In the last few months, the retail sector has almost come to a standstill due to the nationwide lockdown. This has led to a collapse of demand, since customers are under perpetual fear of contracting the infection and have remained in the confines of their home. Restaurants, shopping malls and hotels wear a deserted look, unlike earlier.
With most organisations already dealing with a slowdown, if not a complete shutdown, marketing during this period is more about creativity and tact to ensure that the message of the brand is effectively communicated.
No one understands this better than Rashi Goel, Director – Marketing and Consumer Communications, Nestle, who has over two decades of experience in successfully delivering business growth and building brands through marketing, communication, product innovation and personal leadership. Her portfolio includes leading global brands such as L’Oreal, Unilever, Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Kraft Heinz, where she has proved her mettle as a versatile marketer.
A passionate advocate of design, innovation and creativity, she balances both the art and science of marketing by making a real difference to consumers’ lives.
In a freewheeling chat with The Blue Circle, Rashi discusses the evolution of the food and grocery industry, shift in consumer tastes and the new marketing playbook for retailers in the post-Covid era.
Evolution in Food and Grocery
The food and grocery industry is the one with the greatest opportunity and headroom for growth, says Rashi. According to industry projections, India’s online food and grocery retail is likely to touch USD 10 billion by 2023, growing at a staggering 55% from the current 0.2% share of the overall retail to 1.2%.
“The food and beverage evolution takes into account buying flavors and products that you can’t make at home, as well as buying convenience solutions. As the working population and urban households grow, demand for convenient and ready to cook solutions is likely to grow even further,” shared Rashi.
What’s more, with an increasing population of Indians having experienced international travels in the last few years, the demand for global flavours is increasing.
Food is a language Indians speak – it reflects in the repertoire of rich culinary heritage that the country offersr. Over time, there is growing receptivity towards experimenting new tastes and flavours, which spells good news for retailers, added Rashi.
High-end nutrition is another area that Rashi believes has evolved, and has further potential to grow.
“It really is a paradoxical industry where on the one hand, nutrition concepts like keto diets. gluten-free, vegan, though very niche but are growing rapidly. At the same time, there is going to be a large penetration of affordable nutrition products,” she commented.
Key consumer attitudes and behavioural changes
With increased smartphone and internet penetration in India, today’s consumer has access to a world of brands on his fingertips. There is a “problem of plenty” that exists today, which is why it is critical for brands to take into cognisance the competition, and stand out from the crowd by way of effective communication.
Unlike earlier, today’s consumer is keen to have a two-way communication with brands and companies. Not just consumers, but companies also benefit in multiple ways by opening lines of communication with consumers.
Rashi, leading India’s first and only 24/7 Consumer Services Center in the FMCG sector, shares the reason for the success of this initiative. She believes that it is the quick response and empathetic messaging by the brand that has made it a cut above the rest.
“Consumers share ideas and requests for new flavours and products, we duly record them and input into our innovation funnel. We engage with consumers who have nutrition queries or are curious about how to cook with certain products, we answer all these queries over email, social media and on call. This we believe, is a win-win for consumers and the company. As it builds trust, we can be of service to consumers both who are irate and those who wish to engage with us by sharing ideas,” she noted.
Agility is key
It might take a vaccine for travel, hospitality and related sectors to achieve stability, but those in the essential goods space have turned agile and supple, thereby trying to convert a crisis into an “opportunity”.
“Retailers are investing in contactless home delivery and convincing customers that the delivery chain is following safety protocol. WhatsApp has emerged as a powerful channel of communication to enable order placing and contactless delivery, even from neighborhood kirana stores. Some large retailers are also opening up D2C online ordering platforms,” she shared.
Nestle has also ramped up its safety regulations almost overnight to ensure their factories follow appropriate sanitisation and social distancing measures.
“We are working on building a robust supply side pipeline. Initially, we faced problems in getting our factory started on time and filling in the supply chain. Since we sell essential goods, consumers were stocking up, so the demand side was booming, all we needed to focus on was the supply side. One thing where Nestle has been very conscious, is that not a single person has been laid off because of the crisis,” added Rashi.
