In the autumn of 2015, in its 103rd year in the country, Nestle India Ltd was a house demolished.
Maggi Two-Minute Noodles, a brand it built over three decades in India and loved by hikers, hostellers and housewives alike, had crumbled. That June, the national food safety regulator had banned the sale of Maggi noodles and directed Nestle to withdraw the product. As the flagship product went up in flames—38,000 tonnes, literally—Maggi-branded jams, ketchups and beverages too took the heat. From commanding 80% share of India’s noodles market, (as estimated by Nomura Securities in May 2015) Maggi went down to zero in just a month.
“Clinically dead”, is how the company’s India boss loves to describe the Nestle of those days.
A year later
It’s June of 2016, a year after the safety crackdown. At the Centre, Nestle SA’s global headquarters in Switzerland’s picturesque Vevey, the global company’s board and management are trying to finalize a three-year strategy for the India market. Maggi, which returned to shelves in November, has since reconquered 57% of the market, a far cry from its heydays, but a major fightback still.
“What’s at stake if we don’t take any action?”
The question was directed at 56-year-old Suresh Narayanan, chairman and managing director of Nestle India, who was parachuted in from Philippines a year earlier to put out the noodle fire.
The question was unusual even for Narayanan, who had attended such strategy sessions for various markets during his two decades at Nestle. But the man, who had just successfully sailed through one of the biggest crises in Nestle’s history globally, knew this was coming.
The rest of the day, Narayanan briefed the top management on what Nestle should do in India over the next four years to ensure a safer future.
This was the last in a series of several meetings in Vevey between September 2015 and June 2016, after the 5 June 2015 order by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) that took Maggi out of the market. What started as Plan-B of staying afloat without Maggi noodles finally shaped up as a three-year strategy that Nestle would follow in India—a market that fetched less than 2% of its 2015 global revenue of 88.7 billion Swiss franc despite a century of doing business here.
Nestle declined to share details of its three-year plan framed at the Vevey conclaves. However, according to Narayanan, the company is looking at entering new business segments. That’s some change for the company, which stepped out of its comfort zone last in 1990 when it launched chocolates.
The reason: Narayanan wants to push what he calls “motion initiatives”, or initiatives that will help the company grow faster, that will gradually ensure the company’s portfolio is a lot more “balanced beyond the 30% dependence” that it has on Maggi today. The primary topic at Vevey even on the final day of the strategy meet was on how to restore Maggi noodles to its former glory in terms of market share, volume and trust.
Nestle’s concern is understandable. In the three decades since it launched Maggi noodles in India in 1983, Nestle had a smooth journey. Growth was steady— Maggi noodles earned 29.23% of Nestle India’s total sales in 2014, more than double the revenue share in 2001. Given the steady growth, the company even stopped looking at new segments or product categories. Maggi reached every nook and corner of the country—from remote villages in the plains to mountain ranges 18,000-ft above sea level, to become the most popular packaged snack in India.
Then came 5 June 2015 when Nestle India’s single-largest revenue earner faced a nationwide ban for a six-month period on allegations that it contained monosodium glutamate—a flavour enhancer—and lead in excess of prescribed limits. Between 5 June and 1 September 2015, Nestle had to recall 38,000 tonnes of Maggi noodles from millions of retail shelves, destroy them, tackle regulators and other government authorities to establish that Maggi was safe.
It was a body blow.
Sitting in his glass-walled cabin at the five-storey Nestle building in Gurgaon overlooking the expressway to Delhi, Narayanan sounds confident: “We are reconstructing the demolished house.”
Enter new categories, build a balanced portfolio to reduce dependence on a single product, focus on health and nutrition, increase penetration in top towns, beef up advertising, and, most importantly, communicate much more with the consumers directly: that was the crux of what Narayanan returned with from Vevey. “Our actions for the next four years would set the tone for the next few decades,” he says.
Over the coming quarters, Nestle will enter a few of the five new product categories. These are: Nespresso (a coffee machine), Dolce Gusto (a coffee capsule system), pet care, healthcare and skincare. In August last year, it entered the cereals market with kids breakfast cereal Nestle Ceregrow. Its India portfolio has been crying out for expansion—out of its global bouquet of about 20,000-odd brands, it sells only a paltry 20 in India.
Work has already started. In the last two quarters, it has introduced some 30 products, including a few extensions of its coffee brand Nescafe, Nestle Ceregrow cereal, health food drink Nestle A+ Pro-Grow, a new range of Greek yoghurt called Nestle a+ Grekyo and a few new variants of Maggi instant noodles, and increased its focus on larger cities.
