Abid Hussain Barlaskar

"Role of incense has transitioned from merely pleasing God": Ravi Rayavaram, ITC

ITC has announced the launch of a 'Lo Smoke' variant of its incense brand Mangaldeep. In conversation with Ravi Rayavaram, chief executive of Matches and Agarbatti Business, ITC, we explore the category, the trends and the shifts within.

Agarbatti, that indispensable part of puja rituals, are bought solely for their fragrance. But with fragrance also comes smoke. Adding a new twist to the product, ITC's agarbatti brand Mangaldeep recently announced a new 'Lo Smoke' variant. The Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of the new offering is that it releases 80 per cent less smoke than other brands in the market. The 'Lo Smoke' product has been announced in one variant (Breezy Lavender) and is available in packs of 50 sticks, priced at Rs 50.

Introducing Mangaldeep Lo Smoke Incense sticks! Mangaldeep Lo Smoke Incense sticks with its special “Lo Smoke...

Posted by Mangaldeep on Thursday, January 9, 2020

While the product is a necessity in almost all Indian homes, the huge demand has led to a large number of fragrant options. Mangaldeep's new offering is out to make its space among 6000 plus players across the country. Among key competitors are brands like Cycle, Moksh, Zed, Kalpana, Hari Darshan and Patanjali.

In conversation with afaqs!, Ravi Rayavaram, chief executive of Matches and Agarbatti Business, ITC, reveals that the Agarbatti and Dhoop market in India is worth Rs 8,800 crore and is growing at an approximately 15 per cent, three-year CAGR. Being a non-seasonal product category, it is used throughout the year and at least thrice a week. Consumption sees a spike during the festive period. "Mangaldeep has nearly 10 per cent market share and is number one in dhoopbatti and number two in the agarbatti category," Rayavaram says. (Dhoopbatti is a variant of the incense stick without the bamboo/wood punk.)

Ravi Rayavaram, chief executive of Matches and Agarbatti Business, ITC
Ravi Rayavaram, chief executive of Matches and Agarbatti Business, ITC

However, agarbatti smoke, unlike smoke in general, is welcome and not repulsive. So what could have led to the innovation? It could be a host of things - the pressure to stand out in an extremely fragmented market, to deal with growing conversations around air pollution or to provide a fresh break to the age-old association with prayer. Agarbatti advertising has almost created a category code of 'smoking incense sticks on arti thali' visuals. With little room to stand out, almost all brands in the space (including Mangaldeep) have stuck to similar advertising for years.

"We found that high smoke was considered undesirable by some consumers during consumer immersions, because of the perception that it interfered with a great fragrance experience. Moreover, smoke was welcome only to the extent that was considered necessary to please God, purify the puja space and carry the fragrance everywhere," Rayavaram says.

'Lo Smoke' is targeted at the regular but relatively lighter consumer of agarbattis belonging to more affluent sections of urban India. "Apart from the key devotional need for using agarbattis to please God, they also seek secondary benefits," Rayavaram says.

He reveals that apart from the many attitudinal trends exhibited by consumers, there has been a key shift in the role of incense. "It has transitioned from merely pleasing God to an all-encompassing role of bringing in positivity to the self and setting the ambience for a mindful prayer. We are tapping a consumer insight which is mainly reflective of the millennial generation and is sometimes different from the beliefs of their ancestors and the manner in which they performed their daily puja," he adds.

However, don't puja-heavy ads limit use cases? The 'fragrance' proposition fits multiple situations.

"The primary use case for agarbattis continues to be in the realm of devotion with over 90 per cent of consumers using it solely for puja": Ravi Rayavaram

"The primary use case for agarbattis continues to be in the realm of devotion with over 90 per cent of consumers using it solely for puja. Other use cases such as home fragrance, removing mal-odours and repelling insects have always been secondary," Rayavaram responds.

This also keeps agarbattis from clashing with home fragrance and freshener products like Godrej Aer, Air Wick, Febreze which, by nature, are totally smokeless.

As part of consumer outreach, Mangaldeep also has an app which was launched in 2016 as a devotional companion for users. It augments devotional experiences through services, content and relevant interpretation. The app's content is created in collaboration with temples, relevant government institutions and subject matter experts.

The Mangaldeep App
The Mangaldeep App

While Rayavaram mentions that agarbatti is a highly commoditised category, he maintains that Mangaldeep has been able to strongly differentiate itself.

Speaking of differentiation, rival brand Lia comes with a proposition of burning for a longer duration. Mangaldeep has launched coloured agarbattis in the past and has targeted devotees of specific temples with its 'Temple' range that includes variants like 'Lord Jagannath’s Favourite Fragrance' and 'Baba-Vishwanath Agarbatti'. Brands like Phool sell organic agarbattis made from material like flowers, etc.

"We have tested the product through in-home experiences extensively before launch and have found purchase intention from users to be very high. The Lo Smoke proposition is another step in our journey towards launching superior and differentiated offerings for the discerning customers," Rayavaram says.

However, products in other categories which have deep associations with smoke have also explored the 'Low' proposition in the past. ITC had launched a 'Low Smell' version of its Classic brand of cigarettes in 2016. Godrej's mosquito repellent brand Good Knight has a low-smoke coil as well.

Speaking of challenges, Rayavaram says, "It is important to reach the right set of consumers, that is, the early adopters and generate enough trials. It is an industry with low barriers to entry and therefore, there is a huge prevalence of loose and unbranded products. However, there is clearly a trend to upgrade and move to branded products since consumers are increasingly seeking better product quality and experiences."

Mangaldeep Lo Smoke is set for launch initially on all e-commerce portals and in the second phase will be available across offline channels such as modern formats of supermarkets and self–service stores. Online awareness initiative will be followed by campaigns across mass media.

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