Sumant Bhargavan's masterclass on how to understand the consumer; and create a wow product

ITC's executive director Sumant Bhargavan, the man known for setting-up 'Bingo!', the snack food category at ITC spoke at length about three business ops - and how to keep abreast with the changes the consumer requires, and how ITC in India has responded.

18 Jan 2024 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Sumant Bhargavan shared his ITC journey with the delegates who had gathered at the Tata Theatre, NCPA for BMPA's PS 24 Summit. He said, "I had learnt every single job in the plant". This included following the salesman into the market plus spending time at tobacco farms when Bhargavan was part of the tobacco business at ITC.

He said this ensures two things, deep respect for others in the factory; plus one learns the jobs. He mentioned this was the era when there were no manuals. But ITC was striving to create world class factories which were cleaner, safer and more efficient.

Bhargavan spoke about the importance of a product quality rating system. This guarantees top quality. Plus an in-depth evaluation process which ensures ITC products meet strict standards. "From product specs to on-time delivery, we cover it all."

He mentioned the conundrum behind this journey, since ITC was a market leader; and so it was difficult to motivate the ITC team in the factories. Therefore the ITC board came up with a plan to create "internal competition among the four ITC factories". This, he said, ensured a focus on quality as well as address quality issues.

Bhargavan said, "The ITC top management organised a tour to Singapore to "see" a factory which was operated by two women. The worker union members and company thought leaders benefitted from how to handle makeready and orders and shipments, things which are consistent with manufacturers across the ITC factories. This provided "a reference point to what a world class factory is".

He told the audience that many people talk about quality. "We do not see how the rating is calculated. But it is important to measure; and ensure it is real data from the shop floor."

And so, factory output was measured. Bhargavan said ITC saw a rise in its quality quotient from 50% to 75%. Today it operates at an optimum of 90%.

After 19 years in the tobacco segment, Bhargavan's focus was snack foods. He spoke of experiments with food to understand the food psyche. This led him to Induben Khakrawala in Ahmedabad which has been established since 1955. He spoke about the 155 varieties of khakra which provided him a consumer insight into the base ingredients; plus new ingredients and the "crunch factor".

Later, Bhargavan highlighted ITC Foods surge to number one spot as the largest FMCG foods manufacturer in India. Those were the days, Lay's had 85% of the market share in chips; Maggie had 80% share in the noodles segment. Bhargavan delved into India’s changing food habits, new category expansion and identifying taste buds patterns in proximal markets and children's segment.

Today, ITC has the best brands in segments like atta (Aashirvaad) and noodles (Yippee). About Aashirvaad atta, Bhargavan he said the USP was the roti stays soft longer - and even though it is priced at Rs 3/kg. He mentioned how the Indian housewives are the most value chain conscious and possess the sharpest minds and they appreciate the fact that Aashirvaad atta, contains wheat protein, as per FSSAI regulations. Wheat protein is naturally found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, and oats. It gives elasticity to the dough, helps it rise and gives it a chewy texture. And hence the rotis are soft and tasty.

Later he focussed on Yippee!, a well-known instant noodles and pasta brand by ITC Ltd. He pointed out how Indian mothers had the onerous task of making their chidlren eat. And so, in addition to making noodles "healthy food for children; making noodles "a fun activity" for children was tasking and overwhelming. He mentioned how the team manufactured noodles that were long noodles; non sticky noodles (which don't form lumps); and had dehydrated vegetables. For this ITC invested in food lines which was capable of producing the same. The net result: 20% market share plus a leader in children's noodles segment.

Sumant Bhargavan's presentation was rivetting because it provided an insight into how the group diversified outside of tobacco. And has gained traction in the following: Aashirvaad (wheat flour); Sunfeast (biscuits, cereal); Bingo (chips); Yippee (noodles); Vivel (personal care); Candyman (candy); and Mangaldeep (agarbatti).

He spoke at length about sustainability. He mentioned how ITC Sunfeast unveiled industry-first 100% paper based packaging. Bhargavan mentioned how the paper major has implemented multiple new projects in recent times. This included the New Décor paper machine at Unit Tribeni, the coating and fusion board machines at Unit Bollaram, a pulp mill enhancement at Unit Bhadrachalam are some of the key projects. In addition, Bhargavan said, "we have been able to leverage our R&D capabilities to launch several paper-based alternatives to single-use plastic." ITC's Filo series of sustainable paperboards has gained significant traction in the packaging industry, both in India and abroad. Under the Filo series, ITC has FiloBev, FiloPack, FiloServe and FiloTub, that are replacements to single-use plastic and LDPE-coated packaging/disposables in the F&B industry.

Apart from Filo, ITC has also launched Sign-Up Green – which is a virgin solid board that can replace rigid plastics/plastic foam boards in the indoor branding space (POP/POSM materials).