Unlike Maggi noodles, it won’t be a volume game anymore. The Swiss company wants to quickly leverage India’s rapid urbanization, tap the educated middle class and working women, as well as benefit from rising health awareness. All this, with an eye on maintaining profitability.
Narayanan cites research to show India’s top 600 cities will account for half of the consumption growth expected in the country over the next decade or so. “That’s clearly an opportunity for a company like ours. With the increasing participation of more women in the workforce, the need of the hour is a marriage between nutrition, health and convenience. And, that is the area Nestle is looking at in terms of product innovation as we go forward,” he adds.
While about 70% of India’s population still lives in its 638,000 villages, more than 55% of retailing actually happens in metros, mini-metros and tier-I cities, according to a Technopak study. These are the places where Nestle wants to go deeper, instead of stepping into places where logistics and supply chain are a big challenge. However, its products are available at 3.5 million of India’s estimated nine million retail outlets.
“Nestle’s products are relevant to a particular lifestyle, income group, and are urban-centric. Rapid urbanization is a huge opportunity as is the increasing participation of women in decision-making. We need more products that are convenience-based, nutrition-based and some in the on-the-go category. We need to bring products relevant for every segment,” says Narayanan.
This top-down approach has other reasons as well. First, it’s easier to convey the message and convince the (educated) middle class through marketing communications, advertising and social media campaigns. Plus, there’s better scope for “premiumization”. Nestle India is no longer doing what it has been doing well for the past few decades; rather, it needs to look at doing things that it has not done before. “Selectively seed them (products in new categories) in order to grow other frontiers of business, is what we are looking at. That’s why we are entering new categories and new businesses,” says Narayanan.
The branded packaged food market accounts for about 20% of the Rs3.2 trillion-a-year packaged consumer products market in India. The consumer packaged food market is projected to grow at around 12-15% annually till 2019, according to a September 2015 report by industry lobby Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and advisory firm KPMG.
At the same time, Nestle must find avenues beyond branded packaged food products—a segment that is estimated to get a new brand almost every day.
Even before the Maggi crisis blew up, Nestle India was struggling to stay in sync with India’s consumption story. It was losing market share in almost every product category—milk, baby food, coffee and chocolate. Except, of course, noodles.
“During CY10-15, Nestle India lost market share in most categories (chocolates, coffee and baby food) due to new competition, lack of innovation and pricing errors,” Sunita Sachdev, an analyst with UBS Securities India, said in a note on 1 November 2016.
Still, people at Nestle and its shareholders were happy. The company had managed to keep profits growing. There was no need to fix something that wasn’t broken.
In its new avatar, Nestle India is flexible, responsive and result-oriented. Some of its recent launches have already started showing results—coffee and beverages have returned to growth, but milk and nutrition are still under stress. According to Narayanan, the boards of Nestle India and Nestle SA have agreed that there is a need to “accelerate the game in India”, which will require fresh investments in the existing portfolio, new products, renovation and innovation—all this aimed at doubling revenue in the country within four to five years.
“Nestle India has the potential to reach that level. But things change fast. As a company, we could not exploit the true potential of India as a market. But there’s no reason why it should not happen. If we can’t make this happen in India, where else?” asks Narayanan.
Financially, the company has seen better days. In calendar year 2014, Nestle India had a revenue of Rs9,854.84 crore. Sales for the year 2015 stood at Rs8,175.31 crore. In the quarter ended 30 September, it reported a revenue of Rs2,190.2 crore. It was Rs2,332.6 crore in the quarter ended 31 March 2015 (the quarter before the Maggi ban). Results for 2016 (full year) are to be declared on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Nestle India has crunched the time between a product idea and its launch—from a typical 12-18 months to four-six months. And, more of its new products are developed based on local consumer insights, unlike earlier when more than 60% of its products had significant global interventions. It now needs to sustain this strategy for the next few years.
While analysts did not want to comment on the long-term projections of the company, they maintain a positive outlook on Nestle India.
“The slew of new launches is a step in the right direction in our view. However, in the coffee and beverages segment, we believe the move is behind time, given the company has lost its leadership position in terms of value share to HUL (Hindustan Unilever) in the category,” Sachdev of UBS said in a note last year. Nestle’s recent launches, brokerage firm IIFL in a report said, are likely to add 5-6% to the company’s sales by 2020.
Health is wealth
One of Nestle’s big bets is health. There are around 70 million diabetics in the country, about 60% of Indians are anaemic and a high percentage of children die of malnutrition, according to different studies. Meanwhile, consumers in general are becoming health conscious, more so in urban areas where Nestle India intends to focus.
