Monday, July 26, 2021

When in India, do as the Indians do

It’s no secret that India can be a tricky market to crack for international brands. Why is that? Almond Branding’s Shashwat Das explores.

Recently, I came across a pack of Kellogg’s upma. Being a die-hard upma fan, I picked up that pack the moment I saw it. But more than what was inside, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about a popular saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them!”

When Kellogg’s debuted in India in the mid-1990s, it came with a repertoire of internationally-proven brands, years of marketing and consumer experience, deep pockets and, above all, an experience of changing the breakfast habits in a couple of countries. First, Kellogg’s changed the way Americans have their breakfast, then it changed the French, and then the South Koreans.

With a penchant for accepting all things western, India should have technically been a cakewalk for Kellogg’s. But, there was one thing that Kellogg’s did not take into account about India.

With 28 states and eight Union Territories, India is a land of diverse cultures when it comes to food habits. Unlike France and South Korea, where Kellogg’s dealt with just a few breakfast items like croissants and coffee, and noodles respectively, in India, Kellogg’s had to deal with 36 different heartthrobs! And as they say, fighting a single enemy is easy, but fighting 36 strongly entrenched enemies simultaneously is a tough job.

Kellogg’s tried tooth and nail to change India’s breakfast habit – from hot breakfast to a cold one, but simply couldn’t get Indians to dump their piping hot dishes.

While Kellogg’s did convert some customers, the majority remained elusive. So, realising that this may just prove to be its nemesis, Kellogg’s decided to do the right thing – can’t beat them, so join them. To me, Kellogg’s upma seems to be the first step in that direction.

Shashwat Das

Kellogg’s is not the only one to have changed its tried and tested formula for the Indian market. In fact, there are scores of them. McDonald’s dropped beef and pork from its menu, and introduced paneer and other Indian fillings and toppings. Then it introduced a Maharaja Mac, an equivalent of the all-beef Big Mac! McD even had to introduce eggless mayonnaise and sauces to gain acceptance.

KFC, the other biggie, was forced to introduce a veg menu in India, a first for the company internationally in its relaunch (KFC had to shut down its operations briefly over multiple issues in its first innings). Even Pizza Hut launched its first vegetarian restaurant in Ahmedabad, along with an option of Jain toppings!

While some brands like McD did their homework right before launching themselves in India, others like KFC learned it the hard way.

But the fact remains that India has proven to be the most difficult market for most brands, particularly those which came with a belief that their experience in the western countries will come in handy here.

So, what makes India such a challenging market, where even the most well-known brands had to unlearn their years of experience and start with a clean slate?

Besides the standard 4Ps (Product, Price, Packaging and Promotion), international brands and Indian start-ups, who want to launch themselves in the Indian market, need to be aware of 4Cs too!


India is a diverse country. Let alone a state, but the culture changes here almost every 100 km! Hence, brands, and food brands in particular, have to understand the nuances of the local culture to be accepted. Remember, you are dealing with 36 different countries and not with one India!

Cost of ownership

India is a place that believes in “Kitna Deti Hai” first, rather than the sleek, slender shape of the car. Maruti Suzuki was one of the first ones to realise this and offered cars that were not the best looking ones, but surely were high on fuel efficiency and low on cost of ownership. Another example is the McAloo Tikki (burger), which even today remains a big draw.

Connect emotionally

While Indians are very forward-looking and quick to adopt new things, especially technology, we are also very nostalgic about our past. Paper Boat capitalised on this nostalgia when it introduced its range of beverages with flavours that almost everybody has experienced in their childhood. This nostalgia was also supported by innovative packaging, which further enhanced the product’s appeal, making the brand a huge hit. This was a very different approach than Tropicana, which focuses on the range of flavours alone, without connecting emotionally.

Chhota packet

In 1983, a small company launched its shampoo as a single-use sachet. Little did the Chik shampoo makers realise then they had just unleashed the Genie out of the bottle. Today, almost everything is available in sachet packs. Sachets not only bring affordability to the brand, but also promote trials, bring ease of use and, above all, open a huge market that can’t afford to buy, or don’t want to buy the full pack.

India is very different from other countries. It may appear to be a very large homologous market from the outside. But on the inside, we are a conglomerate of 36 smaller markets, with each one having its own unique culture and behaviour.

International brands wanting to start in India, or even home-grown start-ups, need to realise that they are not dealing with India as a county, but 36 different entities that make India. Hence, when in India, do as the Indians do.

(Shashwat Das is the Founder of Almond Branding – a strategic branding and design agency that has worked with brands like Tata, ITC, Amul, Parle, Kelloggs and Dabur.)

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