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Tiffin Room to packaged food, journey of MTR as a heritage brand

Mavalli Tiffin Room started out as a restaurant in a quiet corner in Bengaluru. Pioneers in many of the fields that they operate in today, MTR is a household name and just shy of seven more years to be a century old in the country that they started out in

The year was 1924 and the place was Lal Bagh. Not to be confused with Lalbaugh in Mumbai where the eponymous and the most famous Ganesha in the city bides his time till it’s his turn to shine. This Lal Bagh is situated in Bengaluru, Karnataka. And unlike its Mumbai counterpart with the same name, it is famous for an altogether different reason.

Parameshwara Maiya decided to start a small restaurant on Lal Bagh Fort Road along with Ganappayya Maiya called the Brahmin Coffee Club serving coffee and idlis but little did he know that he would be laying the foundation for one of the most iconic brands in the country.

Five years later, on the death of Parameshwara Maiya, Yagnanarayana Maiya joined his brother in running the restaurant. For the next three decades. Yagnanarayana Maiya, or Yagnappa as he was called affectionately, with his enterprising ways, managed the restaurant effortlessly and brought the restaurant accolades and fame.

Mavalli Tiffin Room or MTR came into existence in the year 1951 when Yagnappa, after a trip to Europe, renamed the restaurant that doled out authentic South Indian cuisine but had hygiene standards that were at par with the West. But it would take 10 more years for MTR to open its doors to its hungry patrons from its new destination near Lalbagh Front Gate, where it stands to date. As much a landmark today as the Botanical Gardens themselves.

When emergency was declared in India in the year 1975 and the Food Control Act was introduced, MTR became a pioneer in the packaged foods category with their Rava Idli Mix.

Sunay Bhasin

“The Rava Idli Mix was an innovation that MTR did during the emergency period when restaurants were shut down and various curbs and restrictions were placed on the use of rice. The emergency period was a big inflection point for us because it was then that the brand started expanding from being a restaurant cum coffee shop to really becoming a brand that consumers could access,” said Sunay Bhasin, Chief Marketing Officer, MTR Foods.

Slowly but surely MTR started spreading its wings and chutneys and ‘rasam’ mixes also got added to their packaged goods repertoire. MTR expanded out of Karnataka to the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in the year 1984.

Towards the end of the ’90s and the early 2000s, MTR’s ready-to-eat mixes were launched. The brand established this category in association with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). DRDO’s Defence Food Research laboratory in Mysore transferred their life sciences technology to MTR Foods for commercial production for ready-to-eat food.

The next inflection point in the brand’s life came when it was acquired by the Norwegian conglomerate Orkla.

“In 2007, Orkla took over MTR and since then it has been a very interesting phase. When Orkla took over MTR, it was essentially a product-led portfolio. MTR was a heritage brand with a lot of expertise in Bangalore and Karnataka. After Orkla’s acquisition what we did is sort of reclassify and re-characterise all our products under meaningful consumer propositions,” said Bhasin.

Reclassifying and repackaging the product

After Orkla’s acquisition, around 2009-2010, the need to reach out to consumers more effectively and contemporise the brand was felt considering the changing consumer landscape and that led to the classification of their products on a consumer need and solution basis.

“We looked at all consumer occasions and we figured out that a lot of our products fit into some occasion or the other and then reclassified these products in meaningful terms. So, it is not just idli or rice idli or rava idli or vada, it is essentially breakfast. So, we started a category called breakfast mix where the consumer clearly understands what occasion he/she can buy this product for. Similarly, we did not just have gulab jamun, we had sweet mixes and it was not just sambar powder or rasam powder, it was masalas. So, essentially what we did is call out the category or the occasion that would help the consumer navigate and understand the benefits and uses of the products very clearly,” said Bhasin.

On the back of this reclassification came the first major change in the brand’s packaging and design. The change took place in two parts. The first change came about in the logo itself.

“The way the logo was structured both in terms of font and design underwent a change. The fonts were contemporised without completely moving away from how our identity has been in the past and along with that in the design itself we added a green halo around the oval spectrum we have,” said Bhasin.

Keeping ease navigation in mind, the packaging of the products also underwent a change.

“In terms of packaging what we have done is align our packaging to one core design both in terms of architecture and the colours we use in our packaging. There is a clear call out of the brand MTR on the top, with the consumer category the consumer can navigate there from. As you come down you get into the product and then the occasion that it is relevant for and then a summary of what the product stand for. MTR has always been red so the primary colour on the pack is red which is then brought alive across all the packs,” added Bhasin.

A change in tack

MTR has always focused on the homemaker, speaking to the women of the house on the various delicious delicacies she can whip out with MTR’s ready-to-eat mixes. But this year the brand completely changed tack and has instead focused its attention on the millennials by bringing in the instant breakfast range. The brand will be spending Rs 40 crore on marketing the instant breakfast range.

