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Gulfood 2013 blog

Sports legend meets pragmatism as a brand enters India

By RJ Whitehead in Dubai , 27-Feb-2013

It is hard for a food industry trade show to pack the same level of glamour as, say, the Tokyo Motor Show, so it’s probably best for organisers not to try. But every now and again, in a moment of wild abandon, a celebrity or sports star graces a show’s heaving concourses.

This was the case yesterday at Gulfood 2013, when an otherwise unassuming stand, wrapped in “Great Britain” national corporate livery and packed to the rafters with packaged snacks and drinks, welcomed one of cricket’s legends. 

It turns out that Muttiah Muralitharan, the retired Sri Lankan bowler, is brand ambassador for Bullet sports drink, one of the brands marketed by Sun Mark, which is based near London. According to Sun Mark’s Harmeet Ahuja, Murali liked the taste of Bullet and asked to come on board as its brand ambassador (the cricketer also happened to be a friend of the family, so that clearly helped).

Given the sizeable number of South Asians at the show, the announcement that a star cricketer would be around caused quite a buzz to the point it was standing room only around the Sun Mark stand at noon yesterday. Film crews, cameramen, reporters and rubberneckers filled the area to the point Murali must have thought he was at Colombo Airport, returning from a series win.

Sun Mark is an interesting company. A record four-time winner of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise and owned by Punjabi Brits, it already has export operations to 108 countries but has been finding it difficult to break into the South Asian market. So obviously this is where Murali came in – and after recently starting to trade in Sri Lanka, the Bullet energy drink has since become quite profitable.

However, launching in India was an altogether different proposition for Sun Mark. Given the way retail works in the country – with kirana stores being the mainstay and modern grocery retail at a nascent phase – it was always going to be difficult for a family-owned business to gain leverage.

“We saw how states like Uttar Pradesh had pretty much the same population as big countries like America, so we thought it would be smart to pick the market off state by state,” explains Ahuja. “Obviously, because he’s Tamil, Murali recommended that we begin with Tamil Nadu, and sales seem to be going well there ever since.”

And because a large number of the company’s staff have a Gujarati background, Sun Mark also opted for the western state as the second base of its operations.

“Only once we have achieved decent growth in these two states, we will look at other parts of the country, but Gujarat and Tamil Nadu will do for now,” adds Ahuja.

This seems a very sensible approach to entering India’s somewhat closed market. As we see multinationals seemingly queuing up to take advantage of the new FDI laws – and subsequently being slow to actually arrive – it becomes clear how dangerous it might be for marketeers to put all their eggs in one vast basket fraught with logistics, distribution and infrastructure problems.

We plan to follow Sun Mark’s softly-softly approach to business in India with great interest.

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