Yesterday the market was abuzz with the news of Bisleri being sold for Rs 7,000 crore to Tata Consumers and the latter’s stock jumped by 3%. However, the 82-year-old pioneer, Ramesh Chauhan, of the Indian packaged water business denied that the deal has been finalised with Tata Consumer Products.
In a regulatory filing, the Tata Group firm also said that it is in discussion with Bisleri International, for the growth and expansion of the business of the company, but the deal hasn’t been finalised yet.
While it is not yet decided which company can carry forward the brand legacy and actually grow it, there are already several hurdles that the new owner will have to cross to keep Bisleri alive and running.
Make sustainability an important brand pillar for Bisleri
According to Kiran Khalap, Author, MD and Co-Founder of Chlorophyll, there is no escape from the global megatrend of sustainability. “The new owner would have to explore more sustainable packaging or other forms of delivery,” he said.
Purified bottled water is mostly sold in plastic bottles. As more and more consumers are becoming aware of the ills of plastic usage, they are avoiding it as much as they can.
Globally, every year, over one million seabirds, fishes and mammals die due to plastic pollution. According to a report by Drink Optimum, the annual global demand for plastic water bottles consumes the energy equivalent of about 160 million barrels of oil. “This is up to 2,000 times the energy required to produce the equivalent volume of tap water,” the report reads.
To position themselves as sustainable, brands like Rolls Royce are selling honey and Johnnie Walker has come up with paper bottles, added Khalap.
Another senior advertising professional told BestMediaInfo.com that every new initiative should demonstrate that all efforts are in that direction.
The First Insight report from earlier this year states that nearly 90% of Gen X consumers are willing to spend an extra 10% or more for sustainable products, compared to just over 34% two years ago.
For Vikas Mehta, brand consultant, taking sustainability into account is an important factor, but this is an industry issue and has nothing to do with the takeover. “Many states like Uttarakhand have banned the one-time use smaller 200 ml plastic bottles. But that’s an industry issue and cannot be tackled by one company. Any company which will take over Bisleri doesn’t have a magic wand that can create eco-friendly packaging in a day”, Mehta said.
He further said that glass bottles cannot become a substitute for plastic as it’s breakable. Similarly, paper bottles have a very limited life and become very expensive to produce in comparison to plastic.
Mehta said, “It took a whole decade for people to shift to plastic usage in the 60s. Similar kinds of efforts are now required for people to shift away from plastic. For that, companies are undertaking a lot of R&D globally to produce eco-friendly, convenient and cheaper packaging.”
Hamsini Shivakumar, Founder, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, "Regarding environmental consciousness, consumers will be pragmatic in my view. Educated consumers know that plastic is bad. But when you are out of home and thirsty, you need water. You will buy it in plastic bottles because that's the most convenient solution."
Although she added, "Environment consciousness and anti-plastic movement could have an indirect effect of levelling off sales growth."
According to creative veteran KV Sridhar (Pops), Bisleri missed out a lot when it comes to innovation in packaging. He said, “You have to innovate. If you don’t innovate, you’ll become irrelevant. If you become irrelevant, your share in the market will get eroded.”
But even before we start questioning plastic usage in the bottled water category, we must take into account the massive usage of plastic in the food industry, according to Agnello Dias, Brand Consultant and former Co-Founder, Taproot Dentsu.
He commented, “I feel there’s a lot more indulgent use of plastic in packaged food that can easily be contained before we think about packaged drinking water.”
Bisleri has already been working on the Bottles for Change programme - which is a plastic recycling initiative. 60% of its plastic is recycled and the aim is to constantly work towards 100%.
Being generic: A boon or bane for Bisleri?
Oxford has defined the term ‘Genericide’ as the process by which a brand name loses its distinctive identity as a result of being used to refer to any product or service of its kind. Exactly the same has happened with Bisleri.
Classic examples of genericide include Aquaguard, Xerox, Band-aid, Velcro, Aspirin, and many others.
Sridhar Ramanujam, Founder and CEO, Integrated Brand, commented, “There is a problem with being a generic brand, which is not necessarily a good thing. People who aren’t aware or uneducated end up buying any product in the name of the generic brand. For many, the concept of pure bottled water is Bisleri. The biggest challenge for whoever is acquiring it is to ensure there is something unique and differentiated about the brand so that not all bottled water is called Bisleri.”
In a LinkedIn post, Pooja Shetty, brand manager at Saffola Oils, wrote that improving your brand's equity is critical, but brands that are the first movers, need to be vigilant of the risks of genericide.
She wrote, “One framework developed by Betsy Gelb and Gillian Oakenfull for identifying high-risk of genericide is evaluating the category and instance dominance. Category dominance is the extent to which category mention evokes brand name. Instance dominance is the extent to which brand mention evokes the category name. For example, when bottled water is mentioned, Bisleri would be top of mind and when Bisleri is mentioned, bottled water would be evoked. This falls under the high category and high instance dominance.”
She also wrote, “The risk for genericide is higher when there is high category dominance, but low instance dominance. Moving stairs will evoke an escalator, but an escalator mention will not evoke the category of moving stairs. In such cases, it may help the manufacturer to establish the category along with the brand. Instead of just advertising the product, it should include the category, ie. ‘Escalator Moving Stairs’, ‘Aspirin Pain Killer’ and ‘Thermos insulated bottles’.
Dias added, “Today, packaged drinking water is a large category. There was a time when Bisleri was the category. In fact, it’s still a generic name for the category in many parts of the country like Cadbury’s for chocolates. The buyer needs to keep this in mind as it is a position that will stand the test of time.”
