I have used honey since childhood, but have largely taken it for granted. A bottle of honey has always sat in our kitchen, but it has been used rather infrequently – sometimes for a religious ritual, or occasionally eaten with a neer dosa . Then, a few weeks ago, two events brought home to me the great possibilities of honey.

First, a family friend gifted us a bottle of Manuka honey, which she had brought back from New Zealand. I tasted it, and found it simply delicious. It was strong and thick, with complex earthy caramel flavours, and coated my tongue splendidly with its rich aromas. I sat back, and said: “Wow! This is so surprising, I never knew honey could taste so heavenly!” Thereafter, I have been using the Manuka honey virtually every day, blending it into the yoghurt that I consume after dinner. It is a treat that I now look forward to.

Soon thereafter, I burnt a couple of my fingers in the kitchen, having foolishly touched a hot steel vessel with my naked hands. My wife promptly said: “Why don’t you apply a dab of honey to your fingers, that will take care of the burn.” I applied honey to the wounds, which fortunately were superficial. The fingers calmed down immediately, and within a couple of hours, everything was fine. I had not known earlier that honey could be so effective in management of burns.

Both these events sparked off my curiosity about what else honey could do, and how marketers could leverage this natural sweet food made by bees, using nectar from flowers. While brands such as Dabur and Zandu have done well to dominate the Indian market for branded honey, is there a way of making honey far more interesting and engaging for consumers, of segmenting the market to present specific need-based honey offerings? Any such effort has to be based on an understanding of existing and latent consumer needs. Here is a preliminary exploration of the multiple needs which honey can serve, and the marketing opportunities they create.

Natural sweetener As long as mankind has a sweet tooth, the demand for sweeteners will continue to be high. Honey is perhaps the perfect new-age sweetener for consumers who want a pure, unprocessed, natural product that tastes great. It is all-natural, has no additives or preservatives, yet has great flavour and consistent taste, and is easily digestible. There can perhaps be no better substitute for sugar, which is a processed food.

Marketers can, therefore, position honey as the best solution for consumers who desire something wonderfully sweet and totally natural. In addition, there are some interesting possibilities around pairing honey with specific foods and beverages. For instance, I can say from experience that green tea tastes heavenly when you add honey to it, as do breakfast oats. Given that demand for both green tea and oats is growing rapidly in India, brands of honey can specifically target consumers of these products.

Amazing flavours Honey has an amazing range of flavours, many of them unique and delightfully complex. In fact, honey varies significantly in its taste, based on what species of flower the bees have delivered the nectar from. For instance, in India, we have honey with the distinctive flavours of jamun , eucalyptus and litchi. In North America, flavours such as blueberry, buckwheat and orange blossom are well known. In this respect, honey is very similar to products such as seafood, cheese and wine, which are highly sought after by connoisseurs of fine foods, for their varied, rich and complex flavours.

Yet honey is never really viewed through the lens of an exotic, fine food by many of us. Here lies an opportunity for marketers – to take honey away from its current generic perceptions, and place it alongside the likes of wine and cheese as an exotic food to be pursued, collected, treasured and enjoyed for all its delicate and robust flavours. Brands which pursue this route are likely to greatly appeal to an increasing number of consumers who are constantly seeking new and pleasurable experiences to enrich their daily lives. To help articulate such experiences, a “honey vocabulary” has already been developed, with over 100 unique flavour descriptors, which brands can smartly leverage and popularise.

Weight reduction A recent report published by Nielsen reveals that 49 per cent of all people in the world believe they are overweight, and half (50 per cent) are trying to lose weight. Therefore, any product which can help mankind in this sustained endeavour is likely to be a great success. Here again, honey scores very well. A spoonful of honey, taken with lemon and warm water early in the morning, on an empty stomach, is a traditional recipe for weight loss. The Honey Diet , a book by British author Mike McInnes, recommends replacing all sugar in your diet with honey as one element of an effective weight management regimen. In addition, there is some evidence that honey and cinnamon combine to create a powerful weight loss recipe. Brands of honey that focus on this consumer need are also likely to drive higher frequency of consumption, given that successful weight loss is all about cultivating a daily habit and not just occasional use. Marketers may even wish to evolve gender-focused brands of honey, as losing weight has very different dimensions and emotive drivers amongst women, compared to men.

Skin and haircare Honey is known to be a natural cleanser which exfoliates skin and brings out a glowing complexion. It is reportedly one of the best moisturisers. It is supposed to have anti-inflammatory properties that delay ageing, and it can ease out wrinkles. It is also known to condition hair to become shiny and strong. No wonder reputed global skincare brands have entire lines of products based on honey. This space is yet to be occupied in India, and is wide open to marketers – particularly as the need for good skin and haircare is growing, and a natural product solution would be widely welcomed by many consumers.

General health and wellness There is perhaps no other commonly occurring, natural food which has as many therapeutic effects as honey. In ancient Sanskrit literature, honey is said to be a potent rasayana (an elixir that vitalises and nourishes). The medicinal properties of honey are, in fact, mentioned in the great Ayurvedic treatises as well. Amongst the reported wellness benefits of honey are the following: It is a natural detoxifying agent. It is useful as a remedy for cough, and mitigates kapha . It is a good antioxidant. It promotes digestion and metabolism. It cleanses and promotes healing of wounds. Interestingly, it also stops hiccups. All this tells us how potent the health and wellness platform can be for honey, if it is marketed as a powerful, comprehensive natural wellness food, that is also so tasty. I wonder why no brand of honey (or honey-based product, such as yoghurt or soft drink) has captured the imagination of large numbers of consumers in this powerful need space.

Honey holds so much marketing potential because it is such a unique product that naturally addresses so many diverse consumer needs. While there are several assorted products (cough drops, ice-cream, chocolates) that use honey, no brand comprehensively owns honey today. In my view, one or two brands will eventually become famous for honey, cutting across many of these needs – just like, for instance, brand Parachute is famous for coconut and Amul is famous for milk. For the brands which achieve this fame, there is a promised land waiting - a prosperous land, flowing with milk and honey.

(Harish Bhat is Member, Group Executive Council, Tata Sons. He is author of Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless institution. These are his personal views. The author acknowledges valuable inputs from Chitra Chatterjee, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article. bhatharish@hotmail.com )

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