In New Delhi’s Okhla business district is a swank, airy, modern building — Mankind Pharma’s corporate office. It’s a building that would look more at home in Gurgaon where the ritzy business towers are. But Rajeev Juneja, MD and Vice-Chairman of the ₹8,127 crore company says the company wanted to be in Delhi as at least 300 of its employees travel up and down everyday from Meerut — the small town where the company’s origins lie.

The home-grown company is today a highly visible pharma player — especially after its mega IPO last year. “In just 29 years, we have become the largest pharma company by prescriptions in India and the fourth largest company in India by sales,” says Juneja, saying a lot of it is due to the decision to enter the OTC space. The company began in 1995 and by 2000 was a ₹50 crore company. In 2006-07, it was at ₹500 crore. Yet, because it was in the affordable drugs space, the perception was that it was a small company. “We were hungry for respect and recognition,” says Juneja. “We entered OTC because that was the only way we could advertise on TV,” he says bluntly.

Advertising blitzkrieg

His elder brother Ramesh gave him the responsibility to launch into OTC and the first product was Kaloree 1, a sugar substitute tablet. “I went all the way to Pakistan to sign Wasim Akram (he is diabetic) to endorse the product,” recalls Juneja, describing the advertising blitzkrieg that followed. “We spent ₹10 crore on marketing and the sales were in the range of ₹50 lakh. My brother was furious,” he says.

“But that keeda was there. One defeat cannot deter you from your mission or philosophy. I somehow wanted Mankind to become a big name.”

Rajeev Juneja, Vice-Chairman and MD, Mankind Pharma

Rajeev Juneja, Vice-Chairman and MD, Mankind Pharma

The next launch was Manforce condoms. “We initially tread the same route of everyone else in the category — signed a sexy model, launched dotted condoms.” Again it was a failure. That was when Juneja says he learnt an important marketing lesson for a challenger brand. “Never follow a leader.”

So then there was a brainstorming session on how to disrupt the category. “We found that everyone was pushing condoms from the male perspective, so thought let’s get the female perspective. When everyone was doing dotted condoms, we launched flavoured condoms. The first breakthrough came. The second breakthrough came when we signed Sunny Leone,” he says.

Today Manforce is a ₹300 crore brand and has a 35 per cent share of the category. OTC products as a whole contributes 8 per cent of Mankind Pharma’s revenues, with several big brands in its portfolio — Prega News is a ₹200 crore brand, Unwanted 72 is a ₹90 crore plus brand, Acne Star is around ₹70 crore or so.

Juneja says the lessons learned stuck in their head when they were launching antacid brand Gas-o-fast, seven years ago. “There was a Goliath in the market, in the shape of Eno,” he says. So true to its strategy of not following the leader, Mankind decided to go for natural Indian flavours — jeera and ajwain and price the antacid at a premium. Today, the brand is ₹80 crore or so he says.

“It takes any FMCG brand five to seven years to stabilise. Now we have recall and can make a dent. We foresee growth for the brand,” says Juneja.

Hard knocks and lessons

Having learnt in the school of hard knocks and mistakes (like everyone else, Mankind Pharma too impulsively jumped into making sanitisers and masks during Covid, and had to close those businesses), Juneja has a fund of marketing beliefs to share. For instance, he roots hard for celebrity endorsements. Almost all of Mankind’s OTC brands use celebrities. “The power of celebrities is that you get eyeballs.”

But is it worth the heavy investment? “Every brand spends 10 per cent of their ad budget on the making of the creative and 90 per cent on media. So what if we spend 15 per cent instead,” he retorts. But we ensure that there is compatibility in every use of celebrity he says, describing how for Prega News — the pregnancy detection kit — they used Anushka Sharma when she had announced her pregnancy. For Gas-o-fast, it had used actors with great comic timing — Brahmanandam, Paresh Rawal and Neena Gupta.

The impulsive decisions that led to earlier products is now replaced by matured thinking. “People are now very health conscious. They are now buying premium,” he says. That has led to the launch of HealthOk, a niche product that is aimed at vegetarians, who might face vitamin deficiencies. “Time has come now in marketing when you can be narrow focussed,” he says.

The next big thing, he bets, will be Ayurveda. Mankind has acquired D2C brand Upakarma Ayurveda, that has Shilajit, Kesar and Ashwagandha.

Over time, Juneja says, we learnt that we have to do those kind of karmas that give consumers great experiences. The karmas he refers to are look, feel, touch. “It should touch all the five senses,” he says.