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Ashok K Aggarwal

President | 06 Nov 2004

“It is not like if one brand has become popular, we will sell everything under that umbrella. So, neither Rajnigandha can have a brand extension nor can any product fall in the category of Rajnigandha. Likewise, when we talk of Baba, the message is world’s best tobacco. So Baba cannot be about paan masala, it’s the nation’s first saffron flavoured chewing tobacco that has set global benchmarks for quality since 1929. It is not like anything and everything being sold under the same brand name.”

DS Group, the homegrown food product manufacturing and marketing company with an annual turnover of Rs 750 crore, is celebrating its 75th year this month. The net worth of the company has grown by more than 2.5 times over the last five years. An increase of more than 65 per cent in sales has been recorded between 1998 and 2003. Riding on the success stories of Rajnigandha, Baba and Catch beverages, the DS Group is now also planning to boost exports and enter into new segments.

On the eve of the platinum jubilee celebration, dwelling on the group’s vision,Ashok K Aggarwal, President, DS Group, discusses with Malini Menon of exchange4media the brand strategy of the company and how it strives for consistently high levels of productivity. Excerpts:

Q. DS Group is going to complete 75 years now. What’s your vision for the company?

The vision is to reach the top. There are very few homegrown companies that have succeeded in reaching their 75th year. We have been very lucky to do so. While celebrating the 75th year, we are looking at the 100th year when we will be the No. 1 company in the country in food and beverages and also in other diversified businesses that we are planning to enter, besides continuing the leadership in our core business of tobacco and tobacco-related products.

Q. From Rajnigandha to Catch – how has the brand journey been?

We perceive that brand is all about top-of-the-mind recall. Therefore, to us it’s a process, a strategy that brand building ought to be continuous. In that process, the brand should be built in such a way that the moment the consumer thinks of Rajnigandha, the message that would come across should be that it is a premium, 100 per cent paan masala, and zero per cent tobacco. So, it is not like if one brand has become popular, we will sell everything under the umbrella of Rajnigandha. So, neither Rajnigandha can have a brand extension nor can any product fall in the category of Rajnigandha. Likewise, when we talk of Baba, the message is world’s best tobacco. So Baba cannot be about paan masala, it’s the nation’s first saffron flavoured chewing tobacco that has set global benchmarks for quality since 1929. So, that is what we do in brand building. It is not like anything and everything being sold under the same brand name; say for instance, Manikchand sells everything – tea, water and gutka – all under the same brand name Manikchand. If I sell Rajnigandha at a price point of Rs 4.50 and if I want to come up with another variant for a popular segment, then we do not want to introduce it under the Rajnigandha brand.

Q. You mean to say that for each brand, you have a different message?

Yes, we have very different brand messages for each of our brands. This helps our customers in clearly identifying each brand from the other. When we talk of Catch, we are clearly indicating food and beverages, we don’t talk about tobacco or paan masala or for that matter paan masala containing tobacco. When we talk of Pass Pass, we are talking of an Indian natural herbal mouth freshener that has no supari, it’s a grand mother’s recipe. A mouth freshener is completely different from a Rajnigandha. It cannot be the same. Rajnigandha has supari while Pass Pass has no supari. So we want our consumers to know exactly what they are consuming. It is a very clear distinction on the basis of content of the product, price points and value that one can derive. This is what we mean by brand building—holistic communication.

Q. Pass Pass is a saunf-datefruit fun mix. Considering that you were focusing on tobacco brands, was it difficult to communicate Pass Pass?

Pass Pass is the story of a brand that has created an altogether new product category. The product was the nation’s first ever branded healthy assorted mix that offered the freshness of handpicked quality dry dates, saunf, coconut, silver coated cardamom seeds, coriander seeds, melon seeds, natural sweetener and herbs. With Pass Pass we created a category not yet explored by others. Today companies are known by the brands they have to offer. HLL is known for the wide range of brands they have created. Similarly, we also stand by the fact that if we create brilliant brands, we will be among the top companies in India.

Q. What was the marketing rationale that clicked with Catch?

The idea to create Catch started almost two decades back—to be specific, in 1987. We realised that Indian households needed free flowing salt and pepper. The insight was that in Indian households people were struggling at the dining tables because when you wanted a pinch of salt, a whole lump would fall. We realised that nobody had thought of this aspect. We came up with free flowing salt. After that, we wanted a package that would commensurate with the dining table -- innovative, unique and futuristic in design. So we introduced packaging that is consumer-friendly, something that would not attract moisture, which in turn leads to caking of the product. So we had sealed packaging that would prevent moisture from entering. With this R&D we created a unique product and unique packaging for the product. And from ’87 till date, it has established itself as a well-known brand in its own category.

We were encouraged by the wide acceptance and overwhelming consumer response to extend it to pepper and spices. These were natural extensions of the brand.

