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Patanjali, Parents & Principles of Marketing

- 6 min read By Gurudev Prasad

10 January, 2018

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In the midst of a brand workshop that I was conducting recently one of the participants asked me smirkingly “So, as a brand professional. What’s your opinion on Patanjali?”

Now that’s a loaded question and I knew that any answer would solicit a debate. So, I answered rather sternly “I have huge respect for that brand. But lets save that discussion for later. We are already running behind schedule”

The smirk on his face gave way to an expression of surprise. This was not the first time when my admiration for brand Patanjali got me that look.

But here is the thing about Patanjali. It might not fit into the conventional notion of FMCG ‘brand building’ but it’s a brand that’s giving some of the biggest FMCG companies a run for their money.

It’s not a brand built by an array of brand managers and agencies well attuned with Kotler’s principles of marketing. In fact, it’s a brand that challenges the traditional norms of marketing, and hence, makes a lot of us from the marketing fraternity with our b-school elitism,  a bit uncomfortable.

We can not begin the discussion on ‘Brand Patanjali’ without talking about its biggest ‘brand ambassador’ – Baba Ramdev. So, let me clarify upfront. I don’t have any affinity for the ‘spiritual’ leader Baba Ramdev, but I have (developed over a period of time) a considerable regard for ‘brand builder’ Baba Ramdev

My tryst with Patanjali products started with a feeling of doubt and disregard. Last year, I had gone home to visit my parents in Agra and to my disdain found that they had replaced their regular toiletries brands with Patanjali. For a brand snob like me this was blasphemy-that my parents were trading the legacy of global brands (from the house of Levers and P&G) with a brand from Haridwar. How could they?

Like a good ‘brand abiding’ citizen, I tried persuading them to move back to the ‘trusted’ brands built over years of scientific research (and marketing). But they didn’t budge. To be honest, my parent’s steadfastness and loyalty to Pantajali was the reason I gave it a try, albeit, with bare minimum expectations and a firm belief that the product will fail at the real moment of truth, i.e. trial.

But surprise, surprise! No matter how much I was determined to ‘not like’ it, the Patanjali product (shampoo in this case) didn’t give me a reason to complain. Like most consumers, I am not an expert to comment scientifically on the efficacy of the product- but to put it simply – it didn’t feel any inferior to the brand I otherwise used. Unlike the pungent smell of most ayurvedic products that I had used before, this one even smelled nice. While still in the shower, washing shampoo off my eyes- I looked for the price. It was cheaper than most of the ‘reputed’ brands on the shelf.  

Suddenly, memories of that old Nirma ad flooded my over imaginative mind where the conversation between a shopkeeper and the customer goes like this-

Shopkeeper: Par aap to woh, purana wala sabun...

Customer: Leti thi, par wahi safedi mujhe kam damo mein mile to koi woh kyun le, ye (nirma) na le!

I could almost imagine my self as the shopkeeper and my mother as the customer who discovered the merits of converting to Patanjali.

Now, how do you beat an argument like that? The brand manager in me would retort with “but where is the aspiration in this brand? Brand should stand for something- look at Lux, Pantene, Dove – apart from the functional benefits, they provide carefully crafted emotional benefits as well.”  

I am embarrassed to confess that I actually tried having a conversation like this with my mom and to my utter surprise she succinctly articulated the ‘brand promise’ of Patanjali in her own words “All these multinational brands are full of chemicals, but Patanjali products are made of natural ingredients and age old ayurvedic recipes. Its marketers like you, who make glamorous ads to sell us that expensive ‘branded’ junk”.

Like questioning my professional dignity wasn’t enough, she added “Actually it is brands like Patanjali that need marketing. More people should be aware of the goodness of these products and should benefit from them.” Such adorably naïve understanding of my profession she has!

This was not the first time, my parents argued in favour of Baba Ramdev. I remember (few years before ‘brand’ Patanjali happened), my father virtuously following Baba Ramdev step by step, every time his yoga session was telecasted on ‘Aastha’ channel.

Mockingly, I once said, “So, you have also fallen into the trap of Baba?” Like a true yogi, calm and composed, my dad replied, “He’s not preaching any religion. He’s preaching yoga and its benefits. From yoga being a lifestyle statement of rich and famous, he’s made it a household thing; he has made yoga accessible for everyone. So, what’s wrong in it? Even you should try Pranayam”

I still remember that wave of mass adoption of yoga, popularized by Baba Ramdev and embraced by the Indian middle class. To borrow a term from ‘start-up’ language, the ‘scaling up’ of yoga by Baba Ramdev was both unprecedented and phenomenal. Using the media of TV and mass camps, he made yoga an everyday ritual for millions of Indians.

A bit of analysis and you realize that Baba Ramdev has used the same master skills in scaling up Patanjali as a brand with turnover of around Rs 5000 crores in the previous financial year. What is more interesting and rather impressive is that he did it in his own way. Almost, defying every principle of marketing as taught to us in our b-schools.

Unlike the big brands, which are very measured in everything they do (including their communication), brand Patanjali has been consistently provocative and rough around the edges. May be, it is this rawness, these little imperfections, that far fetched war cry to ‘end the dominance of multinationals’ that makes this brand endearing to a certain set of people who root for it like its an underdog that deserves to win.

Interestingly Patanjali is one of those rare exceptions where the brand adoption travelled from a small town to a metro and the recommendation travelled from old to young, parents to children than the reverse, which is generally the norm.

Let me ask you another question? How many brands can you think of beyond Patanjali- that under the same name successfully sell everything from staples, to shampoos to pickles, and may be even apparel in near future

Till the recent media blitzkrieg (again a great scaling- up tactic), the brand mostly existed in a hole in wall kind of set ups /distribution centers across the country. A basic and often un-standardized set up – made the frugality of the brand quiet evident. 

But no matter how many marketing rules Patanjali has broken, it has always adhered to one- the trade off between price vs. quality. For its consumers, the perceived value of a Patanjali product is always greater than the price they pay.

Out of curiosity and out of my zeal to prove my parents wrong- I ‘tried’ most of Patanjali’s products- ghee, soap, shampoo, atta, achar, biscuits (and the list goes on) and none of the products disappointed me. From a naysayer, I have lately become an active advocate of Patanjali products, especially to the folks from my marketing community.

Some of my marketing friends argue that Patanjali products might not be bad, but the marketing of this brand is very unsophisticated and rudimentary. Yes, if you compare it with the global players that the brand is competing with- Patanjali’s communication might come across as unsophisticated or rather unglamorous. But that’s exactly what the brand needs. Shouldn’t a brand that’s positioned as an antithesis of its competition, have communication that’s sets it apart and contrasts the category narrative?

In the end, Patanjali the brand is unashamedly earthy and stubborn (on its anti MNC stance) and in being so, it comes across as unwittingly consistent.

Now lets get back to the guy, yes the same guy who asked my opinion about Patanjali. He caught up with me after the session. I definitely owed him an explanation, so this is what I told him “Patanjali is probably the only brand that I loved to hate and now I hate to love. Hence, Respect.”

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