andhra — known for its sturdy, high performance motor, tough blades and an energy packed performance that had begun to wow customers. Quite unknown outside Karnataka-Andhra-Odisha-Kolkata-Chennai, Rani occupied a significant market share in this region.

Elwoods’ head of product management was Karan Walia who had earlier been in marketing and had moved into product development and management the previous year. He saw this move as opportunity to build good inroads into the Indian market for home appliances, where he felt Elwoods was weak. Elwoods’ juicers and basic mixer-grinders had stood out for their smart looks. Elwoods’ steam irons and vacuum cleaners were seen in the more premium stores, as were its coffee machines. But the biggest seat in home appliances was the household help: the mixer-grinder-blender (MGB). This was a category where if your brand won, then she won everywhere else too, felt Karan.

Time and again, Karan had felt that the MGB was their biggest Achilles heel. In the northern markets, Elsa MGBs had gained a foothold. In the western market too, it had a following although brands from long-standing Indian businesses had an established share. Going by behaviours, he had come to see that the MNC brands were mostly being bought by a different kind of household. The cue came from his own home. The Walias had a large kitchen thanks to his mother and wife who had ousted him and broken down a bedroom to combine it with their kitchen. Thus came by a larger kitchen, prettier and a sensible island in the centre.

But soon the island displayed the proud mother’s successful son’s large company’s sleek products. A little away, where the cooking happened, stood a copycat Sumeet mixie. When her 29-year-old Sumeet gave up, his mother had reluctantly retired it. In came a copycat named ‘Suneeta’ wearing the same colours of red and white and the brand name was also written in the same font as the original. Mother had bought it mistaking it for Sumeet only to find out that this was an imposter.

Suneeta with the same font, same colours, same shape, but without the soul, sat on the counter top, taped and plastered and, most of all, covered with a kitchen towel so that she was not visible. Whatever the veiling, the fact was mom was using an Indian mixie, which she claimed was easier to put together. “There is no this and that to be done to get it working, beta! Aur zyaada deyr bhi chal jaata hai. Your mixies are good to make milk shakes when the kids come home…”
Karan had been annoyed. One other reason was that Elsa’s jar was acrylic and mom was totally anti-plastic. The other was the piano key buttons whose 1-2-3 always confused her whether 3 was low or high!

The resistance at home now became an adamant search for perfection at Elwoods. Karan was determined Elwoods would become Indian in its delivery of cooking appliances. There began his quest.

The more markets and retail outlets he visited, the more he ended up watching buying behaviours. He talked to women, salespersons and distributors. In and through all this, he found that just 2-3 brands — all regional of course — had understood how the Indian cuisine worked, how some kinds of food were cooked, what was core to some cuisines, and so on.

Karan was enlightened. Elsa looked inadequate in the Indian scenario. Could Elsa be reworked? He thought about that. But even so she would not touch the Indian heart, he felt.

Elwoods also had a food processor, the Elsa FP-299, which had been launched quite recently in India. It was a stylish matte-finish grey and black, many-in-one work horse. It did your milk shakes, sliced cucumbers, whisked you a grand salsa, beat up your egg and the star was the oil dispenser attachment, which would drip oil as you whipped your mayonnaise. It had a little see-through jar in which you could chop up vegetables into surprisingly dry itsy bits and not have a messy glop. There was yet another attachment that juiced vegetables and fruits and collected the ‘waste’ in an easy-to-discard chamber.

It was this Elsa-FP that Robin, assistant product manager, working under Karan, had shown his wife Jahnvi at Elwoods’ company showroom last year, wishing to prevent her from buying competitor Plim; but Jahnvi had been annoyingly poker-faced. It was Christmas time and the show room folks had garnished the machine with confetti, glitter and paper maple leaves. There was also a very bad looking Santa Claus leaning on the display shelves. Jahnvi had walked around the rotating console, very annoyed. Robin looked at her helplessly. His multi-million organisation had failed his wife. It had not been able to create a kitchen help to her satisfaction.

“This is not a mixie!” Jahnvi had whispered angrily. “This is just a good looking thing,” she had said quite unhappily. When the FP-299 was launched, Robin was sure Jahnvi would love it. But now it was clear: The Elsa-FP 299 would never enter his home.

Standing in the showroom and continuing to whisper angrily, she said in tinkling agitated Malayalam, “What Indian home wakes up at 6 a.m. and makes salsa? Or mayonnaise? Or use a machine to chop cucumber? Can this do a chutney? There is no chutney jar. And if I want to make dahi vadai... where do I grind the dals? And milk shakes? Seriously Robin, you could have tried lassi!”

