Alamjit Singh Sekhon, Commercial Director of Bel, India, has been leading the India business of the French cheese company, The Bel Group, since it entered the country with its brand ‘The Laughing Cow’ in October 2018. Pitted against big established players, the brand has managed to carve its own niche in the market. “I joined Bel as its first India employee. Over time, we built the business plan, the team, launched the product and we are already getting great recognition. Seeing the hard work and passion of the team, and our dreams getting realized, gives me the greatest sense of fulfilment. Now, scaling up this baby called Bel India with the team gives greater joy,” says Sekhon, as he takes us through the brand’s journey so far and plans for it, going forward.
Please take us through your experience of building a market for Brand ‘The Laughing Cow’ in the face of competition from established Indian and MNC players.
The cheese category in India is relatively low in penetration. We wanted to create a new brand and business. We identified ‘The Laughing Cow’ as the brand and launched the right product and taste which would resonate with Indian consumers. The brand’s journey began from Mumbai and has been a very fulfilling one. We had a very entrepreneurial mindset in India from the beginning – the try and learn approach. We tried different activities and scaled up the ones that worked well. We also had a very dynamic and daring way of working, which helped us establish ourselves faster. We formed strategic partnerships with our agencies, trade and category partners and made them feel like they own the brand. We set out on a challenging journey of category creation and have seen great success until now, with efforts of both internal and larger extended teams.
What are the most popular product types for ‘The Laughing Cow’ in the India market? Is the company going to launch its other popular brands like Kiri, Babybel, etc., in India?
The entire range of The Laughing Cow is loved by consumers. While we are present in the regular product categories such as slices, blocks, cubes and spreads, we also have some very differentiated and unique products - creamy cheese triangles and the creamy cheese sachet. Our vision is to grow the cheese category. Globally, we have a wide product assortment across our brands Kiri, Babybel, Boursin, GoGo squeeZ and we will keep introducing relevant products in India as and when the market is ready for them.
The Laughing Cow recently brought alive a novel cheese-making experience in a cheese-filled wonderland at KidZania Mumbai, in collaboration with Havas Worldwide India |
What, according to you, is the brand’s USP? How do you justify your claim to be in the ‘healthy snacking’ segment?
We are inspired by the Bel philosophy of ‘for all, for good’. The Laughing Cow is the mother’s ally to create delicious and nutritious snacks for kids while creating moments of laughter within the family. Our cheese recipe has been developed specially for India, taking into consideration the nutrition requirements and palate of Indian consumers and kids. The entire range is fortified and contains five essential vitamins, mineral and protein. The creamy cheese sachet at a price point of Rs 10 is a first-of-its-kind innovation in the Indian market, making our products accessible to all. This has revolutionized the cheese market, where the starting price point for cheese was around Rs 80. The sachet has been launched by Bel specially in India, where the single-serve cheese sachet can be a very big opportunity. While being affordable, each Rs 10 sachet also provides 15% of daily RDA of Vitamins A, D, B12 and calcium for kids.
Please give us an overview of your manufacturing facilities and distribution system.
We manufacture our products in India at a state-of-the-art plant at Baramati, owned by Schreiber Dynamix Dairy, which is our global partner for manufacturing. They follow our recipe and specifications. The accent is on high level hygiene controls to allow freshness through time of transportation. We also source products from our global factories - the closest one is Bel Vietnam. In terms of distribution, we have a typical FMCG set-up with distribution partners across cities.
What is at the core of your marketing strategy for ‘The Laughing Cow’? How much do you rely on packaging and design to sell the brand?
We have positioned The Laughing Cow as a ‘mother’s ally to make delicious and nutritious food for kids’. To generate trials for the brand, we introduced creamy cheese in a single-serve sachet form, priced at Rs 10. We leveraged the sachet for sampling by consumers, tying up with the network of bread vendors and training them. We also tied up with leading bread manufacturers to give out the sampler sachets with bread. We created a brand and product experience for consumers with our teams in retail stores. Building brand awareness has been a key marketing objective. We have used multiple mediums to communicate to consumers, including digital, print, outdoor and activations. Leveraging data and insights has also helped grow the brand. Experiential marketing through innovative experiences such as The Laughing Cow Cheese Factory at Kidzania made the brand stand out from the clutter. Recently, we collaborated with Mad Over Donuts to co-create the category of savoury cheesy donuts to expand usage of cheese. Our packaging has been optimized through packaging research tests to stand out on shelves. Our iconic mascot at stores brings alive the packaging and helps create great brand recall and memorability.
How has ‘The Laughing Cow’ fared in terms of growth and revenue over the last one year? What are your future expansion plans and priorities for the brand’s growth?
The product and marketing mix are well accepted by consumers. We have achieved 100%+ value sales growth this year. In a short span of time, the brand has already been within the Top 3 in many markets. We have also received brand recognition and accolades from various industry forums. We plan to reach more consumers in cities where we are present, and expand our footprint in other cities soon. The long-term plan is to manufacture all products in India.
Overall, what are the key driving factors and challenges in the cheese market in India? How will it perform in the coming years?
India is one of the largest dairy markets and milk producers in the world; however, the cheese market in India is relatively small and has a lot of potential. The category has been growing rapidly and will continue to accelerate as more brands enter with differentiated products. One of the challenges in India is the inadequate cold storage chain infrastructure, since most cheeses have to be kept chilled.
What are the big learnings through your career, working for top FMCG brands like Nestle and Kellogg for nearly two decades?
My journey has been very enriching. I have had the pleasure of working with some great people, leaders and bosses from whom I have learnt and imbibed a lot. Some of my key learnings are:
Trust and believe your people, and they will always surprise you positively.
Be cognizant that you can’t do everything alone. People you work with are experts in their own domain. They will find the best way forward.
Be true to your consumer. Offer products that add value to their lives, and you will be surprised by the love they share back.
Try to focus on a few key things that matter and not spend time chasing everything.
Approach things with humility and a quest to learn.
Quest for NEW PATHS
Sekhon believes that “the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is that little bit of extra passion”. “Living by this maxim, I have been on a quest to create new path-breaking trails both at work and off it. My purpose in life is to help people and support them to realise their potential,” he says. “Outside of work, I am fond of travelling and exploring our beautiful country. I go trekking and camping with my wife and seven-year-old. I love the outdoors. There are times when I have been on a trek and not met a single person outside our group for 3-4 days in beautiful corners of the country. I have also had the privilege of hoisting the Indian tricolour in the Arctic region on an expedition with the National Geographic Channel. Spending time with my family at the end of a long day is the most relaxing thing. Personally, I look forward to more time with them.”
WHILE WITH MAGGI…
During his stint at Nestle, Sekhon remembers working on a campaign called ‘Me and Meri Maggi’ to form a strong emotional bond with consumers. For the first time, they had reached out to consumers to give them a canvas to share their stories and anecdotes about Maggi, which would then be picked to be featured on Maggi packs and advertising. “People really surprised me with their innovation,” recalls Sekhon. “I heard real life stories of different ways they interacted with Maggi – dressing like Maggi, making it on a hot iron when no cooking was allowed in hostels, etc., etc. In the days of no social media, people also tracked down my personal phone number to put in a special request to be featured on the ads and packaging. To date, I don’t know how they got my number.”
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