Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

“Won’t shy away from investing in hygiene”: Amit Syngle, Asian Paints

Why did a paints company enter the sanitiser segment and invest in new manufacturing and distribution lines? Because the government asked it to.

There’s a lot one can ask the man in-charge of a Rs.19,000 crore business, but when one has only 30 minutes over Zoom with Amit Syngle, CEO and MD, Asian Paints, who has been working with the company for the last 29 years, across sales, marketing and manufacturing, one prioritises.

Sure, the company makes anti-bacterial and asthmatic-friendly paints, but how did it get into the hand and surface sanitiser segment? Turns out, it was “at the behest of the government…”

Viroprotek surface sanitiser is an alcohol-based, non-sticky liquid that can be sprayed on different types of surfaces, like doorknobs, tables, sofas and curtains.

Viroprotek hand sanitiser and surface disinfectant
Viroprotek hand sanitiser and surface disinfectant

Edited excerpts.

Talk about Asian Paints' Viroprotek range of hand and surface sanitisers. How did your entry into this category come about, exactly?

First of all, we never intended to get into this area of sanitisers. Our core business lies in the area of wall painting. It came at the behest of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Chemicals.

They requested Asian Paints to do something, apart from contributing to the Chief Minister’s and Prime Minister’s relief funds, to do something to aid the government, NGOs and hospitals in terms of getting products like sanitisers into the market. That was the trigger – the ministries getting after us. This was around April 18, 2020.

What was the most challenging part of putting it together?

Time and speed were a big challenge. The whole country was closed, we needed to take permission just to enter our factory, there was no labour available, and we didn’t want to risk the health of our employees… May 1, 2020 is when we started producing sanitisers in our factory in Gujarat (Ankleshwar). It is a totally in-house product; unlike many other players in the market, we didn’t outsource anything.

Other challenges include getting a huge number of permissions – environmental permissions, FDA license, permissions for people to enter the factory… to do all this in 10 days was a herculean task, but the organisation moved very fast.

There are many other 'new' entrants in the sanitiser category. How are you appraising competition? How will you differentiate?

Over the past few years we’ve already made an impression in the health and hygiene category – we have an anti-bacterial paint called Royale Health Shield. So we are looking at this (sanitiser range) as an extension of that. We’re clear that we’re not a flash in the pan.

It’s not just sanitisers we’re looking at; we will invest in this category with many more products. We have long-term motivation, something I don’t think a lot of other players have.

Also, sanitisers fit in with the overall ‘home’ space, a strong zone for us, in which we know the consumer so well.

Amit Syngle
Amit Syngle

It may be an unfair question, but how will you compete with brands like Dettol and Lifebuoy that have an advantage in this category?

When you’re a challenger brand, you will always face resistance, because the consumer keeps on buying brands that have been there for long. Therefore, it’s important to look at motivating the shop seller to push your product to the consumer. It’s about aligning all the elements of the marketing piece, including the ‘seller push’.

Talk about your distribution plan for the sanitiser range…

Actually, it doesn’t really ‘sync in’ with our existing distribution system. Sanitisers are sold in medical shops, kirana shops – largely, the area of FMCG products. Our (existing) network (for paints) is different – it includes hardware stores and paint related outlets.

So we’re not just loading our existing distribution network with new products. We’ve set up a parallel distribution network for our sanitisers, to make them available across kirana stores and medical shops. We’re also making them available across electrical and hardware stores.

It’s not easy to set up a new distribution system – it involves relationships, people, locations... we’re putting a lot of muscle behind this; we will not shy away from making huge investments in this category.

"It’s not easy to set up a parallel distribution system – it involves relationships, people, locations... we’re putting a lot of muscle behind this; we will not shy away from making huge investments in this category."

What media channels will you use to advertise Viroprotek? Or is availability all that matters presently?

We are looking at both digital and ATL advertising for this category. It’s important because there’s a plethora of brands in this segment today and on the face of it, all look the same. The consumer is not aware which one is good and which is not. So it’s important to talk about our product.

While distribution and reach are winners today, they can never replace advertising.

Let’s discuss the paints segment. While the company's initiatives to protect the painter community are great, what about the psychological barriers in the consumer's mind? Many families will be afraid to let a crew of painters enter their homes - how will you tackle this reality?

The only way to address customer paranoia is by persisting and telling them this is a safe painting service. This is where the 'Asian Paints trust' comes in. It’s not a roadside contractor who is entering your home wearing just a mask. Also, our sanitisers come in here in a strong way too.

A still from an ad, targeted at consumers, that shows painters dressed in protective gear
A still from an ad, targeted at consumers, that shows painters dressed in protective gear
"The only way to address customer paranoia is by persisting and telling them this is a safe painting service."

Yes, but the act of getting one's home painted is probably low on the priority list right now. It’s not an ‘essential’. How will you regenerate demand?

As I see it, life doesn’t stop. People are opening up to this new way of life, they’ve started taking home deliveries from Amazon, they’re ordering exotic ingredients, vegetables, vacuum cleaners, etc. Maids, plumbers, air conditioner maintenance people have started re-entering homes, security/house-keeping staff is coming into buildings. People will not be averse to a safe painting experience.

You’re right, painting is a discretionary spend that can be postponed, but not when it’s maintenance led – imagine a leaking wall with a bad patch of fungal growth… would people want to stay in such an unhygienic environment? And with the monsoon approaching, maintenance is important.

And I see birthdays and anniversaries happening in homes. People want beautiful spaces that they can enjoy.

A still from an ad that highlights the safefy checks in place for the painter community
A still from an ad that highlights the safefy checks in place for the painter community

These are unusually difficult times. But you’ve been in the business long enough to have memories of similar tough times. Do share some…

I’ll go back to 1999, the first time I handled an Asian Paints factory in Greater Noida. Traditionally, I was into sales and marketing and that was my first time running a full-fledged factory with more than 1,000 people.

It was a very challenging time. It was a new place, the workers felt their demands were not being met by the management, so productivity was low, labour and IR (industrial relations) were strained, there were some heated skirmishes and violent episodes even. Everyone was scared and we nearly closed down the plant. Things were going nowhere so I declared a six month-long factory ‘lockout’ – we stopped manufacturing, despite pressures from the board to open up, because of rising costs. I was in the middle of the fire, from both sides.

Over two years, we revamped the entire plant, worked on the psyche of labourers and dealt with their behavioural issues. We turned it around and it became one of Asian Paints’ most efficiently run plants. It was a golden lesson in leadership, management and dealing with irrational people.

Secondly, the 2008-09 slowdown was when we shook our entire brand, went beyond our core area of paints and diversified into water-proofing and construction chemicals. We also looked at new retailing initiatives, new products and innovation. The initiatives we took then really worked for us over the years.