Ubaid Zargar

Cycle Pure Agarbathi banks on sustainable packaging for its 75th anniversary

Founded in 1948, the company has seen decades' worth of paradigm shifts in the incense sticks category. Brand’s director speaks on the journey so far.

Incense sticks have been part and parcel of everything religious in India, since the Vedic origins of the culture. Between rituals and festivities, the ‘Agarbattis’ have become somewhat the symbol of spirituality in the country. As such, the Indian incense market stands at a rough estimate of Rs 10,000 crore, inclusive of the unorganised segments of the category. 

Manufacturer Cycle Pure Agarbathi, from the house of NR Group, has been part of the category since the nation gained independence. The brand was founded in 1948, and is set to complete 75 years of its existence this October. And before the celebrations begin, the brand has embarked on a shift towards sustainable packaging.

Cycle Pure Agarbathi’s managing director, Arjun Ranga says that it all started in Mysore, where his grandfather sparked a sequence of innovative events to establish the enterprise. The first of which, was identifying fragrance as the key element of success for incense sticks. “My grandfather realised that for a product to be successful, you need a core competence. In Agarbathi, it is the fragrance so he set up a creative lab and started creating fragrances in-house.”

The game of packaging

What followed was the genesis of the brand itself. In 1950, Cycle Pure Agarbathies’ founder, N. Ranga Rao, chose the name ‘Cycle’ for the company, believing that the symbol personified freedom for everybody. What also helped was the fact that a cycle was called a cycle in every language in India.

Interestingly, in the 50s, most of the incense sticks products were packaged in tin metal boxes. Ranga points out that the brand was the first mover in the category to transition from a metallised box to a duplex board packaging. “ We were one of the first brands to also introduce lamination.”

Packaging has been integral in the growth and expansion of Cycle Pure Agarbathi. It is also evident in the kind of efforts the brand has put into its packaging over the decades, aiming to refine and polish its appeal. Ranga reveals, “My dad actually went to local design schools and recruited artists on internships to design packaging for us. Today we have a very robust in-house team that creates all our packaging, but also all our art for social media.”

Road to sustainability

Today, the brand only uses Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified packaging. The inner packaging of the products also uses 100% recyclable plastic. Ranga explains, “We have gotten permission from the government of India to go on a path of plastic neutrality. By 2026, we plan to completely offset our plastic footprint.”

The brand has also moved away from the use of staples making the corrugated boxes recyclable. Ranga makes it a point that the brand is looking beyond the aesthetics of a box, and focusing on an eco-friendly and environmentally sustainable direction for the company.

All to offer

Cycle Pure Agarbathi’s product lineup has evolved lengths and breadths since its inception. The brand has expanded its portfolio right from the traditional Agarbathi, all the way up to incense sticks that are 10 feet tall. Adding to this, Cycle’s incense stick gamut includes Japanse incense, Dhoop (smokeless incense), among other things. 

Interestingly, the company has also forayed into scented candles, diffusers, vaporisers, among others.

“We’ve also gone into spiritual products, prayer accessories, functional aircare, and lifestyle aircare. We’ve also expanded into the fragrance side, so the sticks are no longer just for prayers, but can also be used for aromatic ambiance.”

The Marketing Strategy

As per Ranga, the key to market an incense product is in branding and consistency in quality. “You also need the ability to communicate the story clearly. How do you become different from the rest? You actually have to act different, and also live the difference. For instance, we believe in sustainability. So, we are doing activities that are aligned with that thought.”

The brand has also laid a lot of emphasis on fragrance, to differentiate itself from the rest of the market. “I’m a perfumer, and I have been learning the art of fragrance for the last 25 years. My father is a perfumer too, and so was my grandfather. Our fragrance is a closely held family secret.”

That is one of the biggest differentiators from the unorganised or the smaller players, Ranga adds.

In terms of advertising, the brand is still actively participating in TV advertising. “TV remains to be the main media outlet for us. Our target group is in the GECs.”

A few years ago, the brand also teamed up with Amitabh Bachchan to promote its line of products.

The Distribution Footprint

Annually, Cycle Agarbathies manufactures around 1.5 billion sticks. The brand directly reaches about 8,00,000 retail outlets and indirectly about 1.5 million outlets. “We have our own company sales representatives and distributors who service the product across the depths of our country.”

Beyond this, the brand also exports its products to about 75 countries. “We are amongst the largest exporters as well, while India remains our biggest market.”

The biggest markets for the brand outside of India remain Middle East, West Africa, East Africa, with Nigeria being the highest consuming country in terms of incense per capita, followed by US.

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