Shreyas Kulkarni

"The need of the hour was to talk about social issues... it's not like there's a calendar"

Puneet Das, vice president - marketing, beverages India at Tata Consumer Products speaks on Tata Tea Premium's new campaign, local and cause marketing, tea's immunity from nearly everything, among other things.

It's not every day that you get to talk to Puneet Das, vice president - marketing, beverages India at Tata Consumer Products, over a Mumbai-Delhi call, over a cup of tea, while it's pouring outside; it feels almost like the rain gods willed it. So, over 20-minute call and two cups of tea, we got him to tell us about tea's supposed immunity from everything, what's caught his attention these days, and how marketing has gone local starting with Tata Tea Premium's latest campaign among other things.

Called '#DeshKaKulhad', the tea giant has partnered with 'Rare Planet', a young start-up focused on uplifting rural artisans, to offer intricately painted terracotta 'kulhads'; each celebrating the best aspects of India's different states. Das said for Independence Day, we realised it was a good time to connect with your roots and pay homage to "desh ki mitti and what epitomises it so well is the humble kulhad."

The artisans behind these items depend on per-item sale or bulk orders to which Das couldn't help but agree and added, "There's no travel, it's not an essential item, you and I are not stepping out and we're buying only essential stuff. But, in this backdrop, this whole art and culture are lost and these are all voices that need to be heard," and further said, "... do it (getting their voices heard) in a positive manner... they just want their livelihoods to start. So, the more the people buy stuff from them, the better it is for them and the community."

He said that while this is a Tata Tea Premium campaign, at its heart it is to help the artisans and in a sense doing good for the community while in line with our proposition: Whatever we take up as a cause, we want to be authentic and it helps us engage with our consumers and over the years, that's what consumers have expected from a brand like Tata Tea Premium and we've been consistent with it.

The tea immunity

Kulhad and tea go hand in hand. What's also interesting is how despite being under the throes of a pandemic and an economic recession, 'tea' as a category prospers because it possesses immense immunity; we'll consume three cups of it regardless of what's happening outside. So, where is Das focusing more now? Is it towards sales and distribution or is it on marketing and advertising?

He responds, "Our focus is just engaging with the consumer." He explained that during the lockdown, their main focus was to, "connect the supply to our consumers because the shops were closed," and revealed the brand's collaboration with Domino's, Flipkart, and Zomato to ensure the products reached their destination.

Das also said this was the right time to talk to the country about what is the right social message to bring out and we identified 'iss baar badon ke liye jaago re'." He remarked that while everyone was talking about COVID, we needed to talk about the people who were most susceptible. Now, as the lockdown is over, we're looking to engage with our consumers positively.

We summarised: If 'distribution' was the lockdown's challenge, the present day's challenge for Das was to reach out to consumers positively and vibrantly. He nodded and added that it's not just the present pandemic but also, "... the whole lifestyle has changed, people are working from home, and fundametally a lot of things have changed and it's a cliched phrase but we're in the 'new normal." He mentioned it was all about giving positive experiences and revealed, "...rather than a challenge, I would call this an opportunity for marketers and brands to give positive memorable messges to consumers and, in the process, make them engage with your brand."

The pandemic and the lockdown's dent on the B2B revenue

Tea, despite its immunity, saw a fall in demand from the B2B sector. All hotels and offices and tea stalls that would order tea bags and sachets were shut or barely working. It must have hit Tata Tea's pockets hard.

When we mentioned this part to Das, he sounded like someone who'd rather see the glass half full than half empty. "What has actually happened is that we're seeing a lot of in-home consumption. If you're not in your office the whole day, you are in your home having tea or coffee. So, in a sense, if something is going down, there is something else that's going up," said the marketing VP.

He further said, "The most effect was on the eatery channels and the tea shops... those are gone and depending on the different states and their contributions to these channels, people have been affected... Overall there has been an effect, there have also been positives too."

The SKU changes

We remarked the hit to B2B revenue and spike in consumption must have hit the SKUs too but Das disagreed, "Not really because direct consumers buy a lot." He mentioned about hot tea shops and how they (Tata) supply special packs to them that have obviously been impacted because the shops are not there.

But, from a consumer SKU view, "there's a lot of rural demand coming in" revealed Das and explained a lot of migrant labour returned to their homes and now buy the same packs they enjoyed from their work regions now from their home states. As per Das, "demand patterns are shifting" and it's also a question of whether we (Tata Tea Premium) were proactive in reaching out to consumers...

Localised lockdowns play spoilsport

We might be out of the lockdown but not the pandemic and governments or municipal bodies will certainly lockdown a region for a temporary period if positive cases spike; it's a serious case of anxiety and hardships not only for residents but brands too. Das commented that it's not something new and has been happening for the last four months. "Can you predict what's going to happen? No, but the idea is to be agile and flexible to what is happening on the ground" stated Das revealing his mindset about how we have to live with the situation.

A spike in cause marketing

There's been a steady rise in cause marketing over the recent years and for tea which is seeing a healthy demand, should we expect more such type of marketing? Das said, "The usual marketing challenges will apply to tea and as far as cause marketing is concerned, Tata Tea started 'Jaago Re' in 06-07 when there was no word coined as cause marketing. It is in the last three-four years that every brand has jumped the bandwagon so we've been consistent and timely about these things."

He further said that when the lockdown was happening, the need of the hour was to talk about the social issues at hand... "It's not like there's a calendar list... what is currently happening on the ground, are we close to the consumer, and how through my brand I can reach out to consumer and help the cause is something we need to evaluate..."

'Atmanirbhar Bharat' going the local route

Brands have heeded the PM's call for the atmanirbhar route and it reflects in their communication tbut are we now entering a stage where the promotion of local regions and cultures will rise? Considering the nationwide appeal of tea and Tata Tea Premium's recent communication path, Das was well-placed to answer this question.

First, he remarked that it is India's beauty that we celebrate the unique regions we belong to. He said that at a local level, when you and your friends get along, you talk and celebrate your local culture and when you come across people from different states, you celebrate being an Indian. As for brands going hyperlocal or not, Das said, "... it's a conversation a lot of brands have started but we picked up this trend and insight about a year and a half back."

"Tata Tea Premium is a nationwide brand... It was a good balance of our 'Desh ki chai' talking about regions and states," he signed off.

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