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Rising Health Consciousness Amongst Consumers Is Creating A Niche: Prashant Parmeswaran, CEO and MD, Soulfull

In an interview with BW Businesworld, Parmeswaran, CEO and MD, Soulfull, talks about the brand, new launches and more

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Fuelled by the mission to bring back traditional Indian grains into the spotlight, Prashant Parmeswaran set up Kottaram Agro Foods in June 2011. Soulfull - the flagship brand of Kottaram has now successfully established its presence in the millet based snacks and breakfast category in India.

Prashant realised the potential of traditional Indian grains with its multiple health benefits and identified the growing demand of superfoods in countries across the world. He returned to India from the US with an idea of creating healthy products using the humble ancient grain of India- millets which are super healthy, farmer and environment friendly making it a superfood.
In an interview with BW Businesworld, Parmeswaran,  CEO and MD, Soulfull, talks about the brand, new launches and more

From where did you derive the idea of marketing traditional Indian grains into this new and interesting package? 
Soulfull was born out of my curiosity and intent to revolutionize the humble Indian grains – Millets. During my stay in the United States, I witnessed the rising popularity of superfoods, such as quinoa. It is then that I realized the need to explore the power of Indian superfood- millets. I truly believe that India is a very diverse country in every sense, including diversity in foods and tastes. Traditionally, India has been blessed with myriads of superfoods, and when it comes to curating a healthy meal, we don't need to look beyond our traditional grains. However, the knowledge of millets was lost somewhere post the Green Revolution and educating consumers about the benefits of India's ancient superfood was the need of the hour. Hence, Soulfull believed that there was a need to extend this enriching and nutritious lineage to something we could consume daily. With this thought as the brand ethos, we decided to create millet based snacks and cereals such as, Ragi Bites, Millet Muesli, Loopies, Masala Oats, Ragi Flakes, Desi Muesli, and Smoothix. These snacks are not only revolutionary in nature but also strive towards building a palatable snacking item to suit the Indian taste.

How do you convince your customers about your products being tasty together with healthy as grains like millets are generally assumed to be healthy but not tasty?
Product development is at the heart of Soulfull’s offerings, and has been a force of growth for the brand. We have developed innovative range of products keeping in mind the developing taste buds of our 21st century customers. Today, many Indians are unaware of the potential of millets and have general myths built in their minds about millets being tasteless. Soulfull leveraged this as an opportunity to use the power of innovation to turn millets into a healthy, convenient and tasty snack. We have introduced product options for every moment in the day. For breakfast, we have offerings through flakes and muesli, if you are missing meals or in-between snacks we have Smoothix, for kids snacks we have our flagship brand, called Ragi Bites, people who like savory products can have Desi Muesli or the masala oats. It’s been a journey, but in 6-7 years we have churned out 20 different products. We have a very strong activation machinery in place that allows us to reach our consumers to sample our products, thereby breaking the myth around millet  not being tasty. There is also a special focus on our packaging to look contemporary and high appetizing value. Additionally, Soulfull is continuously in touch with consumers for feedback and recommendation. Our digital and CRM teams ensure they take these inputs from the consumers all the time to make better offerings that fit their lifestyle well. 

After succeeding in breakfast marketing, you have launched drinks as well. How's the response from consumers?  
The launch of our new beverage offering, Smoothix was based on the insight that consumption moments are dramatically changing and consumers are no longer sticking to the ‘3 meals a day’ schedule. There are multiple in-between meal moments where the consumer does not have too many options. Smoothix therefore brought together the health of 12 grains, no added sugar into a ready-to-mix drink that is available in a shaker. This makes the offering convenient, healthy and tasty. The brand has witnessed loyalty from consumers in its first phase of launch. Seeing the success, we are launching bigger packs, subscriptions to cater to their requirements. We will also look at other preferred flavours to expand the portfolio.

How challenging was it to return from the US to India and enter into this very different market?
I drew a lot of learnings during my stay in the US. Coming from an agricultural background, I had a decent grounding in the subject. That set the ball rolling for R&D and Manufacturing. The low awareness of Millets created initial bottlenecks when we expanded out of our South Indian markets. There were apprehension on taste of our products and we had to work harder to ensure that the taste is right. Till we raised funds in 2018, the first 7 years were mostly capital pooled in. Hence we had to be picky and hands-on for all our initiatives. We had to set up market by market as we expanded. But this also gave us our initial learnings and helped streamline our GTM strategy. That is helping us scale up much faster right now.

How difficult/easy was it to enter an already established snacking market?
India is at the cusp of surging urbanization, growth in number of double income household, and rising time-poverty. This has an enormous impact on the consumption patterns, especially in the food category and has fueled the demand for convenience foods as consumers no longer have the time to make such delicacies at home. At the same time, rising health consciousness amongst the consumers is creating a niche for healthy snacking products. Additionally, the Indian consumer is no longer bound by the three fixed meals a day. The consumption moments have increased and as a testament to this, the Snack Food segment revenue amounts to US$5,254m in 2019 and the market is expected to grow annually by 7.5% (CAGR 2019-2023). We firmly believe that this is an opportunity for Soulfull.

While the Indian snacking market is established with a wide range of products, Soulfull stands out in the market due to its unique and innovative millet-based offering. Soulfull has managed to maintain and edge over its competition due to the use of the superfood- Ragi which is a rich source of fiber, calcium and additional nutrients. The packaging had to be customized and the distribution increased to be more relevant and available to the consumers. Additionally, to capitalize on the evolving consumer dynamics, Soulfull offers the goodness of millets in different formats suited to cater diverse consumer groups, lifestyle, taste and convenience.

What are your quality standards?
Soulfull is ISO 22000 certified. Our products are also Halal certified. We set very high standards of quality of our products and have a team of experts dedicated to look at the same. Our machinery is state of the art and imported to provide the best quality output of products. We are also the first to set up a value add Millet factory in India. 

What is your strategy to deal with your biggest competitors?
Our biggest USP and competitive advantage is the use of Millets in our products that none of our competitors have been able to replicate. Millets not only bring nutrition to the consumer, it is also good for the environment and the farmer. This chain of benefits creates a very strong story for brand Soulfull and has created huge affinity for our brand. In terms of availability of our products, we are rapidly ramping up distribution. We are available in 25 cities across India and plan to be in 50k GT outlets by the end of the 2021. Our Modern Trade presence is also very strong where we rub shoulder to shoulder with our competition. Our products are competitively priced thus providing value to our consumers. Our ability to turn around new products quickly, coupled with a very agile go to market strategy helps us counter and stay ahead of competition. 

What's going to be your growth mantra in the coming years? 
Soulfull’s mission has been to move away from the breakfast cereal space and be the food partner for the consumers, give them the choice of when they want to have it, how they want to have it. Additionally, the near terms goal is to push distribution to around 50,000 stores in the next 2 years. In fact, we recently have gone international with LULU Dubai and will keep an eye out for such strategic partnerships. We will also be building on our media presence and increasing the demand for our products.

Product innovations continue to be on the priority list with newer SKUs, flavors and also move to adjacent categories as prospects. With a push from government and international bodies, the millet movement in India is going to gain momentum. Soulfull wants to be the flag bearer of the Indian millet movement.

How's your presence in rural areas? Are you planning to launch new products to meet the revenue target? 

We are currently focusing to build infrastructure in top 100 cities in India. There is much to be done in this space in terms of building our distribution and creating additional consumer base. Having said that, we are evaluating strategic partnerships with agencies who can take our products beyond Tier 1 cities. We will see how the initial pilot works out before setting up our infrastructure. 

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