“India is moving from a health and pleasure dimension to a healthy-indulgence dimension which is becoming a part of consumers’ choice. Products addressing issues related to diabetes, cardiovascular health, micronutrient deficiencies, fortifications—these would be another big platform for the company. These are some things that we have not done as aggressively as we should have,” says Narayanan.
To support all the above, it will leverage online sales—a route that it first used successfully when it relaunched Maggi noodles on Snapdeal. With this, Nestle will reach out to more consumers beyond the top towns, across the smaller towns and semi-rural areas at almost no cost. It has already partnered with top e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Snapdeal and BigBasket among others. It may also introduce online-only products in the health and nutrition category.
There will be some hits and some misses, admits Narayanan. Nestle in India will continue to support its “winners” that it already has in the marketplace through focused marketing and advertising push, and keeping a healthy balance between revenue and profit.
Like its parent, Nestle India will stay away from the pricing game to maintain profitability. It will not get into discounting or launch low-margin products. “If something needs a pricing game, we would rather keep that out of our focus. This is something that has helped us as an organization globally and we would replicate that in India as well,” adds Narayanan.
One of the key reasons why Nestle failed to tackle the Maggi mess—estimated to have caused the company a half a billion-dollar loss—is a communication failure.
The first thing Narayanan did after coming to India was to start communicating with all stakeholders—regulators, media, consumers. He ensured every question gets a satisfactory answer. And then, he pushed advertising.
Nestle India has always been a low spender on advertisements. Between 2010 and 2014, its spending on advertising and sales promotions was 4.2-4.8% of its total income, according to its annual reports. In 2015, the company spent Rs525.21 crore, or 6.42% of its total sales, on advertising and promotions.
This is still lower than what its rivals spend. The country’s largest packaged goods company Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) spent about 11.8% of revenue on advertising and sales promotions in the year ended 31 March 2016, and Britannia Industries Ltd, a relatively low spender, had shelled out 7.5% of revenue in advertising and sales promotions in fiscal year 2016.
“In the next four-five years, we would like to increase that (advertising spend) to at least 7-8% of turnover. For some (products), it may even go higher depending on the scale of the opportunity and competitiveness in the market that we would see,” says Narayanan. All major opportunities, he adds, will be “fully resourced, and fully funded” in terms of “both advertising and sales promotions”.
Still, Nestle India may not invest much in capacity enhancement. It has, as Narayanan says, invested close to Rs5,000 crore in capacity building and scale in the past four years. “Now, the time for us has come to be reaping the benefits of these investments. So during the next couple of years, the strategy clearly is incremental investments where we need new technology frontiers to be tapped into by the company,” he adds.
Untangling the noodles
According to executives from Nestle’s competitors in India, the Maggi fiasco blew up because the company was too confident and it failed to see when that confidence turned into complacency. Trade partners agreed. They say that before the Maggi crisis, Nestle suffered from a superiority complex, if not arrogance. None of these trade partners, however, want to go on record with their comments. However, the same people say the company has changed after the Maggi crisis.
“The Maggi crisis was as much about the perceived quality of the product as it was about the way communication was handled in the media, especially on social media. It’s important to reach out and explain—the first response on digital platforms is critical, given their unstructured and viral nature… Perhaps Nestle did not prioritize and publicize these steps enough, even if they were being actioned,” says Arvind Mediratta, managing director and chief executive officer of Metro Cash and Carry India Pvt. Ltd.
An executive working with a packaged food distribution firm agrees: “People at Nestle were arrogant and rigid about their business terms. Before the Maggi crisis, we had to tweak our models to get in sync with Nestle. At times, it was difficult. But things changed after the Maggi fiasco. The company has become aggressive, yet, more flexible. It has become easier to do business with Nestle. Now, Nestle’s salespeople push products—something I have never seen in the past two decades of my career,” says the executive, asking not to be named.
Nestle India general manager (foods) Maarten Geraets says he had never seen such a big crisis before. “The impact the Maggi issue had on the minds of people involved or associated with it was immense… Looking back, it has given us an opportunity to be more fast, focused and flexible; the innovation and renovation pipeline has been strengthened and that is evident,” he adds.
Nikhil Chand, general manager (chocolate and confectionery) at Nestle India, had joined the company after the Maggi ban. He saw the company manage its crisis from the outside. “Even from the outside, you could see the scale and impact. However, crisis is always an opportunity. The company has taken the challenge and is raising the game with innovation and renovation. There is increased focus on all our brands,” adds Chand, who was working with the Russian unit of Nestle during the Maggi crisis.
