Shreyas Kulkarni

"90-95% people can't differentiate between two Marie brands in a blind test": Mayank Shah, Parle Products

Parle is now advertising Marie in Maharashtra. Marie is a term Britannia and ITC Sunfeast have used in the past. Is it a sub-segment, a type of biscuit, an ingredient, or something else?

Indians love to gossip during tea breaks, and Marie often plays the fuel to stoke this ravenous appetite for ‘deets’ on other people’s lives.

The history of Marie is no less interesting than a Shakespearean tragedy. It is a tale that involves the British monarchy, the Russian czars, and familial enmity. Marie, itself, is worthy of being an excellent choice of gossip.

Before we delve deep into this tale, it’s important to know what Marie is. Is it a brand, an ingredient, or a sub-segment? The answer is simple. Marie is a 147-year-old biscuit.

Let’s go back to 1874, when the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia got married to Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Maria’s father, the Czar of Russia, wasn’t too keen on the match and neither was Queen Victoria, Prince Alfred’s mother. Russia and Great Britain did not see eye to eye. But still, the marriage took place.

Maria, however, had to agree to second place in the pecking order to Alexandra, the wife of Edward, Queen Victoria's eldest son. Adding to this, she lost most of her family during the Russian Revolution and her husband lost his title after World War I. Prince Alfred died in 1900 and Maria spent the rest of her life as a widow.

What Maria may not have realised is that to celebrate her marriage in 1874, Peek Freans, a London-based bakery, had created a biscuit and dubbed it ‘Marie’, a spin-off from Maria’s name.

Made from wheat flour, Marie has less sugar than sweet biscuits and is, hence, less likely to break when dipped in liquids. Thus, its complementary relationship with tea and coffee started.

Today, Marie is ubiquitous in over 40 countries, with India being one of the most popular markets for this biscuit. Over the decades, the country has enjoyed several Marie biscuit brands, such as Parle, Britannia, ITC Sunfeast, McVitie’s, Patanjali, etc.

The most popular image of this biscuit, however, comes from Bakeman’s English Marie ad in the 1990s.

Such is the popularity of Marie that, as per a Times of India report, in 1997, the then Maharashtra chief minister Vasantdada Patil used Marie served with tea at the Mantralaya press conferences to avoid giving answers.

Headlined 'Marie and Mukhiya Mantris', “Crucial questions skipped the chief minister’s attention as he would be too busy scooping out the details of the cup with a spoon,” reported Moneycontrol.

There is one peculiar thing about this biscuit. When you visit a grocery store and ask the shopkeeper for a Marie biscuit, he will give you any brand. But when you ask the shopkeeper for a cream biscuit, he will ask you about your brand preference.

“Shopkeepers won’t ask you about the brand because there is very little differentiation among Marie brands," says Mayank Shah, senior category head at Parle Products that makes Parle-G, Parle Marie, etc. He goes on to say, “90-95 per cent of people can't differentiate between two Marie brands in a blind test."

Mayank Shah
Mayank Shah

Shah tells us the Marie came to India from England and first caught the fancy of consumers in Eastern India (today’s West Bengal). He explains that because of the popularity, “any and every company started to manufacture Marie biscuits.” So, there was “little differentiation between Marie biscuits.”

When there is little to no difference, how do you connect with the consumers? “By being part of their tradition, conversations and culture,” says Shah.

West Bengal is Parle Marie’s biggest market. The company ran a regional campaign on its adda culture. It is a culture of passionate discussions on various topics over a cup of tea.

Shah recounts an experience from the early days of his career. He witnessed adda discussions during a train journey, where the debaters came to blows over a topic they were all passionate about. What was it? Should the then US President George Bush invade Iraq?

Parle Marie’s latest regional campaign is aimed at Maharashtra. And unlike West Bengal, “people don’t want to get involved in heated discussions, unless there is anything interested to speak about… They’re only interested in their lives,” mentions Shah.

Maharashtra and even Karnataka, as per Shah, are glucose biscuit (Parle-G) markets, and Marie is a late entrant in these two states. “We want basic varieties of Marie to be accepted, and want it to be Parle Marie.”

Over the years, Parle Marie has undergone various rebranding exercises to stay on top of people’s minds. “We had Marie Long. It became Parle Marie Choice, which was then branded as BakeSmith Marie and later, it was Parle Marie,” reveals Shah.

BakeSmith Marie was the brand’s attempt to evoke the biscuit’s British roots, but it didn’t quite click.

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