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Lunchtime tale: Brands’ romance with Mumbai’s dabbawalas is forever

Marine Drive, Chowpatty, Mumbai local trains, vada pav symbolise Mumbai. So do dabbawalas. Marketers have often leveraged dabbawalas in the past, be it for a new product launch, a social message or spreading the word. Their relationship with dabbawalas is forever and brands have now and then used them to their advantage

Lunchtime tale: Brands’ romance with Mumbai’s dabbawalas is forever

Marine Drive, Chowpatty, Mumbai local trains, vada pav symbolise Mumbai. So do dabbawalas. Marketers have often leveraged dabbawalas in the past, be it for a new product launch, a social message or spreading the word. Their relationship with dabbawalas is forever and brands have now and then used them to their advantage

Akansha Mihir Mota | Mumbai | March 29, 2017


Mumbai’s dabbawalas (tiffin distributors in boxes) have featured in marketing campaigns since 1995. From the time dabbawalas returned from Prince Charles’ wedding in 2004, brands realised their worth as a property and started placing them more in their campaigns and utilised their strength of having a well-distributed network. Dabbawalas reach out to two lakh people in Mumbai every day. Their punctuality and sincerity are known across the nation. Their appeal and their reach have made brands use them in a plethora of ways.

Through their network, around 200,000 tiffin boxes are distributed every day by an estimated 4,500-5,000 dabbawalas, all within budget and on time. They collect tiffin boxes from the residences of the working people and deliver them to their offices during lunch time. They use the colour-coding system, instead of modern technology or computer systems.

Harish Bijoor Harish Bijoor

Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., said, “The dabbawala system is a larger than life reality of Mumbai. Just as film stars live larger than life realities in the minds of their fans, the dabbawala system enjoys very much the same status in the minds of marketers who want to get out there into the Mumbai mindset. To an extent, if there were to be a symbol for Mumbai that could replace the Gateway of India, it would possibly be the dabbawalla, his cart and the dabba!”

The most recent promotion is that of Bisleri and Corning Gorilla Glass. On the occasion of World Water Day, Bisleri International in association with Mumbai’s dabbawalas undertook an initiative to spread the message of ‘Saving Water’. As part of the initiative, Mumbai dabbawalas executed a flash mob at Churchgate railway station highlighting the importance of water conservation.

Corning Gorilla Glass launched a global marketing communications campaign, Incredibly Tough, highlighting incredibly tough people. The campaign was done in collaboration with Micromax’s new video series for the value segment. The Incredibly Tough Dabbawala story begins with how a dabbawala’s morning starts on a working day, sees him travel across Mumbai, collect, deliver and recollect the lunch boxes before heading home on Mumbai’s local trains where he uses his phone to send messages to his family and watch a video clip. The featured dabbawala comments on the importance of his device and how technology has changed they work every day.

Commenting on the reason of using Mumbai dabbawalas in their marketing, a Corning Gorilla Glass spokesperson said, “When we looked at India we wanted someone that embodies the spirit of India’s energy and vibrancy and felt that the dabbawalas of Mumbai are known for their incredibly tough working lives. So we worked with our creative partners to highlight a typically energetic day in the life of a dabbawala and show how he embraces the toughness, passion and precision it takes to be in his job. The real-life story of Shankar accentuates Corning’s research in India that highlighted the importance of a mobile phone to a consumer – as the dabbawala says in the video, it is the most valuable thing he carries with him every day.”

As for Bisleri, they relate to the dabbawalas dedication and social responsibility. Parag Bengali, Director, Bisleri International, said, “Dabbawalas are well known across the world for their timeliness, punctuality and dedication. By associating with them we thought that the message which we want to spread can be very social. Any message you spread through them is more of a serious nature. Bombay dabbawalas are very famous and world known. We want to associate with them through dedication. Both Bisleri and dabbawalas are well known and trusted brands.”

In the past, Perfetti Van Melle India has distributed Mangofillz with each dabba sent out. Microsoft also used the dabbawalas to promote its Windows package, during a campaign called ‘Asli PC’ or ‘Genuine PC’. Microsoft tried to find a fit between its brand and dabbawalas, which reinforced the value of authenticity associated with its brand.

Telecom giant Airtel also used the network to deliver and promote handsets, new connections, and prepaid user cards. Reliance had also used the network to promote the Reliance Power IPO.

Unlike an envelope or mailer, a dabba always gets opened and that too, with a lot of eagerness. The dabbawalas have a good quality database and are ideal for sampling with their high precision and great execution.

Lulu Raghavan Lulu Raghavan

Lulu Raghavan, Managing Director at Landor Associates, feels that it’s a good usage by brands. “It is an intimate moment when people eat lunch. Lunch boxes have also been romanticised in movies. Brands being placed when people actually eat from lunch boxes is a wonderful idea. The brand becomes more memorable than any other interventions.”


Dabbawalas talk about shooting and money from brand placement

Dabbawalas advertise for products varying from tissue papers to medicines, from builders to FMCG products. In a month they do branding work for at least four to six brands. Brands pay around Rs 2 per tiffin. Whatever money is earned, half of the amount goes to the Mumbai Dabbawala Association and half to the dabbawalas.”

Isn’t two rupees less?

Subhash Talekar, spokesperson, Mumbai Dabbawala Association, said, “We are happy with whatever we get.”

Talekar’s favourite campaign is Nestle’s Share your Goodness. To appreciate the efforts put in by Mumbai dabbawalas, Nestle arranged 5,000 ‘goodness boxes’ to be delivered to the dabbawalas as a token of appreciation. The box was full of Nestle products.

