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INTERVIEW

“We believe our brand is the best in the world”
Monday, 19 August, 2019, 08 : 00 AM [IST]

ITC Foods’ super-premium chocolate segment Fabelle manifests as a multi-sensorial experience. The brand has garnered appreciation from chocolate capitals such as Italy, Belgium and Switzerland where customers state that they have not had anything like this before. “It is all about experiencing a multi-textural product with an alchemy of various ingredients more than what consumers will get in a plain chocolate,” said Anuj Kumar Rustagi, COO, chocolates, coffee and new categories, ITC Foods, in an interaction with Nandita Vijay. Excerpts:

How would you describe the scene for crafted chocolates in India?
A couple of things are happening. The consumer aspiration is high for quality international chocolates and much of it is being fulfilled by those who travel abroad, bought a lot at duty-free counters. There has always been a huge demand for premium chocolates. Many are beginning to appreciate fine chocolates as it is different from the normal chocolates available in India. Hence this market is growing well both because people are aware, travelling and the economy is doing well. There are also several players like us in the marketing creating chocolate experiences for people. Although the premium chocolates consumption is still small, compared to the overall chocolate market, yet it is experiencing phenomenal growth. Therefore this segment will only continue to grow.

Coming to your company’s perspective, what is the size of your team engaged in the development of these chocolates?
From our brand point of view there are different teams. One group of around 65 people sits out of Bengaluru in the ITC Food Division which looks after the central marketing operations. This excludes two of our people who are stationed in our factories in Bengaluru and Haridwar which are supported by a larger team. We are also supported by Boutique staff working out of our luxury properties which cover 30-35 people dedicated to the brand. These include all the general managers, hotel management committee and chief chefs who put in quite of a lot of effort into the brand.

What are the efforts to distribute these chocolates in the mainstream retail outlets?
Yes we have a retail presence at around 400 touch points across India. These are across premium food gourmets outlets like Foodhall, Nature’s Basket, to top-end modern trade of the hyper markets where only the luxury bars are present. The full range of our brand will be in about 50 to 60 outlets. But our luxury chocolate range is only at the Boutique outlets within our ITC hotel properties. However, we are now looking at other touch points to expand including online delivery as it is an important channel. We are now either partnering with either Swiggy or Zomato to see if we can deliver. This obviously requires them to deliver in good quality cold consistent temperature which is currently being experimented. This apart, we are looking at new touch points in top-end malls. Trials are on Delhi and Kolkata whether we can roll out this model. Since we believe our brand is the best in the world, we are also looking to be present at duty-free shops across airports.

Now is it the retail outlets or the Boutiques in the ITC hotels that are garnering higher sales growth?
Right now for the luxury chocolates, Boutiques are quite important. Obviously, the size of the modern retail market is much bigger. But the mix is also very different in the Boutiques as we have all the chocolate creations and the desserts as against a box of chocolates on the retail shelves. Now if we go for the chocolate bars for a larger footprint, it is the Boutiques because its here one sees the brand at its best with the chocolatier in action and with the introduction of many limited additions or special creations. This experience is different for the consumer. Moreover chocolates at the Boutique have a shorter shelf life, are handcrafted and require good storage in low temperature.

Which are the regions that generate maximum demand for your chocolates?
Surprisingly the demand is the same across markets of north, south, east and west. Bengaluru is an important market for us because it is here we are experimenting a lot. In fact, this was the first and our flagship Boutique in the country at ITC Gardenia which is doing exceedingly well. Right now, we are only limited to the six metros: because this is where we see a lot of demand and appetite and we want to take our time to build this brand.

In an age where wellness and healthy foods are the focus, which are the age-groups that are attracted to your chocolates?
The age group is across young children to older people. Chocolates are little bites of pleasure for indulgence. The health-conscious consumers usually go for dark chocolates. Much of our range is dark chocolate-based which are inherently healthy.  For the premium segment, with a higher chocolate content, the sugar content is much lower. Therefore these are healthier choices. Moreover chocolates are purchased for indulgence. We are not marketing chocolates on a health platform.

From the point of ingredients, how much is imported and sourced locally?
Our choice of ingredients is not from India but international. India being cocoa-deficient much of it is imported. What we ensure is the holistic experience of the chocolate we want to give. For instance, hazelnuts are from Turkey and almonds are from California. We identify the best and for the ingredients even in the latest six bars that were launched last week, the chocolate is imported but all ingredients which add to the flavour are India-based.

What are the challenges that are encountered in developing these chocolates?
From an overall brand point of view, we curate these chocolate experiences for our customers. So a lot of efforts from our chocolatiers amongst others are involved in product testing before it finally reaches the market. Considerable efforts go in to curate that experience because variety and innovation are extremely important. ITC overall has been known for considerable innovations across its product range. Therefore, two engines keep on working. One is the product development engaged in innovation into the modern trade or the bar formats. The other is team of chefs developing for each of event. There are at least 70 to 100 ingredients on one box, extensive craftsmanship goes into creating our chocolates. The delight for us is the consumer response. Our luxury hotels receive rave reviews from the international guests including airline crew who purchase a box. Appreciation has also come forth from Italy, Belgium, Switzerland which are chocolate capitals of the world where customers state that they have not had anything like this before. Offers to open similar boutiques at Dubai and Europe are also there, but we are very India- focussed. However, this is a good parameter indicating that the brand is creating a world-class chocolate brand based out of India.

What trends do you sight in this space?
Fundamentally in chocolates, the big macro trend is that consumption of confectionery or chocolate is really low. This is to the order that compared to European countries, India is one hundredth. Therefore this segment of chocolates will continue to grow for decades to come and we see it as a big business opportunity. Within that there is also the experience because consumers just don’t eat a chocolate. There is a story and an origin around it like from where the ingredients come from and all of which goes into curating an experience. The brand manifests as a multi-sensorial experience because it is all about experiencing a multi-textural product with an alchemy of various ingredients more than what consumers will get in a plain chocolate.
 
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