Simplifying organizational structure
Ever since it emerged from the crisis, Nestle India has been trying to get rid of its complexities (Narayanan calls it decomplexification) in its operational structure here.It has set a target to cut down layers to help reduce 30-40% of process time by cutting down the number of meetings and interventions by “half”, besides ensuring empowerment in decision-making (of the younger generation).
“We are trying to simplify our commercial structure, increase engagements with state governments, environmental gauging the market and also interfaces to get to know issues in real time—something we learnt from the Maggi issue,” says Narayanan.
Also, unlike the pre-crisis era, Nestle India now has people in each state to engage with local regulators and government authorities. It has also formed a new team for communications and public affairs at its head office.
Tough ride ahead
Starting calendar year 2012, Nestle India has been reporting a steep decline in volume of milk products, chocolates and coffee every year, and the company’s overall market share almost halved to around 15% in the past four-five years due to stiff competition from both multinationals and home-grown brands, the latest being yoga-guru-turned-businessman Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved Ltd.
Besides directly attacking Nestle on various issues, Ramdev launched noodles just a week after Nestle India relaunched Maggi noodles in the market. Maggi, alone, has a few dozen competitors.
During the period when sale of Maggi noodles was banned, ITC Ltd’s Yippee noodles and Wai Wai noodles from Nepal’s CG Foods gained market share, filling a gap in a Rs3,182-crore noodles market.
In the segments Nestle intends to enter, the company will also have to fight established firms.
In skincare, Nestle will have to take on HUL that dominated the estimated Rs10,369-crore market with a 47.2% market share in 2015. Other key firms in the segment include L’Oréal, home-grown Himalaya Drug Co. and Emami, according to market research firm Euromonitor International.
The Rs1,736-crore breakfast cereals market in India is dominated by Kellogs (35.8% market share), Bagrry’s and PepsiCo India, says Euromonitor. Pet care, estimated at Rs1,712 crore, has rivals such a Mars Inc. and Indian Broiler Group in the segment.While Nestle leads the Rs2,501 crore instant coffee market with Nescafe, it has, in the recent past, lost market share to HUL’s Bru.
“Nestle’s focus on innovation has sharpened with many products at different stages of launch. The company’s new avatar is encouraging. With strong product launches, we remain positive on Nestle from two-three years’ perspective and are enthused by the aggression showed by the turnaround MD,” says Abneesh Roy, an analyst with Edelweiss Securities.
Nestle has, as credit rating firm Moody’s pointed out in a 30 September note, in recent years strengthened its nutrition, health and wellness business with a number of acquisitions. Nestle management has indicated an increasing focus in these segments for Indian market too. Its global rivals, like Danone and home-grown competitors like Himalaya and Patanjali have been strengthening their portfolios in the same areas as well. Earlier in January, Danone India managing director Rodrigo Lima said the company will launch about 10 new products (most of which would be in nutrition) in 2017 aiming to double country revenue by 2020. Danone has already shifted focus from dairy to nutrition in India for growth.
However, these are significant businesses for Nestle globally. In 2015, 13% of its total sales came from pet care (non-existent in India), 17% from nutrition and health science, 22% from powdered and liquid beverages, 8% from water (non-existent in India), 16% from milk products and ice creams, 14% from prepared dishes and cooking aids and 10% from confectionary.
“Nestle’s growth is increasingly driven by a portfolio of ‘billionaire’ brands and increasing presence in emerging markets. In addition to its core business, Nestle has a 23.4% stake in cosmetics giant L’Oreal, which was reduced in 2014 from 29.7%. The company also operates through joint ventures, such as Cereal Partners Worldwide with General Mills outside North America,” Moody’s said in the note.
Narayanan has his plate full. He will have to ensure that Nestle India does not get into the mode of “complacency” or “superiority” again.If Maggi crisis would not have happened, Nestle would probably have preferred to stay the way it was— confident, content, and non aggressive. As Mediratta of Metro Cash & Carry says, Nestle will be “more careful now about taking its success for granted”.
Can Nestle build another brand as big as Maggi noodles again in India? Narayanan does not think so, given the competitive landscape and the fast-changing consumer behaviour. But the endeavour of the local arm of the Swiss company is to spot at least one, if not two, brands that could emerge as big as Maggi noodles, at least in terms of sales numbers. Over the next 10 years, Nestle will slowly move from packaged food, to focus on health and nutrition products.
Was the Maggi crisis a blessing in disguise for Nestle in India? Narayanan smiles, his gaze settling on a desktop idol of Ganesha, the elephant god worshipped as a remover of obstacles.