Taking ayurveda to the world

As a speaker in the third Global Ayurveda Summit, I was worried. Unseasonal rains were lashing Kochi that day and at the scheduled time for start at 10 am, the hall was hardly full. The organisers pushed the start time by 15 minutes. I was not sure if the hall would even get half full. I should not have worried. In just under 20 minutes, the hotel staff was scurrying around adding chairs at the back of the hall. While I spoke about the need for better branding of ayurvedic brands, a young speaker after me from Amazon spoke about the firm's channel for global customers of ayurvedic products.


Incidentally, the summit attracted a significant number of global participants and also hosted well over 30 well-appointed exhibition stalls. But a question remained in my mind: What is ayurveda and are all ayurvedic brands the same?


Perhaps the biggest-selling so-called “ayurvedic medicine” brand in India is not really ayurvedic. In the mid-1980s, the government decided that ayurvedic medicines will attract zero excise duty. The excise duty on all forms of over the counter medicines was around 15 per cent. Spotting the anomaly, one of the early MNC brands to jump on to the ayurvedic bandwagon was Vicks vaporub. Halls and Vicks cough drops were soon to follow. This is what I would call the “switchover ayurveda” brands. 


The next category of ayurvedic brands are those that are not even touting their ayurvedic heritage. The oldest and the biggest in this category is Liv52 from Himalaya. It has been around for decades but the ayurvedic origin is not trumpeted as much as its natural ingredients. Himalaya has rolled out a brand globally for hangovers called PartySmart; it does not speak of its ayurvedic origin and is presented as an all-natural product.


There are numerous ayurvedic brands that are sold for multiple remedies -- from aches and pains to indigestion and hair fall. The brand Indulekha, which now belongs to Hindustan Unilever, is expected to hit a Rs 2,000 crore valuation mark in the next five years.


Then there are ayurvedic brands that are sold as prophylactic. The biggest in this group would be chyawanprash. This product, if sold as “chyawanprash”, did not attract any excise duty during the excise duty era. The moment you brand it as, say, “HealthyFit”, it came under the excise duty regime.


So much for individual brands that have been promoted and built in India.


Traditionally, ayurvedic brands were sold under an umbrella brand. These brands spoke of many years of heritage and legacy. For example, this year, Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala celebrated its 150th year. Dabur too is almost 140 years old. Many global pharmaceutical companies may not be that old.


In the last few decades, there have been many efforts to modernise ayurveda with better branding, better technology and better retailing. The first to tread this path is perhaps Biotique. There is also work happening in companies such as Indus Biotech to identify and extract valuable natural ingredients with medicinal properties. So when we talk of ayurveda, the field encompasses multiple shades of nature-based cures. Not all of them are called ayurveda of course.


In the last decade, two ayurvedic brands have managed to invest heavily in design and high-street outlets —Forest Essentials and Kama Ayurveda. They offer a wide range of products, all with roots in ayurveda. But while Forest Essentials speaks of natural ingredients more than ayurveda, Kama has ayurveda in its front-facing branding. Estee Lauder, the super-premium beauty brand, took a minority stake in Forest Essentials 10 years ago. Don’t be too surprised if you start seeing Forest Essentials in the shopping malls of the developed world.


Encouraged by their success, numerous brands are venturing into the market with premium displays in airports and malls. What they need to keep in mind is that Forest Essentials and Kama Ayurveda have been at it for almost 20 years.


The new brands on display in Kochi are still working on their go-to-market strategies. Is there a need to have a few arrow-head offerings (hair-fall cream; under-eye gel; natural hair colour)? What to tout more — natural, botanical, ayurveda? Should the pricing be premium, super premium or affordable?


Given the excitement around ayurvedic brands, even ayurvedic doctors are getting a new glow. A start up, Nirogstreet, is trying to create a network of ayurvedic practitioners. Hopefully all these efforts will help ayurvedic practices, products and offerings reach a wider target audience. With the whole world turning to more natural, botanical products, the time for the rebirth of ayurveda is just right.


The author is an independent brand coach and founder, Brand-Building.com ambimgp@brand-building.com


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