Nestle is also committed to being eco savvy, she explained.
“We have a commitment to reduce our plastic footprint. In fact, even before the Corona crisis, we have been running our program under Maggi, called “2 minute Safai ke Naam”, in which we were incentivizing consumers to return empty packets of Maggi, for a recycling program.”
Online consumer behaviour
According to Rashi, consumers have become more conscious of their health and wellness, in the Covid era. Conversations around nutrition and preventive health care have witnessed a spike, with searches for immunity on Google having gone up by 900%, and for vitamins and nutrition by 600%.
Consequently, an increasing number of people have begun to cook at home, instead of resorting to unhealthy food practices.
“Indians were already looking for recipes online, but the quest to cook more at home has led to a higher recipe search volume. We are looking for easy to cook recipes, restaurant-like recipes at home, and for recipes that utilise less ingredients because pantries are limited,” commented Rashi.
Rashi predicts that customers could further get into a defensive savings mode, since India is entering a period of protracted recession, if not recession in the economy. Yet, there’s a silver lining.
“There has been a shift of expenses to essential commodities like grocery, nutrition and medication,” she said.
Focus on nutrition
The post-Covid scenario offers a unique opportunity to seize the moment and repurpose policies towards a food system that is resilient and sustainable.
Rashi has been instrumental in launching India’s first ‘service arm’ of a corporate brand in the form of AskNestle.in 2019, and believes that this trend will be accelerated further.
Sharing the reasons behind this initiative she explained, “We are walking the talk on our commitment to nutrition. We realized that there is an abundance of information on nutrition on the internet, combined with discussions with mother-in-laws and friends. A mother is faced with an overload of conflicting opinions. AskNestle.in was set up to deliver helpful nutrition advice, and nutritious recipes to mothers. It is a platform that is a dedicated repository of expert vetted tips, and easy pragmatic nutrition solutions.“
Rashi also made some significant learnings on how a brand can strike the right chord with the consumer.
“The consumer insight is right, and if a platform solves a real consumer need, then the Internet is the best vehicle. Consumers will organically, come to your website and become deep loyalists. The second is that as a FMCG company, it is very important to have the right partners who can contribute the right technology, and digital thinking to the initiative. The third is to develop an ecosystem of touch points for consumers and be present where they are,” she shared.
Omnichannel is the way forward
As consumers will be hesitant to venture out into crowded places to shop, retailers feel this is a good time to further develop omni-channel capabilities.
The more technology advances, the more it’s integrated into our daily lives. The lines between what we do online and on ground will begin to blur.
“I think this crisis has accelerated a trend that already existed. Omni-channel now includes delivery, which will have a higher proportion of sales than eating in the restaurant. And the retailer will find different ways to reach the consumer, wherever the consumer is – telephone call, WhatsApp, and online ordering. In fact, I think Whatsapp has become a very very valuable touch point to enable omni-channel distribution,” shared Rashi.
She further added that where large retailers are unable to reach, startups like Dunzo have tied up with multiple partners to ensure last mile delivery through a network.
Road to Recovery
Rashi appreciated Amazon’s ambitious retail response to commit USD 4 billion from their earnings to sanitising their supply chain, pointing that it is their customer centricity and commitment to consumers that is the model for others to follow.
She further added that this could be a good lesson for restaurants to improve their dining facilities in the post-Covid era.
“Once they open they will have to have fewer tables for dining-in. Their business models will have to be rejigged to check if they can survive with lower dining ratios and more fixed investment in sanitisation services. Their revenue mainstay could continue to be delivery,” said Rashi.
While the revival of the industry could happen on other fronts, she has her concerns around the mass exodus of migrant workers to their villages, which could cause a delay in recovery.
“Retail industry might have to look at restarting with a manpower capacity below 100% as demand slowly picks up. Reskilling of new employees might be involved as the old trained manpower might not be available,” concluded Rashi.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)