Can an Indian yoga master and spiritual guru pose a threat to established multinationals in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) market in the country? Baba Ramdev, a 51-year-old politically networked saffron-robed yoga expert and astute businessman, certainly believes so. Patanjali Ayurved, the company he front-ends, recently posted revenues of Rs.10,561 crore ($1.6 billion at Rs64.34 to a dollar) for the financial year 2017 (April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017). That’s double of what it posted last year. What’s more, while most FMCG firms in the country grew around 8% to 12% annually over the past five years, Patanjali has grown over 20 times; in 2012, it reported a turnover of Rs.446 crore ($69 million).

Positioned on the plank of ayurveda and the goodness of natural ingredients, Patanjali prides itself on being a home-grown brand that offers its products around 15% to 30% cheaper than competition and ploughs back its profits into nation-building activities such as education and supporting farmers. It is the fastest growing FMCG firm in the country and has one of the widest product portfolios. In January this year, a study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) and market research firm TechSci Research, said: “Patanjali Ayurved has turned out to be the most disruptive force in the Indian FMCG market.”

At a recent press conference in New Delhi, Ramdev and Acharya Balkrishna, CEO of Patanjali and a close friend of the yoga guru, declared the company’s 2017 results. Incidentally, Patanjali is an unlisted firm with no obligation to disclose its numbers. Balkrishna owns around 95% while the rest is held by a small group of individuals. Ramdev himself apparently has no stake in the firm. Addressing the media, Ramdev and Balkrishna said that profits have grown 100% since last year. They are now looking to double the turnover to Rs.20,000 crore ($3.1 billion) in the current year and aiming to cross Rs.1 trillion ($15.5 billion) over the next five years.

Towards meeting these targets, the company has planned various steps. These include investing Rs.5,000 crore ($777 million) in new manufacturing facilities, rolling out new products and increasing the distribution and retail network. Patanjali’s retail presence includes a mix of exclusive franchise outlets, modern trade, neighborhood stores and online. So far, the company has invested mainly through internal accruals. It is now looking to raise bank loans.

Ramdev has always been very vocal that he is fighting against the “economic colonization” of the domestic market; Patanjali advertisements talk of “rescuing India from economic slavery and loot of foreign companies” and appeal for “boycott” of foreign firms. At the press conference in New Delhi, he said: “So far, FMCG has meant MNCs in India; we have broken that monopoly.” In a direct reference to the American oral care giant Colgate-Palmolive, he added: “We don’t know when Colgate will close its ‘gate’ … they have already de-grown.”

Ramdev was referring to the impact Dant Kanti, Patanjali’s toothpaste, has had on Colgate-Palmolive. He claims it has a market share of 14%; industry analysts say it could be anywhere between 4% and 14% depending on the sampling universe. The American firm derives nearly 75% of its India revenues from toothpaste and is the leader in this category in the country. In a presentation to investors, the company said that its market share in India dropped from 57.4% in 2015 to 55.6% in 2016. Several brokerages have flagged competition from Patanjali as a threat to MNC giants in the toothpaste segment. For instance, in January, broking house Prabhudas Lilladher said in a report on Colgate-Palmolive: “We believe that toothpaste is perhaps one of the few categories where Patanjali has been able to create a strong niche and has right to win.”

The Patanjali Effect

That Colgate-Palmolive is taking cognizance of Patanjali is evident from some recent measures. For instance, while earlier the company, which has been in India for the past 80 years, had herbal variants with neem and clove, last year it launched an India-specific toothpaste called Cibaca Vedshakti. Positioned as “packed with the goodness of natural ingredients to help keep dental problems away,” it includes lemon, cloves, eucalyptus, basil, camphor and thymol. Cibaca Vedshakti is priced lower than Patanjali’s Dant Kanti. In an investors call in 2016, Bina Thompson, senior vice president, Colgate-Palmolive, said: “In India, consumers believe strongly in natural ingredients.”

“So far, FMCG has meant MNCs in India; we have broken that monopoly.” –Baba Ramdev

Earlier this year, Hindustan Unilever (HUL), the Indian subsidiary of Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, launched around 20 products including toothpastes, shampoos and skin creams under its relaunched brand Lever Ayush. These products have been co-created with Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, a leading Ayurveda institute. Interestingly, while Ayush was launched as a premium brand in 2001, the relaunched Lever Ayush is positioned as a mass brand with products priced between Rs.30 and Rs.130 (less than $2). HUL has also rolled out natural variants under brands like Tresemme and Fair & Lovely in India and is reported to be bringing in a new brand called Citra, an organic skin care line from Indonesia.