The new owner will have to grapple with the menace of fake
The bottled water industry is pegged at around Rs 15,000 crore and 65% of this category is occupied by over 3000 local companies. Out of these 3,000 labels, several are fake, look-a-likes.
Sridhar commented, “Bisleri had a very good start, credit goes to its distribution power. But the entry barrier in this market is so low that anyone can get in. There are a lot of regional players who have gotten into the market and made similar-looking products. The challenge is to retain the brand identity.”
To tackle the challenge associated with being a generic brand - having several look-alikes in the market - in 2018, Bisleri launched its very famous camel ad campaign "Har paani ki bottle Bisleri nahi hoti".
In 2019, Bisleri tweeted a picture of its fakes, with names including — Belsri, Bilseri and Brislei— to convey the message that ‘samajhdaar jaante hain, har paani ki bottle Bisleri nahin hoti.”
Although, having a different take on the matter, for Mehta, the biggest measurement of brand preference is Bisleri becoming one of the most pirated brands in India. He said, “Imitation is the best form of flattery.”
Building the brand further
Bisleri was brought to India in 1965 by an Italian entrepreneur Signor Felice Bisleri. In 1969, Chauhan saw an opportunity in this space and bought the company. He introduced mineral water in India when people considered there wasn’t even any need for it.
Recollecting the earlier days of Bisleri’s existence, Pops said, “When Bisleri was launched, it was only for the rich. Earlier people used to drink from the tap. It took quite a lot of effort for the brand to build the habit of consuming mineral water among consumers. Earlier, it was women, pregnant women and children, which were converted as Bisleri users as the awareness around drinking safe and hygienic water was built.”
Until the 80s, Bisleri’s competition was tap water and little plastic pouches of water sold in the open market. In the 1990s, multinationals entered the market and became competition for Bisleri. But it was able to retain 70% of the market share even then.
Ramesh Narayan, Founder of Canco Advertising, shared, “When Bisleri the brand was purchased by Ramesh Chauhan he thought he was buying a soda brand. The still water category was then born and though the Chauhan's opted to sell their soft drink brands like Gold Spot and Citra they concentrated on growing the water brand. Both Coke and Pepsi entered this segment with Kinley and Aquafina but Bisleri held its position.”
As per Mehta, being the first brand in this category helped Bisleri in a big way, but the biggest merit was its distribution strength. He said, “It became omnipresent everywhere. By the time, multinationals came and local brands appeared, they were already present across the nation.”
Currently, Bisleri has a turnover of Rs 2,500 crore with a profit of Rs 220 crore in FY23, according to reports. It has 122 operational plants (13 of them owned). It has a network of 4,500 distributors and 5,000 trucks across India and neighbouring countries.
Bisleri’s notable campaigns include ‘Bisleri is veri veri extraordinari’, ‘one nation, one water’ and ‘Har Pani ki bottle Bisleri Nahi’
Sumanto Chattopadhyay, the Former Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of 82.5 Communications, Ogilvy Group (the agency has been working on Bisleri campaigns for a very long time), said, “Bisleri is a brand I’ve been proud to be associated with. It’s one of India’s most trusted brands and is an amazing success story.”
He further said, “Bisleri is such a strong and well-loved brand. Its sanctity should be maintained by any buyer. Creativity is at the core of the way Bisleri has been marketed and advertised. I am sure that the legacy of creativity will be carried forward.”
From being a brand for the rich to being available in every household, the brand has come a long way.
While the brand is known by all, the new owner will have to work on building the brand’s engagement and brand love.
Khalap told BestMediaInfo.com that in dipstick research his company conducted three years ago, it found that in metros Bisleri has 100% awareness, but very low emotional engagement. “Which to us is a symptom of a weak brand, however ubiquitous it is. Clearly, whoever buys it has their task cut out: build that emotional equity or let it slide into a commodity,” he added.
According to Shivakumar, “Packaged water is a pure commodity. The added value of the brand name is very limited. Aside from trusted quality (no contamination), there is no symbolic value attached to the name.”
Sandeep Goyal, MD, Rediffusion, believes that Bisleri created a new category of bottled drinking water. According to him, the new owners will have to ensure there is no dilution in brand image. “Despite being Indian, the brand never lagged behind multinational offerings and is seen to be equally premium,” he said.
There’s a warm caregiver position the brand enjoys riding on. Going forward, Bisleri should build on this strength rather than move into an irrationally competitive position just to do something different, said Dias. “It has the same nostalgia and integrity that brands like Amul or Eureka Forbes enjoy.”
Innovation and expansion will be key for the new owner to keep the brand relevant
Today the bottled water category is penetrated with several brands which brought variety to the category and are slowly and steadily changing consumer preferences. For example, flavoured water, high in mineral water, fresh stream water and much more.
“Those kinds of innovations happened in front of Bisleri, but they ignored them,” said Pops.
Mehta seconded that it is high time that the brand gets into other adjacent categories like fresh juices, fruit-flavoured water and mocktails. “Bisleri should get into creating products that stand for water and hydration. Being a mass brand, they can be serious competition to Real juice. The brand can also venture into the water purifier category.”
Pops said, “Because Bisleri is a very strong brand, it could have sold a Gatorade better than PepsiCo. All the bottled liquid could have been their market for Bisleri. They missed a huge market of brands of value addition to water.”
“Today, a lot of niche brands have come in and are selling flavoured water. They could have done that and ensured that they are relevant to the newer set of audiences and not just the old ones. While Bisleri is the market leader, it is the parents' and grandparents' brand and that’s where the brand is falling behind,” said Pops.
Sharing a different point of view, Shivakumar thinks that Bisleri's name is not extendable out of water to other beverages. She explained, "The name and symbolic value won't give it the right to play and more importantly the right to win."