Srikumar Misra: Consumer love is a double-edged sword

Srikumar Misra, founder & CEO, Milk Mantra
Often, I am asked about my learnings and experiences as an entrepreneur, especially as one in the unconventional space of creating a contemporary food brand in a largely unorganised space, and one that covers a complex value chain from tens of thousands of dispersed farmers to hundreds of thousands of distributed urban households and consumers, day in, day out.  

There are lessons aplenty, as any entrepreneur pursuing scale would know. A lesson that I believe is not only extremely important, but also something which may not be very evident is about love. Consumer love.

Building consumer brands, especially in product categories that have very frequent interactions in people's lives, is perhaps the most challenging task consumer start-ups and early-stage ventures face, from the consumer foods space to consumer internet. Here, a clinical problem-solution approach is unlikely to work. Conventional approaches of launching and building brands relying on some proposition, developed by some advertising agency, backed up with conventional media spends have a disproportionately high chance of failing.

Today's highly interconnected world means consumers across the world are informed, and armed to spread positive vibes, or crucify and punish virally. They have choice and don't accept one more me-too or incrementally better product or service. Any new product innovation and launch has to compete for the consumer's love. A love that is rational, i.e. based on objective assessment of clear functional benefits of the product. As with all matters of the heart, it is based on a deep engagement between the brand and the consumer in a sort of mature romance. When this love blooms, it manifests itself in various ways - from extremely positive ambassadorial behaviour in consumers, to deep faith and trust, and as well as delivery of hard-nosed outlier performance numbers.

At Milk Mantra, we believe deeply in nurturing this love. We do this by probably overdoing a few things. We over-invest in the product. If the market benchmark is x and the consumer expresses 1.2x, we develop a product and a mix which is 1.4x—almost a maniacal focus on over-delivery in each and every product aspect. Remember, we're in the food and nutrition business. Secondly, we love engaging with our consumers and use digital and social platforms passionately. Not just Facebook, but actual nuts and bolts social platforms also, with small and large, planned and unplanned engagements with consumers from various segments, from kids to adults. We try to actively create a culture of both thinking and feeling - thinking innovation, and always feeling for our key stakeholders - from consumers to farmers. We attempt to build this into the DNA of the organisation. 

In a recent product and market situation, we suddenly received random complaints about our flagship brand, the Milky Moo fresh milk product. Knowing that poor storage and other such causes at the consumer end itself usually lead to such issues, we nevertheless did our regular stringent SOP checks and concluded that everything was fine. We were wrong. The next day, we again received more random complaints (as opposed to complaints in a specific pattern covering a wide spectrum of users which is then easier to decode and correlate to some specific cause). Our production and quality teams were perplexed. A frustrated competitor losing share consistently in a hitherto monopolistic market was going around spreading canard about our product. 

The random feedback persisted, and there were calls and emails from some regular users, who seemed distressed that something was not quite right with their beloved brand Milky Moo. We have a very deep presence in social/digital channels and boast a disproportionately high engagement level - this channel was now providing us feedback real time from some of our users who were facing issues.

We felt that we were not living up to our consumer's love, and decided to take the extreme step of stopping supplies immediately - we pushed the button. Going past our SOPs to do a complete audit, we also connected with several industry experts in our network and turned everything upside down. Over 24 hours, we sifted through the entire value chain of the product. Only when every key process owner and external expert concluded that everything was in order did we decided to resume supplies. Though our supplies and trade channels had been disrupted, we had faith in the love of our consumers. We re-launched the product in the market and reached out to the consumers who had called in. In a matter of days, we attained our previous levels. Our consumers pulled us back and the channels had their faith restored very quickly. None paid heed to canard mongers. That is the power of consumer love. 

But make no mistake, just as consumer love and faith can allow you to bounce back resolutely from adverse product and service situations, if left unattended without genuine closure, the same consumer love can strike back like a smitten lover. Love as they say cannot be taken for granted. Such consumer love sets the bar very high: they expect nothing but the very best every time and are usually very sharply perceptive if product delivery is even marginally off.

It takes painstaking focus and effort to build such love. There's no formula or product-market matrix that can prescribe five steps to attain it. Unless we develop great products and take them to people in a way which keeps this thought of consumer love at the centre, it will be almost impossible to create a sustainable and scalable venture in today's connected world. Only such an engaging relationship with people and the consumer can enable a brand to clock exponential growth consistently over years. We learnt this lesson of love at Milk Mantra (and are still learning) with a bit of focus, bit by chance, lots by listening to consumers, and maybe a bit by design, I'd like to believe!

Srikumar Misra is founder & CEO of Milk Mantra, a dairy company from Odisha

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