Robin knew Elwoods was in the dog house. They could not even make a mixie, then what hope did their TVs have, he had thought sadly.

That was a year ago. Today, after the mixed emotions over Rani, he felt the journey to Rani was destined to be noisy as well.

So, it was that when he reached his office that morning, he ran straight into his boss Karan Walia. Karan thumped his back and said, “Kyon... biwi khush?” But Robin, who was usually at a loss for words, stuttered even as Akshay Dewan, also from marketing, breezed in. “Try kiya, Karan… It’s like a cement mixer!”

Karan: Meaning hardy?

Akshay: Meaning noisy! Rattles your brains off!

Standing there at Karan’s door, the reviews flew around as other product and brand team persons pooled in their verdicts. “The colour is so bad! Orange and purple! My mom turned up her nose!”

“Switches are old fashioned yaar! These are days of piano buttons!”

“Weighs a tonne, my mom needed Iodex by noon!”

“Yaar, you know what I found grand was that where I live, we have so much power fluctuation, but she did not fail! How come?”

“Very untidy looks. When you have these modern good looking kitchens you don’t want an 18th century relic...

Robin remembered Jahnvi had also used the same word... Standing
away from them all, he sent her a WhatsApp message: ‘Was the mixie noisy?’ Back came her reply, “A good worker is noisy…(like me!)”

Robin shuddered. As he put his phone back in his pocket, he happened to glance up and caught Karan looking at him. Robin looked away.

The rest of the people in Karan’s room had grown noisier than before. There was a huge dissonance building up. And this was why.

Six months ago, Karan had mooted this idea with his core team that if Elwoods bought an Indian brand, would that not give them a quantum foothold in the Indian market? Especially the East and South where Elwoods was facing a lot of resistance? And they had all agreed that Elsa lacked something that was core to consumer joy. Uniquely, the brand sold well in the North but no matter what, they were unable to break into the southern market.

Karan then asked them to spot a prospective brand for him and they had jointly shortlisted three brands — Rani, Popular and Interra which held good market shares. Interra was a division of an MNC that wished to sell its appliances business. In short, it was vacating a slot in the market.

Karan’s team had discovered that Interra’s motor was not hardy enough and this was being reported across all its motor-based products from juicers to grinders.

Popular and Rani were both regional brands. While in terms of offerings they seemed identical, Popular lacked service robustness. Naturally, this had a ripple effect, for consumers were unable to experience unbroken joy with the product and the frustration was marked while brand confidence declined rapidly.

But Popular was also popular among the popular names in cookery shows and blogs. In fact, it was this that sent the brand up the charts, but consumer experience and buying behaviours were not matched by the hype. Karan did not wish to buy a brand that needed resurrection. Especially when Rani held her ground and looked poised and confident. She was liked by the channel, by the consumers, by the service team and, most of all, by the brand owner. Karan began to like the personality of Rani.

Even as his team were studying the prospective brands, Karan asked his top three, “Have you been able to understand where Elsa is lacking? I mean Rani has such poise, of course, we know the whole nine yards about service and channel loyalty... those are inorganic. But what is that one thing that gives Rani this familiarity, presence, in consumer homes?

Amarinder, his assistant product head, had said affably, “Rani does not act smart.”

Karan shot up in shock , and asked in surprise, “What?”

Amarinder: She is like a servant, sorry for using such terms, but what I mean is she is not attempting to look smarter than her boss, her madam. She serves, she does. She has no secrets. She is not difficult to understand. She does not make her owner feel, ‘Hai, yeh mere bas ki baat nahin hai…’ (Oh, dear, this is beyond me...). Her switches are functional, she is hardy, strong, no hidden buttons or smart alecky-ness. All you see is all there is to see….

Karan laughed loud. “Amarinder you are a genius! Where did this insight come from?”

Amarinder: Aisa hai, we were posted in Guntur when dad was in the Army. My mother is a very simple person. The only people she was comfortable dealing with were the staff. She would say, ‘These people are so easy to be with’. My uncle had bought her a German grinder, food processor and she would be scared to use it. She worried it would break as she found it very glossy and delicate. But when she used her Sumeet, she was cool handling it with one hand! She would say, ‘This is like an extension of myself! He serves me, and sits quietly without reminding me that he did the work!’ That is what I remembered when I saw Rani.

Karan: And Elsa? You don’t get that feeling?

