Variety

Battle of the oats

HARISH BHAT | Updated on April 18, 2012

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Visakhapatnam: 21/04/2011: Oats, milk and fruits, a healthy breakfast. ----Photo: K.R. Deepak

Hot, spicy, substantial, healthy - oats can find success in India as a breakfast option if it fulfills these conditions.



A fresh new marketing war is brewing in the great Indian breakfast market. This time around, it is the battle of the oats. It is over 15 years since Kellogg's first launched its range of cornflakes in India, in the hope of persuading Indians to change their breakfast habits. The results have been mediocre, yet now the oats brigade is here in full strength, to try its luck.

Consider this recent rash of launches and marketing activity, and you get a flavour of how active the category of branded oats has suddenly become:

Five years ago, Quaker Oats, which calls itself the “World's No. 1 Oats brand”, entered India. With over 100 years of trusted heritage, it offers oats which cook within three minutes. More recently, it also launched instant oats which need no cooking. The brand is aggressively marketed, with a widely publicised “Smart Heart Challenge” and a Web site interestingly named goodmorningheart.com.

In 2010, Saffola, India's leading brand of healthy cooking oil from Marico, launched its range of oats. The clear objective was to leverage the strong “health” equity of the Saffola brand. A few months later, Saffola also introduced two new variants of oats catering specifically to Indian tastes: Curry & Pepper Oats, and Masala & Coriander Oats.

In 2010, Kellogg's, the global giant best known for its cornflakes, also entered the oats market, with its ‘Heart-to-Heart' oats, which the company claimed was tailored to the Indian palate. It emphasised the healthy nature of oats, and how it would help battle a stressful life.

In 2011, Horlicks, one of the country's best known brands of health beverages, launched Horlicks Oats, with an enhanced three-way promise: manage your weight, control your blood pressure and reduce cholesterol.

Towards the end of 2011, Britannia, a household name in biscuits, introduced oats under its Healthy Start brand. Four variants of oats were launched simultaneously: plain, strawberry, savoury and multi-grain.

Perhaps in no other category have so many famous brands entered the Indian foods market in such quick succession. Are branded oats a breakfast food whose time has come? The branded cereals market in our country is valued at Rs 500 crore per annum, and growing at 25 per cent every year. Marketers estimate that this handsome growth rate will only increase, with key drivers being growing affluence, double-income couples and increasing acceptance of non-Indian foods. This explains why reputed brands are in a hurry to enter India and win consumers' minds.

The battle of the oats is in its early days, yet to be fought and won. It will intensify as multiple brands fight to strengthen their positions. It will also be watched keenly by students of marketing, as oats for breakfast involves a fundamental change in ingrained consumer habits, and also because there are reputed global and Indian brands involved. Here are some key factors, including consumer triggers and barriers, which will determine how this battle progresses.

Category awareness

Indian consumer awareness of branded oats as a breakfast option is still quite low. All brands will need to invest in creating the right quality of awareness. The point that oats are a good breakfast food, much like idlis or dosas or poha, has to be driven home in memorable ways. In my brief conversations on the subject, I find that many traditional-minded Indians carry the perception that oats are a coarse grain, perfect to feed horses but not suitable for human beings; unlike rice and wheat, which are considered superior and refined grains. Indeed, there may be the seed of a marketing idea embedded in this very misconception.

Health benefits

Oats' health benefits will perhaps be the biggest trigger to their adoption by Indians. The facts are powerful: Oats are an excellent source of carbohydrate, protein and dietary fibre. In addition, they contain beta-glucan soluble fibre which helps reduce cholesterol. However, all this makes oats sound more like strong medication than tasty food, and consumers don't like the concept of having nasty medicine for breakfast. All of us crave a tasty breakfast. Marketers will have to marry the health benefits of oats, which are a category differentiator, with taste, which is an essential point of parity for breakfast foods.

Spicy hot breakfasts

The discussion of taste brings us to a big truth of Indian breakfasts: We like spicy hot breakfasts, which explains the spicy chutneys and pickles we eat with our dosas and parathas. Therefore, if oats have to succeed big time, they have to venture where cornflakes and muesli have not: they must create hot spicy breakfast solutions.

As oats are usually cooked by boiling them in milk, the preference for hot breakfasts is largely met. However, “spicy” oats can emerge from diverse directions. Curry or masala oat flavours, as launched by Saffola, are one possibility, though it is unclear whether consumers will take to Indian flavours in what is essentially a Western breakfast cereal experience. The experience in our Western fast food markets ( aloo tikki burgers and tandoori chicken pizzas) appears to be positive, though. Quaker's, on the other hand, is promoting the use of oats in Indian dishes such as dosas, uttapams and idlis, also an interesting direction. Consumers who have used these recipes appear to be loving them. Here is a typical reaction on the Internet, from a lady who has made Lemon Oats Upma: “Made this recipe yesterday. Hubby loved it so much. So happy!”

Filling breakfasts

Our breakfasts are traditionally heavy stuff, which keep us full until a relatively late lunch. Marketers will have to convince consumers that oats offer the same “fullness” solution, despite not being cooked in butter or oil. I have been eating oatmeal for breakfast for over two years now, and my own view is that oats keep you full for even longer than idlis or parathas do, though at the point of consumption, they do not appear as heavy. Perhaps a “seven-hour hunger challenge”, or consumer testimonials on the subject, will be required to break the consumer perception that oats do not make for a “full” breakfast.

Convenience

One of the key reasons that my wife and I adopted oats for breakfast was the sheer convenience: three minutes and the dish is ready! On the other hand, Indian breakfasts are far more cumbersome to prepare. Particularly for double-income couples, where morning time is at a high premium, this is a powerful trigger. And when convenience is seen alongside the health benefits of oats, this can be an unbeatable combination. No brand appears to have leveraged this basket of benefits imaginatively enough, not yet.

Brand proposition

Finally, how will brands of oats which wish to win this battle differentiate themselves from other brands, as the product can easily slip into the commodity space? A brand like Quaker's can possibly take the high ground on heritage and category expertise. Brands such as Horlicks and Saffola can, given their existing brand equity, attempt to take the high ground on specific aspects of health. However, there are many other differentiating propositions which have not yet been explored. For instance: The tastiest oats. The best oats for growing children, or for teenagers. Fortified oats customised to working women. Oats which are perfect for making Indian dishes. The fastest cooking oats.

Over my oatmeal breakfast, it will be interesting to watch how the battle of the oats unfolds.

(Harish Bhat works with Titan Industries Ltd, where he has served in senior business roles. He is currently on a sabbatical. These are his personal views)

Published on April 18, 2012

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