Baba Ramdev, Patanjali and the art of content marketing

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There are businessmen, there are entrepreneurs and then there are people who leave you thinking, “What just happened!”.

It is an FMCG empire that was not in the competition analysis powerpoints of the big players even a couple of years back. Today, Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali is sweeping away everything in its path. From local stores to Amazon,  Patanjali Products are everywhere. The product quality is best in breed, the prices competitive and the distribution chain is probably the first that is rivalling even the Cola majors.

And behind all of this, are the meticulous efforts of one man in creating his own brand. And his expertise in what we today call content marketing.

So what is content marketing? It is attracting consumers to your product, not by bombarding them with incessant ads (looking at you retargeting ad players) but by educating them on the general sphere where you operate. What many people forget is that the keyword here is ‘general sphere’! You cannot keep harping about your product and expect the target consumers to not be bored to death. Let me repeat that again – Do not keep shouting about how your product is better than everything else. And here, exactly, is where Baba Ramdev proved to be phenomenal.

For the last decade, Baba Ramdev did not focus on proclaiming that his brand was the best. Instead, he told us about the evils of MNCs, the virtues of products made in India, the corruption of corporates, the exploitation of farmers, the cancerous effects of fertilisers and chemicals and just about everything that surrounded his products. He just showed us the reasons and left us on our own to explore his products.

BABA_RAMDEVThis was brilliant. See, when someone forces you to try out a product you might have a bias to reject it as ‘overselling’. But here no-one was pushing anything, only an environment was created where you wanted to see if the alternative to above evils was usable. You might have been influenced by the fear of diseases or you might just have been patriotic enough to shun all evil US firms. Whatever the reason, you already had a positive environment to try the Patanjali products.

So now the Patanjali brand had a willing consumer. Was this enough? Obviously not, you still had to deliver. And did they do that! The product quality was brilliant. Yes, they were not the panacea of  everything as (often) claimed  – but the toothpaste was as good as any other in the market, as were the oils, as were the extracts, and as was everything else. And guess what, Patanjali overdid even its own stupendous record in the distribution department. Is there any village, any city in India where you cannot find these products?

The recent news reports of Baba Ramdev’s FMCG empire (2013-2014 turnover at INR 1200 crores) were meant to provide shock value, but they underplayed the true learning for entrepreneurs aiming to displace huge incumbents.

Beyond the obvious ‘have a great product’ and ‘make sure the product reaches consumers’, Patanjali Ayurveda was a startup that displayed as good a content marketing strategy as anyone ever before.

So let us recap again what content marketing is in the context of this example:

  1. To make a successful product, your marketing strategy should attract long term consumers. These long term consumers are made by influencing their core beliefs. These beliefs are (almost) impossible to change by superficial claims. You need to find out what values your target consumers hold and appeal to those. Needless to say that the thread should somehow lead to your product, but make it too obvious and you run the risk of losing all trust. Subtlety is the key. If you need another example, subscribe to shopify.com’s mailing list. They are an e-commerce platform provider but every article they write is about you as the ambitious business owner, and not about them as the platform provider.
  2. Be consistent. As consumers, we are anyway exposed to hundred ads per day. If you keep changing the core of who you are as a business (yes, today’s catchphrase ‘pivot’ notwithstanding), then even your most loyal consumers will lose their trust.
  3. Be persistent, but know when to pull back and when to go full steam ahead. Baba Ramdev (and hence the future of Patanjali) faced plenty of ups and downs, from political to product challenges. He lied low on some occasions and propelled himself to limelight in others. Efficient maneouvering of such situations is often the difference between the winner and the ‘almost did it’.
  4. To know your content, you should know your consumers. Patanjali’s consumers had a very specific profile, and the content needed to revolve around that. The products needed to fit into their lifestyle. This was not an aspirational product to show off to others and having someone like Shahrukh Khan as the brand ambassador would simply not have worked. This was a self-improvement product and you, the consumer, were your own inspiration. That is exactly what the content focused on.
  5. Have a great product. If you don’t have a product that satisfies some need, solves a problem and works (almost) as you claim – don’t bother about content or any other kind of marketing. Go out, know your consumers and develop the right product. Then come back and apply these techniques.

Patanjali Ayurveda is one of the untold startup success stories, and in the next couple of years when it inevitably displaces more large players, be ready for more news stories aimed to surprise the readers!



Update: Sep 7. 2015

Here is something more to add on to your marketing arsenal. Always be ready to take advantage of sudden opportunities, like the current Maggi scandal which has prompted Baba Ramdev to launch his own noodles.


A bit of education, a byte of startups.

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