In an investors call in October last year, acknowledging Patanjali’s growing presence, Andrew Stephen, head of investor relations at Unilever, said there were a “couple of great examples” in India in the herbal segment that “everybody is looking forward to with great interest.” Talking to business daily Economic Times in December last year, Sandeep Kohli, executive director-personal care, HUL, said: “Ayurveda is a growing trend …. Lever Ayush is designed to attract and retain consumers with authentic ayurveda-based offerings.”

Indian firms with strong ayurvedic offerings are also reworking their portfolios. At Dabur India, for instance, ayurvedic products currently contribute around 60% of the company’s domestic sales. Dabur plans to increase this to 75% by 2020. “In India, herbal and ayurveda will be the dominant themes for us. There is a realization that there is a bigger opportunity for us in ayurveda than we thought,” Sunil Duggal, CEO of Dabur India told business daily Business Standard last year. In an earlier interview with Economic Times, Duggal had said: [Ramdev] is someone no one has dealt with before and therefore there are no existing analogies which can match him. So, we have to deal with [Patanjali] differently.”

Abneesh Roy, senior vice president at Edelweiss Financial Services, notes: “Because of Patanjali, ayurveda is becoming core to the strategy of all other companies.” Ankur Bisen, senior vice president-retail at consultancy firm Technopak Advisors, agrees. “Take for instance, [Indian] companies like Dabur, Emami and Hamdard. They have been selling ‘Indian’ products like red tooth powder, chyawanprash (an ayurvedic formulation that helps build immunity), etc., for decades. But they took the route of multinationals to position these products as modern products or underplayed these products in the market. Patanjali’s success has made them re-think the approach.” S. Ramesh Kumar, professor of marketing at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB), adds: “MNCs and others will be forced to introduce lower- priced offerings.”

“Patanjali Ayurved is a rising star that came in from literally nowhere and put the fright into long entrenched competitors across the FMCG space,” says Harish Bijoor, brand-strategy specialist & founder, Harish Bijoor Consults. According to Bijoor, Patanjali has trifurcated the FMCG segment in India. “The first: MNC competition. The second: Indian MNCs fighting the [global] MNCs, vertical to vertical. The third: Baba-cool companies of the type represented by Patanjali Ayurved and the likes of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ram Rahim and a whole tribe of gurus who also happen to make FMCG.”

 Racing Ahead

At present, Patanjali’s portfolio comprises more than 500 products across food, personal care, home care and health care. Cow ghee (clarified butter) is its highest selling product with sales of Rs.1,467 crore ($227 million), followed by toothpaste (Rs.940 crore/$146 million) and shampoo (Rs.825 crore /$128 million). Other key products include bathing soap (Rs.574 crore /$89 million), mustard oil (Rs.522 crore/$81 million), wheat flour (Rs.407 crore/$63 million) and honey (Rs.335 crore/$52 million). It even has noodles in its product collection. The company claims to have 15% market share in shampoo, 14% in toothpaste and 50% in honey. Currently, the bulk of Patanjali’s products are manufactured at its facilities in Haridwar, which is around 130 miles from New Delhi; the rest are from third-party manufacturers.

India’s branded FMCG segment is estimated to be more than $65 billion at present and, according to a study by the Confederation of Indian Industry and Boston Consulting Group, it is expected to grow to $220billion-$240 billion by 2025. Media reports say that Patanjali, which began as a small pharmacy in 1997 and ventured into FMCG In 2006, is now the second largest FMCG player in India after HUL, which clocked Rs.30,782 crore ($4.7 billion) for the trailing four quarters. (India accounts for around 8% of Unilever’s sales and is the biggest among emerging markets). Patanjali is reportedly ahead of giants like Nestle India (Rs.9,159 crore/$1.4 billion), Colgate-Palmolive (Rs.4,010 crore / $622 million), GSK Consumer Healthcare (Rs.3,784 crore/$587 million) and P&G Hygiene and Healthcare (Rs.2,388 crore/$370 million). It is also giving old and established Indian firms a run for their money. ITC’s non-cigarette FMCG business clocked Rs.10,337 crore ($1.6 billion) for the trailing four quarters, Godrej Consumer Group Rs.9,134 crore ($1.4 billion) and Dabur Rs.7,690 crore ($1.1 billion).

Edelweiss’ Roy feels it would be more accurate to put Patanjali among the top three or four FMCG players in India since firms like P&G also have unlisted entities in the country which should be taken into account. At the same time, he adds: “Patanjali is easily the most successful FMCG company in India in the past many years. It is … giving well entrenched companies a run for their money. By next year, it should become the second largest FMCG company in the country.”