Amarinder (laughing): Elsa has an air of superiority. My mother does not touch it. She calls it stylish memsaab! But has not opined on its performance as she does not use it.

Karan: Suppose we say there will always be exceptions. Why is the South market universally bad for us?

Amarinder: Frankly Karan, what all has Elsa done to enter South markets? We just took those of our products that succeeded in the North and West markets and launched them in South. Where did we study the market and its users? We simply extrapolated North onto South! But I know South is way, way, way different. Our distribution in South states was nothing to write home about. We did some half-hearted trade schemes, but where do these attempts sustain?
but Elsa’s market performance had continued to disturb him and Karan addressed this in a Monday meeting — Bhai, kya hai about the South ki hamari Elsa nahi bik rahi hai?

Many reasons were thrown up. Some by women managers as users and some by the rest as marketing or sales or service viewpoints. That was when Karan toyed with the idea of buying Rani. Question was why should Rani want to sell?

Speaking for Karan, Tanisha Pillai said, “Simply the price that we offer Rani should be too attractive to pass. And that money can be used by them to set up entry into adjacent segments later!

Amarinder: How can they? There will surely be a non-compete clause that would prevent them from competing in the same categories for at least five years. But my point is, more than Rani or Popular wanting to sell, it is we, Elsa, who want market share.

For Karan, it was just an idea that he had wanted to explore. But then, neither was he testing it for fun nor was he going to compromise on the detail. He got together three of his sound managers in product management — Amarinder, Channi Varia and Ira Patel. Briefing them he said, “Check out the three brands I have told you but I have my eye on Rani. This is a brand that will suit us best. Phir bhi, you guys check the market feelings.

Ira went one step ahead. She took her cousin Amrita with her on her trip to Bangalore. She said to her, “I need a good mixie. A really good one. All the ones in Mumbai are beyond sad. Can you go to Megacity and check out the brands? And call me if you think you have found the best. I am told all major brands are at this place.”

Amrita was bowled over by the size of Megacity. Fortunately, there was one customer already studying mixies. Amrita struck a conversation.

Lady: I had a huge state-of-the-art food processor, a stick blender and a small coffee grinder with a smoothie attachment, which I used to whip up kadhis. I also had a smoothie maker from a renowned brand, which sadly conked off and there was no after-sales in India. Had enough! Finally, an Indian kitchen needs only a mixie. All the food processors and stick blenders have only a limited use. Best received as gifts ha ha ha…. There are some things that only a mixie can do. A sturdy, hardy 700 watts fellow.

Amrita smiled. She saw the shelves and was alarmed by the variety of names. She saw the salesperson leaning on a rack playing ‘Snakes’. I need to buy a very good mixie. What will you recommend? How is Interra? Popular nahi hai kya?

Salesman: It’s ok...

Amrita: Ok, which would you say is a good mixie? You are standing in the home appliances section, you can’t pretend you don’t know!

Sales: Pointing to a carton that said Rani and tapping it and joining the index finger and thumb to make an ‘O’ he waved it decisively and said ‘best’.

Amrita read ‘Rani’ and scowled. “What kind of name is that? Never heard it!”

Sales: How not heard? New or what in Bengaluru?

Amrita: Yes, you are clever!

Sales: Best brand. Very famous.

later, she would narrate to Ira, “He went into overdrive giving me big time spiel. He said, ‘I am guaranteeing, my personal guarantee, you won’t ever have a compliant’. And with that, he picked up the carton and put it into my trolley.”

Ira: And bas, so you bought it? Based on one salesman’s guarantee? Are you mad! So, what made you buy it?

Amrita: In that short exchange with Sukumaran, I was almost mesmerised that if half of the South and East is using this machine, you are already in safe hands. Yaar, that is how I would make my decision, now stop scolding me.

Today in Karan’s room, Ira joined all the noisy folks who had reports on Popular, Interra and Rani; how they were perceived by the consumer, by the trade, in retail, how they presented on shelves... And in comparison to Elsa. All this was being thrown around in Karan’s room that day.
It was clear that Karan was going to present the idea finally to Dave Wilkins, the global head of appliances. So, each one who had studied the market felt doubly responsible for feedback.

Karan went up to Robin and leaning next to him against the conference table, he asked in a whisper, “Kya boli biwi? I see, she sent you a message….it was about Rani?”

Before Robin could say anything Karan took the phone from his shirt pocket and said, “Show me what she said…” Smiling, Robin showed it to him and Karan smiled as he read, “A good worker is noisy... (like me)!”

“I have found my brand!” he called out to his team.

To be continued...

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