“Till last year we were a brand that used to talk primarily to the homemakers and looking at how India is evolving and how the emerging consumer set is coming into India today, essentially the millennials, we realised that it is a huge segment that we cannot afford to ignore anymore. This has to lead to the addition of MTR 3-minute breakfast range. Which is a completely different proposition from what we have been operating in the past but is an extension of our core effort to make Indian food convenient. But product solution wise, advertising wise and positioning wise, it is a completely different take on what MTR has stood for. So, as we stand today, MTR is a vibrant Indian brand catering not just to the homemakers but also to the millennials and that is what we wish to build up on as we go ahead,” said Bhasin.

Marketing and communication

A heritage brand, Bhasin says the communication and marketing around MTR has been evolving from 1975-76 onwards. But the major shift in marketing came around 2011-12. This was when the imagery of a woman with the six arms came alive on our television screens. Created by Ogilvy & Mather, the ad shows a woman cooking six different breakfast dishes on the request of her family members and baffling her husband by getting so much done singlehandedly.

“The ad was about an empowered woman who can take care of the multiple needs of her family. That campaign really stood out and as a part of our breakfast mix category evolution that was an inflection point because post that we have gained business at an average growth rate of 23 per cent year-on-year for the last six odd years,” said Bhasin.

An extension of the ad, also created by Ogilvy & Mather, was made in the year 2015. This time around the intension was to introduce MTR’s breakfast range as a great weekend breakfast option. In this ad film, the woman of the house is being helped by her family members to create a special Sunday breakfast menu and it ends up looking she has six hands too.

“The idea for that campaign came from the insight that while we were offering convenience to the consumer, it was still a little tedious because in the daily rush of a weekday making an idli or dosa is still a cumbersome task and so we repositioned our entire South Indian portfolio to a weekend proposition,” said Bhasin.

The recent campaigns from MTR for their 3-minute breakfast range are a tad different from their earlier outings as far as communication is concerned. These have the element of humour in them and the brand has leveraged the digital medium to reach out to the millennials with these new ads.

“While our core brand positioning hasn’t changed, which is about making Indian food and Indian breakfast convenient, the tonality when it comes to our breakfast options has completely changed with the 3-minute breakfast range. It is young, there is use of humour and we have taken real life experiences that millennials go through every day. Also, now that we are evolving we are also adding a lot of digital thrust to our campaigns. When we launched our 3-minute breakfast range on digital and there was a big play on our digital marketing,” said Bhasin.

Competition and changing market

MTR, which is a pioneer in much of the categories that they function in, is a leader in all the major categories they operate in, according to Bhasin. MTR is a leader in the breakfast mixes category, which is valued at around Rs 200 crore. They also head the ready-to-eat and sweet mixes category. The ready-to-eat category is pegged at around Rs 25 crore. For MTR, the biggest contribution comes from the spices/masala and the ready mixes category (breakfast mixes, badam drink, snacks and desert mixes), which contributes 38 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively, to their overall revenue. While vermicelli accounts for 15 per cent of their revenues, ready-to-eat accounts for 10 per cent, and snacks and pickles account for 2 per cent each.

But for a brand that has been in the fray for 95 years now, it is important to keep changing with changing times, innovate and look for newer avenues to stay relevant.

“When we started off there was no direct competition at that time. Now, over the decades, a lot of other competitors have come into the fray as well. Some of those competitors are national in nature and some are local in nature. We currently face competition from well-established local brands as well some of the national brands and MNCs that operate in the food space. Each of these categories is now well proliferated with various competitors. In fact, the competitors change from category to category as well. Having said that there are new spaces that we have also gotten into where again we have continued the efforts of MTR as being innovative. The comparative landscape today is far greater than what it was but the advantage that we have is that since we were the pioneers in all these categories and we are still the leaders in all the categories that we still operate in,” said Bhasin.

The North-South factor

Having started out from Bengaluru, South is still MTR’s stronghold. The primary markets that they operate in are Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Leaders in both these markets, MTR deals in spices in these states. But North features prominently in their future plans and is huge market for their breakfast range today.

“We started from the south and it continuous to be the bulk our business. Having said that I think in the last 10-15 years we have established a very strong presence in the North, West and East as well. In fact, North is our biggest market when it comes to breakfast today. Today the dominant part comes from South but North and West are already big contributors to our overall share today and as well as to our growth plans for tomorrow,” said Bhasin.

Laban and Orkla’s entry into the Indian market

MTR’s parent company Orkla, in association with MTR Foods, recently entered the Indian confectionary market with Laban. Laban is a fruit-based jelly candy and with the launch of this product, MTR intends to diversify into categories they right now do not operate in.

Explaining how going forward there will be two MTRs, Bhasin said, “There will be two parts of MTR going forward: There is MTR the corporate entity and there is MTR the brand. The core of the MTR brand remains making Indian food convenient and we are not moving away from that. As far as the company or the corporate entity is considered we obviously see a lot of opportunities in the Indian market that currently the brand MTR doesn’t cater to. What Orkla allows us to do is enter these markets.”

The confectionary business in India is Rs 8,000 crore strong and of that the soft jelly category stands at Rs 400 crore. The creative mandate for emerging categories of MTR Foods and Orkla in India has been handed to Dentsu India. The agency won the account in a multi-agency pitch.

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