Indian diaspora brand conscious: Brands from India to cash in on opportunity
Posted on July 18, 2012
This is the time of year when visiting Indians always ask those of us who live in exile what we want them to bring from home. Pickles? Mithai? It’s a difficult question to answer. Most of us lucky enough to live in the UK don’t really miss the flavours of home food. Mostly everything, and I mean everything, is available somewhere in London, not to mention a staggering variety of Indian cuisine from traditional Keralite, Udipi dosas to Bengali fish curry and rice. Not always cheap, but still.
So what do overseas Indians these days want from home? Oddly enough, it turns out that what the current generation of overseas Indians tends to lug around are mostly home brands; in food, personal products and medicines. What’s even more peculiar is that quite a few of the must-have brands are multinational. Yes, we know there are 20 types of antacids by Boots, but Indians Iknow wouldn’t dream of travelling without a stock of Pudin Hara.
Someone I know insists on carrying Mysore Sandal Soap around, others must have Dabur herbal stuff, or Parachute coconut hair oil, some swear by Himalaya Herbal skincare products, even Cadbury’s five-star chocolates, and L’Oreal cosmetics – as a friend pointed out, the colours available in India are better suited to Indian skin.
Even as recently as five years back, if you went food-shopping in an Indian grocery store here, chances were we’d find rather unfamiliar store brands. These days, the stores are stocked with familiar brands. The snacks and chaat is Haldiram, the ready-to-eat is ITC, the papad is often Lijjat, noodles and sauces are Maggi; I’ve even stumbled across Thums Up, clearly imported by some enterprising shopkeeper.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a bout of flu. There’s nothing like being ill to focus your mind on comfort foods. I discovered that I absolutely craved Maggi Masala noodles, which, frankly, I never ate in India after leaving school. When it comes to desi brands, Maggi is in a class apart, especially with the overseas student population. I know of exasperated parents being asked to carry bagsful of the stuff for their overseas kids, both in Europe and the US. If anyone shows up with a suitcase full of Maggi here, and word gets out, chances are there’ll be a mini-riot of desis grabbing their stocks.
So I asked Nestle. Forget the Masala flavour, why are instant noodles here nothing like even a memory of home? A Nestle spokesperson kindly pointed out that it is precisely because Nestle is a very decentralised organisation that they were able to crack markets as diverse as India and Malaysia with instant foods catering to local tastes. (The good news, for those of you reading this overseas, is that given the size of the ethnic market, Nestle is actually thinking of adding Maggi Masala to its UK range.)
When it comes to food and personal products, multinationals have to tweak formulas for different markets: the same Dove shampoo that you get in India and US and Malaysia will actually have different formulas. As a senior Unilever executive told me, it’s because the shampoo is geared for Indian hair and climate conditions. For personal care and food, every market has slightly different regulations, so multinationals have to change their products – and this affects that elusive taste, feel or flavour of what you get.
To my mind, this brand consciousness of the diaspora is a telling sign of how much Indian consumerism has matured in the past 20-odd years. I’m old enough to remember a time when instant foods, chocolates, cosmetics and personal products that were any kind of phoren, never mind they came from Russia, was enough to set off a riot back home.
Today’s Indian consumers are not only familiar with global brands, they’re used to certain familiar products, and confident enough to keep using them, carrying coals back to Newcastle if they need to. Admittedly, not everyone who leaves the home country is used to brands like Dove or L’Oreal. But there’s a growing segment that is – including the large student population, especially in the UK. And everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous Maggi.
It’s like the Marmite phenomenon. Marmite is a particularly weird concoction, but a lot of the English love it. Nobody else will eat it, but the English insist on creating a cult food out of it, and carrying it around the world. It’s a standard on the shelves of foreign stores in India.
There’s an opportunity, even if it’s not that big, for home-grown Indian consumer brands to migrate along with its diaspora. That’s precisely the reason Haldiram set up a factory in UK, to supply to the local market, instead of letting all those middlemen and traders grab the market share. Last I heard, they’re doing fine. There’s also a lesson here somewhere for all those retail, consumer and luxury brands wanting to crowd the Indian market. Clearly, companies with long histories in India – such as Unilever, Pepsi, Nestle or P&G – have an edge in that they’ve built up a generational loyalty. For the challenger brands, the ultimate test of their success in the Indian market would be if consumers want to re-export them in future.
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