Over the last three months, as the Covid-19 outbreak peaked, homegrown FMCG firm Dabur rolled out over 40 new products and variants.

Most of them were immunity-boosting products or hygiene products such as sanitisers that were linked to customer needs during the pandemic.

Godrej Consumer Products too did many launches during this period. Particularly noteworthy was a personal and home hygiene range of 12 products clubbed together under the Godrej Protekt brand. It includes soap, body wash, fruit and vegetable wash, dish-washing liquid, hand-sanitiser sachet, air and surface disinfectant spray, anti-bacterial wipes and face masks.

Another agile mover was ITC, which launched fruit beverages with immunity offerings under its B Natural+ brand. It also came out with a slew of hygiene solutions under the Savlon brand, including sanitisers in sachet format priced at just 50 paise.

Noticing how consumers were seeking convenience, it also unleashed a range of unique frozen snacks under the ITC Master Chef brand.

Even MNCs — usually notoriously slow on the product launch front — pushed new offerings. Take Coca-Cola, which launched Minute Maid Vita Punch, a range of fruit cocktails enriched with Vitamin C to support immunity and scaled up Minute Maid Nutriforce , a Kashmiri apple juice fortified with iron, zinc and other essential vitamins. It also launched its Vio Spiced Buttermilk as a hyperlocal offering.

Speedy launches

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, it is interesting to see how the strategy of FMCG companies shifted, especially in terms of new product launches. No longer did they indulge in the luxury of doing sampling, pilot testing in one region first, agonising over branding and communication for ages.

Instead, they showed rare agility, innovating quickly, experimenting with new products, packs, pricing, and changing their distribution strategy in an attempt to stay relevant with their consumers.

That was perhaps the only way to retain brand salience in a challenging period where consumer loyalty depended on factors like availability and meeting of new needs. The consumer was changing and it was imperative for the companies to change too.

As Sunil Kataria, CEO-India & SAARC, Godrej Consumer Products, points out, the company completely re-imagined its approach to innovation and new product development. “Our teams across the globe cross-pollinated ideas and technology to launch new sanitiser and hand wash ranges in record speed, ranging from 10 days to a month,” he says.

Dabur India too adapted. Chief Executive Officer Mohit Malhotra explains how they totally changed the way the organisation worked, adapting the existing policies and procedures. “We needed to be agile and seize opportunities in a very short time frame. We had to quickly adapt our business approach, mobilise our teams to put in a strong effort despite lockdown restrictions, besides leveraging technology and innovation to address the changing environment and the emerging needs of our consumers,” he says.

Supply chain innovations

During the initial days of the lockdown, when supply chains were badly disrupted, FMCG companies that had traditionally been laggards on digital realised the significance of e-commerce. Many of them co-created products with e-commerce players and launched online first products. Take, for example, Godrej’s Hit Anti-Mosquito Racquet or Dabur Himalayan Apple Cider Vinegar.

Companies also quickly tied up with new entrants in essential products distribution, such as Swiggy, Zomato and Dunzo, to strengthen last-mile deliveries.

They exploited new channels too. Godrej partnered with the Indian Railways’ Central Railway zone to promote travel hygiene among passengers and rail employees. “Two lakh products of our new range like hand-sanitiser sachets, and on-the-go disinfectant spray will be used in passenger trains. Our air and surface disinfectant spray will be used to disinfect surfaces of ticket booking counters as well,” says Kataria. Coca-Cola India also tied-up with Common Services Centres to list its products on the Grameen eStore platform.

For ITC, which was one of the speediest in realigning its distribution infrastructure, a clear innovation was a store on wheels to reach customers directly. The company also tied up with diverse companies such as Domino’s and Amway besides going for other e-commerce tie-ups to take its products to consumers.

Coca-Cola India too phenomenally scaled up its ability to operate on e-commerce and grocery channels.

Companies like Coca-Cola took stock of purchase moments. For the beverage giant, out-of-home occasions, especially in the summer months, are huge sales drivers. T Krishnakumar, President, Coca-Cola India and South-west Asia, said the company is trying to see how it could help consumers replicate or simulate the away-from-home occasions experience at-home.

Krishnakumar also said, “We are focusing on creating more affordable versions of our existing products so consumers can pick them up for home.” The company had been working on sprucing up its product development strategies to be able to launch a product in under 12 weeks, over the past two years.

Becoming fearless

The Covid-19 crisis seems to have taught companies to take more risks. As Malhotra of Dabur says, “We have transformed ourselves as an organisation, become more aggressive and fearless. We have also enhanced our risk-taking ability, encouraging our employees to become more entrepreneurial.”

The notable change, as he sums up, is the agility.

“As a company, we were pursuing perfection. As a result, we used to keep working on new products and delaying their launch to achieve perfection. I believe the crisis has made us more progressive. I feel it is okay if you are not perfect, as long as you remain progressive towards perfection."