Q. What about the extension to Catch water?

When we launched Catch water, we were very clear that it was going to be a premium product. So, our water is the only water in the country that is 100 per cent natural spring water. In fact, Catch Natural Spring water is the only Indian bottled water brand which has been tested and certified to comply with the US Food and Drug Administration’s Code of Federal Regulations by NSF International, the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to public health, safety and protection of the environment. This is a certification which no other Indian company has. Catch water is not treated and is bottled at the source, which is 26 km from Manali at a height of 5,000 feet. In fact, all that we do is bottling at the source. We blow the bottle inside the plant, automatically clean, dry and rinse it. Then we do the filling, capping and the labelling. It’s not mineral water at all; it’s natural spring water. But sadly, in India there is no classification called natural spring water; so, everybody calls it mineral water.

Q. Which is your strongest brand?

All our brands are strong. You look at Catch, isn’t it the strongest brand in its category? You look at Rajnigandha, isn’t it the strongest brand in its category? And Baba, isn’t it doing well? In fact these are the brands that are writing categories. My youngest baby is Pass Pass, isn’t it doing well in its category? So it is difficult to rate them. Volume wise, of course, Rajnigandha is doing the best. We are around Rs 200 crore with Rajnigandha and with Baba we are around Rs 150 crore.

Q. With Catch you have also extended to Club Soda and Catch Clear. How have they been doing?

Catch Clear is in great demand and so is Club Soda. These brands are doing well in the niche segment we had targeted. Our TG for these brands are the young and health-conscious who are moving up with a global perspective. They are the ones who want only Catch Clear and not colas.

Q. Does it contain aspartame?

No, it has a natural sweetener and has zero calories. It is all well defined on the label.

Q. You have been using celebrities for most of your campaigns. Why is that so?

The route of using celebrities makes it easy for the brand to create an image. But the celebrity alone is not enough. The core driving force for any promotion that really clicks is the product itself. So the product should be strong and the celebrities should transfer the values into the brand. The celebrities have a rub-off effect on the brand and thatincreases credibility. Look at Dabur Anardana. The great veteran of Indian cinema Amitabh Bachchan endorsed it but the product failed. So, we follow a 360-degree approach, which includes celebrity endorsements too. But having said that, I would like to add that a celebrity alone cannot make a brand.

Q. Who does the creative part of your advertising?

It’s done in-house.

Q. Do you prefer advertising through TVCs rather than print and outdoor?

No, it’s not just the TVC that is important to us. The POPs, hoardings, outdoors and print everything is important for us. Above all, public relations is very important. More than advertising, it is the public relations that really matters.

Q. You have spent Rs 20 crore on packaging units. Can you tell us more about it?

We have world-class packaging units. The packaging is such that all the cans produced by DS are biodegradable, eco-friendly and have no aluminium or tin content. It is composite in nature. The top has a membrane which, while peeling off, will not hurt you. This is a patented technology from Canpac International AG, Switzerland, which we have adopted. This increases the shelf life and keeps the product fresh. World-class technology is the key to enter the food and beverages.

Q. How much are you exporting?

Our exports haven’t been that high. But we are now focussing more on exports. Currently, we are exporting Baba globally. So far the export volume is around Rs 20 crore. We are reaching out to the European countries, US and Middle East. Our focus is on the European and Middle East markets. We have established good networks in those markets now. We will become a major player in the international market in three years’ time.

Q. Are you thinking of introducing refillers?

No, we are trying to tell the consumers that you use it and throw it. This is not a glass jar. This is typically use-and-throw. So we are not thinking of introducing refillers.

Q. And what about pricing?

In any food business, in order to be competitive, you have to be reasonably priced. No consumer will pay you for the extra fillers. All the world-class packaging and quality that we are providing is value addition to the money the consumer pays. But the consumer will not compensate for these extra efforts that you take. When I sell water, I am not selling bottles for storing in the fridge. We are starting a new concept in India to crush and throw used bottles and cans.

Q. Don’t you think Catch Water is priced high?

Water is available everywhere in India. Why should anybody buy water then? Because in India, we all are becoming health conscious and when you are bothered about your well-being, you should not look at Rs 12, you should look at Rs 25. So it is up to you whether you want to invest for that good health. Moreover, we are targeting a different audience altogether with Catch water. We are targeting embassies; five-star hotels, resorts and clubs where it matters to be health conscious and people are ready to pay the price to be healthy. So it is a niche that we are looking at.

Q. What about customer retention? Do you have a customer retention cell?

When we talk of customer-relationship, we deal with it very sensitively. In fact, not just the customers, if it’s our vendor, employee or distributor, we maintain our relationship. We have three-generation vendors, employees and distributors, so everybody is equally important to us. For our customers, we have come up with clubs. For instance, we have the Rajnigandha club wherein they have direct correspondence with us. We provide them with catalogues, horoscopes and anything that interests them. So we do have customer relations division in the organisation.

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