Selling pickles like wine: Premium consumer products from Bharat

From local spirits like feni to fine garments, our products with a little more flair without being bashful about the price might just help revive traditional cottage industries.

By Sahil Kini   –

Imagine if we repackage the pickles into beautifully tiny ornate glass jars and sell it in a limited run like ‘small-batch’ whiskies, only in premium stores or directly online. Photo: iStockphoto

My grandmother makes a particular lemon pickle that, in our family, is treated like gold. Aged over years, and in one particular bottle’s case, a decade, the pickle turns dark—almost black—and develops a flavour so complex and intense that one taste of it often sends the eater into a gastronomical trance.

It emerges only on really special occasions, like the meal we had after the birth of my son. An aunt once nearly caused a diplomatic incident when she surreptitiously tried to pocket a small chunk in a poorly hidden glass bottle.

One of my mortal fears is that the pickle will be gone once she is. And wondering about ways to ensure I never run out, got me thinking: Could there be a case for a premium pickle brand?

And in the process of exploring this idea, I want to outline three tenets for consumer products that could work particularly well in the Indian market: (1) Select Bharat-specific categories e.g. pickles, feni (2) Build a decidedly premium brand identity across the board: digital presence, premium packaging and a strong narrative of why these products are luxurious (3) Leverage a cooperative model at the back-end to supply authentic products while creating livelihood improvement opportunities.

This is not a new concept. The Indian apparel sector has almost perfected this model. Brands such as Raw Mango and Fabindia tick all three boxes and have met with tremendous success.

In cosmetics, Kama and Forest Essentials have done the same to the concept of luxury Ayurveda (albeit without the cooperative supply model). But as is the case in consumer products, there’s always more money to be made if you create the right niche.

Now is a particularly opportune time for the space as consumer products are the “it” sector for quite a few venture capital funds. Driven by events like the success of the Pratap Snacks IPO (initial public offering) at home, and Unilever’s billion-dollar acquisition of Dollar Shave Club abroad, venture capitalists (VCs) and start-ups alike are now taking a fresh look at the sector. It’s early days yet, but the emergence of consumer products-focused VCs like Fireside Ventures, and start-ups like Raw Pressery, Bombay Shaving Co., and Moms Co. are indicative of a renaissance in the space.

Most of these companies have chosen decidedly Western categories. We live in an age when a 150g box of ground chickpeas sells for Rs200 just because it has “Hummus” plastered on the label. One visit to a luxury supermarket like Foodhall will reveal an avalanche of pretty jars selling Indian-made versions of foreign goods at ultra-premium price points. But by and large, the absence of products that are from Bharat’s hinterland is the first reason I believe there is space for a premium pickle business.

Secondly, there’s the question of building a brand story. The Europeans have mastered this craft. Selling fermented grape juice like it’s the nectar of the gods, or treating coagulated milk protein on par with bank collateral (no really, there’s a bank in Italy that accepts Parmigiano Reggiano cheese as collateral for loans!); there’s so much we can learn about marketing from them. Concepts like a chateau with winemaking heritage, terroir, ageing, applies to our home-made products too. Then why don’t we sell it like we’re proud of it, at a price point that communicates their true value?

Which brings me to the final point. Most consumer product companies employ a full-stack approach geared towards eventual mass manufacturing. Adopting this approach for products like pickle or wine would be a huge mistake. Wine and cheese aren’t mass produced. They’re made in limited supply by chateaus that have mastered the craft over generations. Their scarcity and brand positioning is what accounts for most of their value.

We should apply the same principles to our products. Grocery stores in older neighbourhoods still sell pickles in plastic jars with handwritten labels. These flavour bombs made by women looking to make a little extra money, are as authentic as my grandmother’s creations but sell typically for under Rs50 for 500g. That is a travesty.

Imagine if we repackage the same pickles into beautifully tiny ornate glass jars, put it in a wooden box with the brand name engraved, slip in a scroll with the name and story of the grandma that made it, and sell it in a limited run like “small-batch” whiskies, only in premium stores or directly online. This way, grandma makes all the money she needs, we get to eat some fabulous pickles from around the country and those pickles will finally be priced like the priceless treasures they are.

My pickle obsession notwithstanding, these principles could apply to many Bharat categories. From local spirits like feni, toddy and mahua liquor, to fine garments, to intricate furniture and jewellery, marketing our products with a little more flair and storytelling without being bashful about the price might just help revive traditional cottage industries while giving us an authentic taste of our heritage.

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. The Bharat Rough Book is a column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid. His Twitter handle is @sahilkini