Before his electrifying speech at Goafest 2017, Balkrishna Suvedi, better known as Acharya Balkrishna, the low-profile CEO of Patanjali Ayurved, spoke to exchange4media, answering questions with ready repartee and a great clarity of thought that has clearly been instrumental in taking Patanjali Ayurved to where it is today. Here, Balkrishna talks about the company’s expansion plans, aspiration of becoming a multinational company, and of course, controversies.
Tell us why you decided to open a manufacturing unit in Nepal, and are you planning to start one in Bangladesh or Pakistan soon.
We manage to do a fairly good level of production in our recently-opened Nepal unit. We want to expand Patanjali Ayurved to other countries slowly. So far, we were occupied with catering to the increasing demands of people in India. Now that we have set up so many manufacturing units here, we plan to focus on other countries too.
Patanjali Ayurved has waged a war against MNCs by extensively using the ‘swadeshi’ card in India, why do you think Patanjali will then get acceptability outside India? Isn’t that contradictory?
There are two things I’d like to say here. One, if we establish a unit outside of India, like in Nepal, then we would use 100 per cent of the profits we get there for the betterment of that country. And we will only expand to countries, which don’t have many resources so that we can contribute to the education and health of masses there. If the MNCs operating in India do the same here, then we will be happy to welcome them. In fact, we want them to do this in India and mend their ways. Through Patanjali, we have just given the Indian population an alternative, when earlier they had no choice but to buy products made by the MNCs.
So would you say that the MNCs in India don’t do anything for the population here?
Yes, they do pay taxes and people often argue that the MNCs are thus contributing to our country’s revenue. But everybody does that, even the Indian firms. What we are doing is go beyond that for the betterment of people in the countries in which we are setting up units, through our various welfare activities. Most importantly, we are not in any way trying to change or take people away from their traditions, we will do all we can to preserve it.
You are also planning to export Patanjali goods to China. Which of your products do you see clicking there?
Interestingly, just a couple of days ago, I found that several Patanjali products are finding their way to China illegally, through the back door. It means there is a demand, a craze for Patanjali products in China. These products are sent via Nepal and other routes. We have our network there. China has been dumping their substandard products in India. We are in fact going to do a good turn to them by providing good quality products. I am positive China will welcome us wholeheartedly.
But time and again, questions have been raised about the quality control aspect of Patanjali products. Additionally, your company was also fined Rs 11 lakh by the Haridwar Court for misbranding products…
As far as the misbranding case is concerned, it was a non-issue. They had a problem with regard to the labelling on the packets. For example, they said we can’t use the word ‘lychee’ on our product ‘Patanjali lychee honey’. Also, in the same case, three out of five products were cleared but two weren’t simply because of pressure from the Government. There is nothing wrong with the quality of our products. Patanjali has a research lab with more than 250 scientists, and also a Bio-safety Level 3 lab set up with modern equipment and top-level scientists along with our own knowledge of tradition. This combination is something only Patanjali Ayurved can boast of in the whole world. No one can challenge us there.
According to the same Court order, your company was found guilty of releasing misleading advertisements by selling certain products made by other companies under PAL’s name… what do you say to that?
Your information is wrong; you can visit us in our unit, where more than 20,000 people are working. These are very old rumours, but they fell flat because they are lies.
You started Patanjali Ayurved about a decade ago, but started advertising only in late 2015, after which Patanjali became a brand to watch out for. How much credit do you give to advertising for your success?
There are two types of advertising, one which is done for the sake of it and the other to dispense information. Our strategy has always been to make informational ads, which only focus on the product benefits. People needed to know that Patanjali makes so many products now and thus advertising had a big role to play in it. But we don’t put out ads that would make any fake promise to the consumer or show them wrong dreams or false illusions. We shall never ever make such ads to fool our consumers.
How much of your total revenue is dedicated to advertising?
We don’t spend a lot on advertising, just two-three per cent of our annual turnover.
You had claimed last year that you would double your revenue and even leave Colgate behind by the end of 2016. Is that on track?
I am not aware of Colgate’s revenue this year. But we had an aim of reaching Rs 10,000 crore revenue by the year-end and I think we are almost there.
Patanjali has always advertised aggressively on Television, but of late you are turning the focus on Digital. Why?
Patanjali has a very strong youth following; we wanted to reach out to them via the Digital medium.
A lot of MNCs have started their own herbal line of products after Patanjali’s success. Do you feel vindicated?
In MNCs ne desh ko bahut saara chemical khilaa karke logon ki sehat ke sath bahot khilwaad kiya hai, ab jadi-bootiya khila kar ke usi sehat ko theek karna chaahte hai, toh khushi ki baat hai (These companies, for years, have fed chemicals to our countrymen, playing with their health. Now, if they want to set it right by giving them herbal products instead, then it is a good development.) I am proud to say that we set the trend and now that we are successful, many have come to follow our footsteps.
Do you think celebrity brand ambassadors help a brand grow, considering that you have Sushil Kumar and Hema Malini on board promoting Patanjali now?
Hema Malini has endorsed our product for free; wrestler Sushil Kumar had himself approached us and shown interest. We told him you are a wrestler whose lifeline is ghee, so why don’t you endorse Patanjali ghee. But we don’t believe we need celebrities to sell our products.
Do you think controversies help a brand? Baba Ramdev is known to make statements like ‘Patanjali will make Nestle’s bird fly away’ and ‘shut Colgate’s gate’?
You are a better person to comment on that than me.
Patanjali doesn’t carry out any external market research before launching products. Has that ever backfired?
So far, not a single one of our products has failed in the market.
Tell us about some new products that are going to be launched next.
At the moment, we are strengthening our existing line of products. Yes, there are plans to launch some new products like herbal tea and Patanjali jeans, but the research is still going on, so it will take time.
Now that Patanjali has really branched out, to what extent are you involved in the day-to-day operations of the company?
I have nothing else to do and am thus involved in every step along the way, be it making policy decisions or day-to-day operations. I try to personally interact with every single person in our organization and hear their views out.
You are such a successful CEO, why do you prefer to keep a low profile?
Aadmi zameen pe rehta hai toh zameen se neeche nahi girega. Upar hota hai toh gir sakta hai, isliye zameen pe rehna achha hota hai. (One can’t fall if he is grounded).