Bijoor thinks that further doubling turnover in one year is “a stupendous task,” but he adds that “with all the plans in place and considering the fact that Patanjali products are distributed in only 6% of retail outlets nationally today, the potential exists.” However, Bijoor notes, it’s important to recognize the fact that the brand is still “largely regional and suffers from poor distribution.”

“Because of Patanjali, ayurveda is becoming core to the strategy of all other companies.” –Abneesh Roy

A.K. Prabhakar, head of research at financial services firm IDBI Capital, feels that Patanjali’s $3.1billion target for FY 2018 is unrealistic. In an interview with Business Standard, he pointed out that other firms are resorting to aggressive pricing to take on Patanjali. “I believe 20% to 25% growth is a more realistic and achievable target.”

 A Dream Run

So what is the magic behind Patanjali’s phenomenal growth so far? Experts cite three key factors. Ramdev’s personal brand equity, Patanjali’s disruptive pricing, and the company’s positioning of the goodness of ayurveda and natural ingredients.

 Take Ramdev himself. Indians, by and large, have always had a leaning towards spiritual gurus. Ramdev, with his friendly demeanor, seems to have a special connection with them. His yoga camps, televised yoga sessions and free health consultations are all extremely popular. Ramdev is also highly politically networked and seen to be particularly close to the Bharatiya Janata Party headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has strong nationalistic leanings and is vocal about them. One of Ramdev’s pet agendas is repatriation of black money. Another is to drive foreign companies out of India. All these along with his business acumen (Ramdev is closely involved in all critical aspects like new product development and pricing), and many a controversy (he claims homosexuality is a disease and that he has a cure for it), make for a potent combination. The brand ambassador of Patanjali, Ramdev, is a brand by himself.

An October 2015 Edelweiss report co-authored by Roy says: “For the consumers, Baba Ramdev remains the face of Patanjali and its products. Baba Ramdev, during his yoga sessions, showcases the Patanjali products. After the session, he makes the attendees aware of the benefits of using Patanjali products. Till date, close to 70 million people have come in contact with Baba Ramdev through his yoga camps and it is believed that this can increase to 200 million going ahead. This highlights the potential reach that the Patanjali brands can have without much mainstream advertising. Also, being associated with Baba Ramdev helps in creating a perception among consumers that being ayurvedic, Patanjali products are healthy.”

“Ramdev’s widespread popularity, propelled by televised yoga camps, has provided the brand push for Patanjali,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of consulting firm Third Eyesight. Pointing out that over the years Patanjali has successfully built the momentum to “displace previous ayurvedic market leaders in the consumer’s mind and create a credible alternative to multinational brands,” Dutta adds that Patanjali’s “Indianness” is a challenge to multinationals, while its sheer size and penetration is a challenge for other Indian companies. “A flat management structure enables rapid decision-making that allows the business to be extremely flexible and aggressive when it needs to be.”

 On the controversies surrounding Ramdev, Dutta notes that worldwide, successful brands are built more on public relations than on advertising, and controversy is a very strong driver of PR. “In that sense, the Patanjali group has had rich dividends from its approach to PR. Starting from the image of a swami in saffron robes propagating consumer products to using food safety concerns around market leaders’ products to their advantage and openly taking a swadeshi [nationalistic] stand against multinational brands, the Patanjali group’s PR voice is strong and clear. Whether this will remain so as the business grows is something only time will tell.” (In 2015, when Nestle’s Maggi noodle brand was embroiled in controversy over high levels of lead and MSG, Patanjali quickly launched instant noodles to plug the demand gap.)

 Another strong plank of Patanjali is good quality at disruptive pricing. Most Patanjali products are priced around 15% to 30% lower than competition. In a media interview, Balkrishna said: “We buy raw material directly from farmers and we work on a single channel right from the farmer to the end consumer and that is the real reason why our quality and costs are under control.” Other factors that contribute to Patanjali’s competitive pricing include lower overheads (salaries and administrative costs, for instance, are much lower than those of regular corporates), lower distribution margins and lower advertising and promotional spending.

Interestingly, while its advertising costs are lower than others (according to Balkrishna the company’s ad-spend is less than 3% of turnover), Patanjali is among the top advertisers in the country. Balkrishna attributes this to tough negotiations. “Differentiated advertising” has been a “pivotal factor” propelling Patanjali into the limelight, notes Edelweiss’ Roy. He points out that Patanjali ads highlight the pricing difference with competitors, educate on the benefits of the product, emphasize that Patanjali is an Indian firm and claim that unlike MNCs, Patanjali is extremely involved in charity and nation building. “From our survey it has emerged that these advertisements create a buzz among the target audience and encourage trials,” says Roy.

