The taming of Kellogg’s?

Kellogg’s recently launched instant upma in India and it seems the brand has become a butt of jokes.

The jokes, that have now become viral, seems to have started with one tweet (I’m assuming, given the number of Likes and quote-tweets).

There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, and I’m showcasing this only to point out that an initial sentiment, expressed pithily, can shape the perceptions of everyone/many reading it and without them giving enough thought to either change it, counter it or question it if need be.

The same phenomenon occurred recently with the ITC Bingo chips ad featuring Ranveer Singh. Someone put forward an opinion that Ranveer’s utterances in the ad were mocking Sushant Singh Rajput’s thoughts and that shaped a lot of people’s perception, without equally powerful or influential voices countering that sentiment. This led to the vociferous boycott calls for the product and the brand responding by turning off comments, Likes/Dislikes on YouTube (unlike Tanishq that simply removed the ad film and gave a space for a second line of commentary).

If we look past the flow of perceptions, the main viewpoint propounded by the first opinion maker is that Kellogg’s entered India by wanting to change our breakfast habits, but now have succumbed to our own native breakfast style.

Kellogg’s entered India in 1994 and much has been said about how Indians detested adding cold milk to cornflakes, or having a cold breakfast in the morning because we had been pampered with a rich variety of local flavors for breakfast. But during the launch, while I do not recall seeing Kellogg’s explicitly diss Indian breakfast, even citing the truth about the unhealthy food habits of us Indians (which we may have been consuming for decades, but our food habits may not have kept pace with the change in lifestyle, increasing our lethargy and lack of physical activities), would backfire because the brand would be starting on the wrong foot in a country they want to do well in, by saying that their target consumers are wrong.

Eventually, the brand understood the sentiment and adapted efficiently, comparing the health quotient of the cereals to roti, and not against other local breakfast items.

Kellogg’s main value proposition is convenience (a quick, healthy breakfast), not necessarily taste. And that convenience comes at a price – a premium, compared to most breakfast options in India, either made at home or bought from outside. But convenience doesn’t connect emotionally in a category that is ruled by a primal feeling like taste.

Food is an emotion and trying to address that only by convenience will obviously backfire. That explains Kellogg’s attempts at focusing on taste and health.

It’s important to understand that Kellogg’s has not launched upma because their core product is doing badly in India – far from it. Kellogg’s has 70% market share in the organised breakfast cereals category in India! But organised breakfast cereals, as a category, only reaches 3-4% of households in India. To expand that category reach, upma is just another product from the brand.

Interestingly, when Nestle Maggi recently launched instant Poha and Upma, the brand was not mocked.

This is mainly because Maggi never pitched itself as a breakfast item (even though people may be consuming it for breakfast). Maggi was always positioned as an anytime meal, and even had cues around ‘after school or after play’.

Maggi did not associate itself with a particular point of the day, unlike Kellogg’s that squarely pegged itself as a breakfast item.

And it is completely natural for any new entrant to try to say something about the incumbents during launch, to see the anti-incumbency propensity of people. That’s precisely what Kellogg’s tried and failed.

Now, there are so many brands of instant upma – MTR is the most visible brand, followed by Maggi. Poha has even more options – from MTR, to Maggi and my favorite, Mother’s.

It’s smart of Kellogg’s to join this segment. Brands do not have feelings, to feel bad about being mocked at, for a new launch. Brands’ so-called feelings are just 2 – it sells, it doesn’t sell. It’s only now that brands have started to add a bit more to that repertoire of ‘feelings’, like ‘sell, but at what cost to the environment?, sell, but at what cost to our target audience and so on (called ‘woke’).

Brands only look at results, and if the product is tasty, priced appropriately and the distribution is consistently predictable, the product will sell well regardless of what people think Kellogg’s entered India with and if it worked or not. It’s to Kellogg’s credit that we now think of cornflakes and choco flakes as a legitimate breakfast option. And that kids are generally obsessed with it (with the unhealthy amount of sugar in it). Also, when Indian brands like Soulfull launch products like ragi bites, that’s an ode to the kind of path laid to them by Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s created and nurtured the breakfast category that expanded our options beyond what we used to eat, traditionally.

Take the example of Patanjali launching noodles, to rival Maggi. Or even local brands like Anil, in the South, very well known for their range of instant and to-cook semiya – they branched out into noodles too. These extensions were not because they wanted to conquer another kind of food, but simply to give more options for people to buy their products. We do not frame Patanjali’s Noodles launch as a conquest, and framing Kellogg’s expansion to upma is no conquest either – it’s simply smart business.

Most of the Oats brands realized the same truth that Kellogg’s realized eventually – that a sweet breakfast is a hard sell in India. So most Oats brands come in pre-added masala flavors and there are so many variants in all brands, from Quaker, to Saffola, to even Kellogg’s own oats.

Interestingly, this is not the first time Kellogg’s is associating its brand with upma!

Here’s Chef Ranveer Brar explaining how to make upma using Kellogg’s Special K cornflakes… in 2015!

Another angle to consider this launch is through the fact that they chose to launch a product that acts as an antithesis of their core product under the same brand name!

Both Maggi and Kellogg’s are into product categories that have a strong primary product association, with noodles and cornflakes, respectively.

At least Maggi has branched out the brand to extensions like masala and sauces, but they do not compete with the primary product. But poha and upma compete with the primary brand association directly.

That would be like Levi’s launching a range of lungis or veshtis/dhotis.

But, Maggi and Kellogg’s chose to continue on that path, probably because that’s their most valuable recall resource to get attention.

In comparison, MTR does not have this issue – they can launch all kinds of ready-to-eat Indian products in their own name. But when they do launch cornflakes, would they use MTR name?

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