CONSUMER IS QUEEN

When my middle-class, educated mom added a little bit of Baba Ramdev to my soap and detergent

Quartz india
Quartz india

It all began with that toothpaste last year.

In early 2015, my mother brought home Patanjali’s Dant-kanti, an Ayurvedic toothpaste sold by Indian yoga guru Ramdev. Within a few months, Patanjali’s neem-and-turmeric-infused brand had replaced the white and minty ones, such as Pepsodent, which my middle-class parents had used for years.

Then, last week, my mother—an educated, working 62-year-old woman, and a moderately experimental consumer—walked down to the newly-opened Patanjali store in our South Delhi neighbourhood and mounted a bit of a raid. She returned with over a dozen products such as rice, biscuits, salty snacks, detergent, soaps, mango drink, dry fruits, mustard oil, and face-wash. The total bill amounted to a little under Rs800.

I was more than a little flummoxed by this sudden indulgence in Patanjali products, though I knew mom had religiously followed Ramdev’s televised yoga lessons through the mid-2000s.

As a reporter who had interviewed Ramdev, my curiosity about what makes a consumer buy his brand was answered—at home.

So, I sat her down to figure out why she was swapping her beloved multinational brands—Pond’s, Lux, Liril, and maybe even Tetley tea and Kanodia mustard oilfor Ramdev’s Patanjali?

“He is bringing back products and ingredients that are natural and were used much before chemical-based products became popular,” mom said, citing sandalwood, multani mitti (fuller’s clay), aloe vera and rose water that go into the making of Patanjali’s beauty products.

It’s not my mother alone. Hordes of Indian consumers are taken in by this sales pitch.

Since 2013, Ramdev’s Patanjali has exploded on the consumer goods scene, riling companies such as Hindustan Unilever and Colgate, which have essentially built India’s $50-billion fast moving consumer goods market. From a turnover of Rs2,000 crore in 2014-15, Patanjali Ayurved’s revenues more than doubled to Rs5,000 crore for the year ending March31 2016. By 2017, it hopes to double its turnover to Rs10,000 crore.

In Ramdev we trust

Middle-income households, like mine, that are typically more price-conscious and less brand-conscious are fuelling this rise.

Her initial exposure to Patanjali products, my mother confesses over a cup of Tata tea, was restricted to either advertisements on Hindi news channels or word of mouth from her circle of friends.

“Now everyone is selling them and talking about these products, so there must be something,” my mother says, explaining her shopping spree. “Plus there is always a curiosity to see new products that come into the market.”

Till around five years ago, Patanjali products were only available at a few retail outlets, and that, too, sporadically. Most large retailers were wary of stocking a brand that was relatively new, and low on margins to boot. Also, the company’s wide portfolio made it difficult for a small shop to stock all its products. Patanjali is known to have 400 stock keeping units (SKU) or pack sizes, across multiple categories such as personal care, food & beverage, medicines, and household care.

But as demand has grown, it has been expanding its retail network. There are now over 10,000 dedicated Patanjali stores—chikitsalayas and kendrasacross India. Owned by franchisees, mostly in middle-income neighbourhoods, these no-frill stores vary in size and format and are stacked with rows of products. They have one thing in common, besides the products: pictures of the inimitable Ramdev.

By allowing customers to check out the company’s entire range under a single roof, these stores are turning out to be the game-changer. “It’s like a one-stop shop,” my mother says.

Now, even top retailers are keen on Ramdev’s products. Last year, one of the country’s largest retailers, the Kishore Biyani-promoted Future Group, tied up with Patanjali to stock their products. Biyani himself is a follower of Ramdev’s yoga.

So, what’s my mom’s biggest incentive for swapping her regular Pond’s face-wash with Patanjali’s brand Soundarya?

“I think, or so we are made to believe, that these products are chemical-free,” she says. “It is Ayurvedic.”

“Of course, some products are cheap, but not so much that it matters,” she continues. “When I’m getting something for Rs150 that which costs Rs700 in other brands, why not at least try it?” she says referring to Patanjali’s anti-wrinkle cream that has replaced Olay and Pond’s products.

But how does she trust Patanjali’s claims? “It says so on the packaging,” she says, citing the label of a mango drink. “Look, we can’t trust all claims, but so far none of the products have harmed me.”

I asked her if she knows where all the products come from. Patanjali does not manufacture everything it sells; like most others, Patanjali, too, relies on contract manufacturers and vendors. Mom is unperturbed: “It’s okay, I don’t expect them to make so many products in one go.”

Yet, there are products she doesn’t like or would never buy again. The shampoo, for instance, doesn’t suit her hair. The rice, which she thought lacked taste and aroma, will not be purchased again. “We are just trying right now because there is so much and not everything is worth buying again,” she says.

But the aam panna (mango-pulp drink) and detergent have been recommended to six people already.

And then she throws me off with another narrative: nationalism. That’s a term the orange-robed Ramdev has been hawking in his interviews, deftly combining it with the idea of “economic” and “mental” independence from foreign products.

“Look, we have to rely on more products made by Indian companies than relying on imports,” my mother earnestly argues.

Even as my mother welcomes home more Patanjali products, multinational consumer goods companies in India aren’t taking it lying down. Colgate, for instance, is planning to launch more herbal toothpaste to take on Patanjali’s offerings. It’ll be a hard-fought battle. But if Baba Ramdev loses ground, I’ll know. After all, it began with that toothpaste last year.

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