While start-ups today scale up to get gobbled up MNCs, here’s a home-grown brand, that’s wearing its independence and entrepreneurial spirit on its sleeve. Chandubhai Virani, the 60-year-old founder, and director of Balaji Wafers has candidly said in many media reports about how companies like PepsiCo and General Mills have approached him with offers to buy out his snack venture, which according to sources had an Rs 1,800 crore turnover in 2017.
Virani knows it is difficult to stand against these international marketers but he is certain his model is for the long run.
Starting in 1982, the Balaji empire has been a family enterprise and the support team are not the sort who drift from job to job. Jay Sachdev, currently marketing manager at Balaji Wafers, has been with the company since 2002. He has worn several hats and has also had a ringside view to the changes in the industry.
Which explains why Balaji decided to go for a makeover in packaging after eight years. Sachdev strongly believes, with time you need to embrace change. Helping Balaji in this process is start-up agency, three bags full. When asked why Balaji chose a young agency without the reassurance of size that marketers typically seek, Sachdev says, “When Balaji Wafers started off in the early 80s, we were very much a startup. Over the years, we have learned the challenges of being on that side of the business. When three bags full approached us, we liked their work. We thought of giving them a push, to support their vision.
Smaller setups work just fine according to marketing consultant Harish Bijoor: “Small and nifty agencies are able to understand the local better. Big regional brands must work with the small agencies for sure. Small is still beautiful in this space.”
Besides, industry experts believe a packaging makeover was the need of the hour. Bijoor for one contends a packaging refresh is necessary every few years for FMCGs that cater to the young and the young at heart. “For Balaji, this was even more necessary as I guess it needed to jump out of its imagery as a regional player onto the national space of play. A huge dependence on product visual is also important for the category as it leaves the space of see-through polythene packaging into tri-laminates that hide more than they show,” he says.
The next big play
Currently, the brand is present in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Goa. It recently ventured into Uttar Pradesh and will be very soon seen on shelves in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Telangana.
With a huge presence in the snack category, one product that Balaji thought was lacking in its line-up was a range of instant noodles. As per the company’s R&D team, over the years, Balaji Wafers has become a complete family brand, informs Sachdev. And so, Balaji has introduced Gippi noodles.
“A company like Balaji has managed to build a strong business. They understand volume, and they should stick to their core. In fact, it will be interesting to see how they disrupt newer categories like noodles,” says Shripad Nadkarni, founder director of food startup Maverix Platforms.
According to KV Sridhar, founder and chief creative officer, HyperCollective, it is the simple yet effective practices of companies like Balaji that make regional brands popular and successful. Sridhar hopes these brands stay focused, and go deeper in unexplored markets. Pure regional play even in terms of communication is critical too, he concludes. A task that would leave its communication partner three bags full with two hands full.
How a young startup agency wooed, won and learnt from Balaji
Akshay Menon and Sandeep Iyer have known each other since college. Their last stints before they decided to combine forces and start their own shop was as creative controllers at O&M and DDB Mudra, respectively. Inspired by the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep, they named their agency three bags full, to bring simplicity and ease into the world of advertising (and, we assume, because being in a startup agency means having to say ‘yes sir’ almost all of the time).
The duo listed brands that were interesting yet low key on marketing and Balaji Wafers fit the bill. While the chip maker had great sales, it was not perceived to be “urban cool”. While they came to this conclusion two years ago, the actual working relationship began only last year. Menon recalls, “It wasn’t an easy task to make the first impression.” Iyer adds, “We are glad the team at Balaji were not nasty even when we made multiple follow up calls.”
The duo are frequently at Balaji’s HQ in Rajkot, picking lessons on how to sell an idea, and absorb pressure with grace, among other things. “We learn a new business lesson every time we meet the Balaji team. Everything happens in their backyard, and yet they are not as chaotic as one may think. As newbie entrepreneurs, this has helped us fix our own business issues,” admits Menon.
It’s also resulted in a newfound respect for their former colleagues from client servicing. “A lot of times when you are in a comfortable spot at an established agency, you never care about so many other aspects of a business,” signs off Iyer.