IIMB’s Kumar points out that with its positioning of “value for money,” Patanjali would be successful in several categories “due to the simple reason that the penetration of brands in most categories is still low in an emerging economy.” Bisen of Technopak Advisors feels one reason for Patanjali’s success is “the subtle shift in consumer lifestyle and needs that manifested in a latent demand that other companies missed out.” Another reason is the “package of wellness, nationalism and natural synced with the social and political narrative” of the country. Bisen adds: “Positioning the quality, purity and natural promise at value pricing created a strong demand pull. This pull was aptly serviced through an ecosystem of distribution that supported fast proliferation in the market. No other FMCG major earlier used exclusive brand outlets for their product range.”

 Sustaining Momentum

Going forward, does Patanjali have the potential to make a big dent in the performance of other players? It’s a mixed bag, says Bisen. Pointing out that it is easier to grow in a few categories and reach scale, he says: “In the FMCG space, if the initial idea is a success, the challenge comes in replicating the idea to other categories, managing growth and managing category extensions. Also, the leading FMCG majors have all spent significant time now to appreciate Patanjali as a key competition and have developed strong counter-offensives. Therefore, the initial years of easy march may now hit some [roadblocks].”  Potential threats for Patanjali, Bisen notes, include “spreading itself too thin, [a] change in the social and political narrative that dilutes the nationalism theme, and strong response from competition.”

“MNCs and others will be forced to introduce lower-priced offerings.” –S. Ramesh Kumar

Another headwind could come from the new goods and services tax (GST), whose objective is to replace all taxes levied by the federal government and the states with one central tax. At present, ayurvedic products are taxed only 5%, but under GST the levy will go up to 12%. This could impact Patanjali’s pricing significantly.

 Patanjali needs to be “totally paranoid” about quality as it expands, says Bijoor. “If Patanjali messes up on quality as it expands, it will pay the price. That price will be a quick glass-ceiling for its volumes.” IIMB’s Kumar suggests the biggest challenge for Patanjali is to scale up and make the products available across the country. “This involves several aspects of sourcing, manufacturing and distribution.”

 An October 2016 Edelweiss report observes that distribution remains an area of improvement for Patanjali. It notes that according to a survey it conducted, while 35% users believe that availability of Patanjali products is a problem, 49% of non-users have not used Patanjali due to non-availability. The report adds that buying Patanjali products from kirana (neighborhood “mom and pop”) stores is still small at around 26%, while for most other consumer goods companies this is 70% to 80%.

However, a January 2017 Edelweiss report seems more optimistic. It states: “Patanjali has over 5,000 retail outlets and its products are available through around 1 million shops. By FY18, it plans to scale up its shop portfolio to over 3 million. Apart from this its products have strong presence across modern trade. Once it has 3 million outlets, its penetration will be comparable to the likes of Britannia, Colgate, Dabur, etc., though below HUL’s network of over 7 million shops.”

Patanjali watchers also say that any major impact that Patanjali makes on global multinationals is likely to be restricted to India.

New Battle Fronts

In the meanwhile, Ramdev wants to open other battle fronts. To challenge restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, KFC and Subway, Patanjali plans to enter this segment. “We are working on the business plan and branding,” Ramdev told press reporters, adding that the company is working to put together around 400 vegetarian recipes. “When we get these recipes together, all these multinationals serving chicken or mutton will have a hard time countering us.” Patanjali is also planning to enter the apparel business with jeans and sportswear and compete with firms like Levi’s, Nike and Adidas.

Not everyone is enthused about these proposed expansions. Says Bisen: “I am wary of category extension beyond FMCG so early in the journey, when the market potential in FMCG itself is huge. Dairy, processed food and condiments are all exciting spaces. If I had private capital to allocate, I would focus on consolidating my position in the chosen space.”

A sharp critic when it comes to Patanjali’s “greed” to spread across categories, Bijoor says: “There is a line it must draw for itself. Using ayurveda is a good thing to do. But stop where ayurveda stops, and stop where ayurveda looks ludicrous.” He cautions that Ramdev and Balkrishna must not dissipate attention at this stage. “Width is important, but depth in those areas where you have achieved early and big success is a must. Never compromise on that.”

“To my mind, the Patanjali brand is rooted intrinsically in well-being, so growth in food seems a natural outcome to me but not packaged, fast-food and snacks,” says Dutta. “Similarly, there are areas of apparel, such as yoga-wear, which would be a natural extension, but jeans would seem to challenge the integrity of the brand.” At the same time, he points out that most brands these days “don’t care to create or maintain a core ethos” and most consumers have “only a passing, superficial engagement” with them. In such an environment “more tangible and immediate factors, such as the price and availability” play an important role. Dutta notes: “Currently, the Patanjali Group is following economic logic, the way any business would – identifying areas in which it can create significant turnover and margin using its brand name and goodwill.”