RK Krishna Kumar, who passed away earlier this month, was a legend who served the Tata group for 60 long years. He led two iconic consumer facing companies of the Group – Tata Tea and Indian Hotels Company (Taj). He was a Director of Tata Sons and a Trustee of the Tata Trusts. The nation will not forget his daring acquisition of Tetley, the first ever global brand to be acquired by an Indian company.
KK, as he was called by his colleagues, was a master strategist and a brilliant leader of people. He was deeply spiritual, and also very compassionate. For him, helping people in need took precedence over everything else. In addition, he was also a superb marketer, a man who played a key role in crafting some of the legendary brands of the Tata group, including Tata Tea and Taj. This column focuses on some of the marketing lessons I have learnt from him.
He was my first boss, and over three decades ago, I had the fortune of witnessing at close quarters how he built two very successful brands – Kanan Devan Tea and Tata Tea. He did this in the late 1980s when Tata Tea was a relatively small plantation company with virtually zero market share in the Indian branded tea market. His team and he had to compete with giant well established brands such as Brooke Bond and Lipton. What did he do?
First and foremost, he ensured that each brand had a sharp tangible point of differentiation. Kanan Devan Tea was developed with a strong origin story – every tea leaf that went into these packets was sourced from the Kanan Devan hills of Kerala, better known to many Indians as the scenic hills around Munnar. This gave the teas a beautifully distinctive character, quite analogous to how single-malt whiskies boast of specific taste profiles.
The Tata Tea brand was built on the foundation of plantation-fresh teas. To reinforce this platform, the teas were packed in laminate polypacks, which had high oxygen and water vapour barrier properties, thereby sealing in the freshness of the teas. This led to the winning proposition of “Asli Taazgi” or “real freshness”, which took the Indian market by storm at that time.
KK believed that differentiation was key to building brands. He would insist that these points of difference come through very clearly at every touch point of the brand, whether it be product, packaging, promotional material or advertising.
KK also believed in the primacy of product. Therefore, every single week at his offices in Kochi and Kolkata, he would engage in long tea tasting sessions, where he would subject the company’s brands to blind-tasting tests compared to competitor brands. He was not a tea taster by profession, but over the years he developed a proficiency in this art. During these sessions, if Kanan Devan or Tata Tea fell below the defined flavour, taste and strength benchmarks, all hell would break loose in the tasting rooms, and KK would be on the war path.
This obsession with product quality has been a key reason why brands marketed by this company (now called Tata Consumer Products) enjoy the trust of many millions of consumers. I still recall KK’s advice to me way back then, when I was a young marketer in his team – visit plantations, understand everything you can about tea and begin your day by tasting teas. Product is the key.
In the 1960s, KK began his career in sales and marketing by travelling to small and medium-sized towns in Tamil Nadu, such as Vellore, Vaniyambadi and Ambur. There, he learnt the ropes of FMCG sales through the distribution system that had been established by TOMCO (the erstwhile Tata Oil Mills Company). Much later in his career, when he was masterminding the launch of Kanan Devan Tea in South India, he would visit markets in States such as Kerala and Goa very often. He developed fluent relationships with distributors, and would often obtain first-hand market feedback directly from them – on trade and consumer response, as well as competitor activity. He interrogated sales and brand data with great energy, but he also believed that, for sharp insight, there was no substitute to visiting markets and meeting customers directly.
KK was also fanatical about excellence in every aspect of marketing – from packaging to advertising to in-store visibility. If something did not meet his exacting standards, we were summarily told to go back and rework. In demanding excellence, he helped inspire new standards in the brands and businesses which he led.
Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views.