When asked about the most difficult part of the shoot process, Talekar said, “Shooting in a moving train is slightly difficult. Last week, nine BBC people came to shoot us. It was very difficult to shoot in the train.”

Interestingly, Talekar told BestMediaInfo.com that there were also a few ad films where they used professional actors. “For Nestle ad film shoot, professional actors were called and they were Gujarati people,” said Talekar (laughing out loud).

Talking about the shooting experience, Talekar said, “It’s not difficult to shoot. Every now and then I am shooting. We have started understanding the shooting process. Also, brands pay us around Rs10,000-15,000 whenever we shoot for them.”

Gap India announced the launch of two stores in Mumbai by inviting some of the most influential names in fashion by sending invites to people through dabbawalas.

The GAP campaign:


In the run-up of ICC World Twenty20 India 2016 and as part of the ongoing Nissan Trophy Tour, Nissan also teamed up with Zaheer Khan, and the UK's popular Fifth Gear presenter, Jonny Smith, in a challenge on the streets of Mumbai. Nissan set out to prove which was fastest through the busy city streets of Mumbai: car, bicycle or one of the famous dabbawalas.

Nissan versus Dabbawala


It is obvious that brands have used dabbawalas to the fullest, irrespective of the direct brand relation. From a car brand to glass brand and to phone; all have used dabbawalas in their branding exercises.

Excessive use by brands

FMCG brands have since long been using dabbawalas in branding exercises, product placements and sampling by sending their products along with the lunch boxes. Then there are also brands from telecom to electronics to the automobile sector that have used dabbawalas in their campaigns. So does it matter which brand can use dabbawalas and which cannot?

Prabhakar Mundkar Prabhakar Mundkar

Prabhakar Mundkar, Chief Mentor, HGS Interactive, answered, “So everybody is using dabbawalas as a medium, but only some of the brands are making a relevant connection. For example, I felt it wasn’t very relevant for Nissan.  First of all I don’t know if the people who eat dabbas are necessarily the target for Nissan cars. But food or food-related products tend to go naturally with dabbawalas – for example, the KFC 149- 5 in 1 meal box or even Master Chef by Star. The linkages here are strong. But when it comes to Gorilla Glass I feel the association is stretched. After all the medium is the message as they say.”

“Every Tom, Dick and Harry has used the dabbawalla to date in their campaigns. Some have used it as visual imagery as others have used it for ground level visual activation. On the whole, in the pre-internet era, the dabbawalla represented what twitter, Instagram and Facebook, all packaged together, represent an opportunity for the masses of Mumbai,” added Bijoor.

Bijoor also relates to Mundkar’s thought of brand relation to dabbawalas. He said, “Ideally there should be some relation, but marketing is a maverick game. There are just no shibboleths on this.”

Raghavan said, “I don’t think it makes sense to all brands. Tomorrow for a lubricant brand it may not fit that well. In the increased cluster of communication, unique distribution channels of these kinds would be more sought after.”

To announce the launch of KFC’s 5-in-1 Meal box, the brand partnered with the dabbawalas to surprise food lovers in Mumbai during lunch hour in March last year. Carrying KFC 5-in-1 Meal boxes for the first time ever, the dabbawalas made their way through the streets of the city to a wide section of food lovers. They surprised their existing customers with complimentary 5-in-1 Meal boxes along with their regular meal on that special day. This was a milestone campaign for the brand as the brand sold one million meal boxes in a matter of just six weeks since the launch.

Lluis Ruiz Ribot Lluis Ruiz Ribot

Lluis Ruiz Ribot, Chief Marketing Officer, KFC India, said, “The dabbawalas embody the spirit of lunch in Mumbai and are a significant part of the city’s office life. They are synonymous with ‘lunch’ and reach out to thousands of Mumbaikars every day. These champions with Six Sigma certification work day in and day out, making sure they deliver meals flawlessly every single day – they are effective, reliable and a brand in themselves, making them a preferred choice for brand collaborations.

Another campaign done by Star India to promote Master Chef: 


Dabbawalas are national property

Although dabbawalas serve only in Mumbai, they are now known nationwide. Brands have used them for promotions not just in Mumbai, but across the nation. So, the question here is that would the people residing in the other parts of the country even relate to them?

Bijoor answered, “Well, the use of the dabbawalla is really a Mumbai symbol, but then its use is in the metaphor of Mumbai that defines a fair bit of advertising effort. It is only a coincidence possibly that the dabbawalla resides and operates primarily in Mumbai, as does the advertising guy who comes up with all these ideas. Or is it really a coincidence? Touche!.”

Brands leave no occasion to be left out and leverage everything in the world to do promotions. Even in CSR activities, they would do promotions or announcements of the CSR work. And there are dabbawalas who don’t charge for social campaigns where brands leverage their skills. For example, on Holi, Bisleri distributed bottles full of natural colours through dabbawalas. This was one social activity where dabbawalas didn’t charge any money.”

Akashneel Dasgupta Akashneel Dasgupta

Akashneel Dasgupta, Senior Vice-President and Executive Creative Director, ADK Fortune, ends it well. He said, “It is one of those things which are typical of the social fabric of Mumbai. If you do it interestingly and use the idea for different contexts, then it can be forever. Enough has been done but there is no stopping for someone doing something interesting. Enough has been done with dogs and kids, so what? For me, dabbawalas are a creative metaphor and symbolism of Mumbai. Dabbawalas come with punctuality and sincerity. Their values can be used by any category irrespective of the brand.”

And so, the saga of dabbawalas and their relationship with brands continues. What a tale.



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