Local food cultures in emerging markets often present significant challenges for global food marketers, with their different dishes, flavours and textures as well as underlying habits, traditions and customs. One of the biggest questions is ‘How do I bridge the gap between my brand and local norms, preferences and palates?’
The issue is compounded when marketers are operating in complex, fragmented food cultures such as India, where there is no one cuisine, but a huge range of dishes and flavours available across its 32 regions, and determined by socio-cultural-economic factors as well as climate and religion.
As consumers in India (as in the rest of APAC) seek western culture, many global products do sell successfully. However, brands make some common mistakes. For example, the misconception that the ‘urban, English speaking, progressive Indian’ is ready for a plate of European gourmet food or a large cheeseburger. Recent failures to adapt to local attitudes have shown that multinationals cannot achieve success through simple ‘copy-paste’ innovations.
Global fast-food companies are a classic example of this. All key players had difficulty setting up in India as it took them several years to realise the serious vegetarianism of the average Indian. This has led to the launch of vegetarian menus that are almost unrecognisable in other markets, with local ingredients such aloo tikki (spicy potato cakes) and paneer (cottage cheese) successfully replacing the western beef or chicken versions.
As a result, any food innovation strategy needs to take into account the huge diversity in local tastes, culture, climate and religion that exists across India. This diversity can be daunting but at the same time can offer immense opportunities for marketers who are willing to take on this challenge.
PepsiCo's indigenous-innovation efforts have been instrumental in establishing its global brand Lays as India’s leading potato-chip brand, through the addition of popular, regionally influenced flavours. It also has a wholly local innovation called Kurkure, which is a meal-based snack with local spices.
Partnering with global research consultancy TNS, PepsiCo has been looking at bridging the gap between its own brand identity and traditional Indian norms, preferences and palates, to further improve its innovation success rates. Its methodology represents a logical approach for any brand wishing to do the same.
PepsiCo commissioned an extensive qualitative study, seeking to understand, document and segment the flavours of India, and ultimately identify key flavours and ingredients from traditional Indian cuisine that could be adapted to modern formats. This consisted of three key steps:
1. Identifying new flavour prototypes: The partners conducted a deep dive into the culinary history and flavours of each of the country’s 32 socio-cultural regions, using an analysis of qualitative data to create a ‘flavour map’ of India. This detailed map enabled R&D to identify new flavour prototypes that were grounded in local sensibilities.
2. Exploring the subjective meanings of the prototypes: A sensory evaluation helped shortlist the flavour-combination prototypes that had the strongest potential. As quantitative testing hadn’t determined clear winners, a qualitative sensorial approach provided powerful insights into the consumer reaction to each prototype, looking at the emotional gratification triggered by the overall experience including appearance, taste, texture and smell.
3. Rooting the innovation in authenticity: The selected set of potential innovations needed to be communicated in a way that would resonate with the target audience. In India, food is not simply physical, functional and taste-linked: Its spiritual and divine significance is embedded in the subconscious of today’s modern consumers. As a result, Indian myth and ritual were examined to decode the semiology of food in order to recommend clear communication routes.
This approach delivered clear inputs for innovation, from naming to brand identity to possible positioning. One of the flavour prototypes identified during this study was successfully launched in one key region at a premium, and is now being scaled up nationally. As a result, the company has now integrated this cultural toolkit within its innovation process to sharpen its product and marketing strategy—and get it right the first time in quantitative testing and actual launch.
Regardless of the market, global food brands must have a clear understanding of culture and tradition if they are to achieve innovation, success and sustainable growth. By layering the emotional consumer experience onto a detailed food and flavour map, the approach described here can be applied to different food cultures—however complex—to help brands create localised, indigenous innovations.
Irene Joshy is research director at TNS Qualitative. Ruchira Jain is vice president of consumer strategy and insights for PepsiCo India.