V S Mani’s founder GD Prasad talks about the coffee category’s need gap, the appearance on Shark Tank, and the power of personal branding.
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VS Mani & Co is founded by GD Prasad, Rahul Bajaj, and Yashas Alur. The former advertising executives got together in 2020 to sell South Indian coffee powder, decoction, and authentic snacks. Prasad tells Storyboard18, the brand has ambitions of becoming "The Halidram’s of South India." The company wants a lot more people to understand the cultural nuances and food experiences of the South. Recently, Bengaluru-based food brand's founders appeared on the popular reality Shark Tank India too.
In a conversation with Storyboard18, Prasad talks about how consumers are actively looking for brands that are keeping their promises alive, his views on personal branding, and more.
You quit an advertising job to be an entrepreneur. What pushed you to do that?
I think in a lot of ways WebChutney shaped our entrepreneurial ambitions. Sidharth’s (founder of WebChutney) style of working and Gautam’s (former CEO of the agency) style of operating infused a lot of trust in each of us in the agency. They gave us opportunities to treat each campaign, project, and account as our own. We were allowed to make mistakes. We learned and unlearned along the way. This pushed us to take risks and get out of our comfort zone.
At WebChutney, my mandate was to handle all businesses that were not coming from Flipkart and grow this unit. I was also a part of setting up teams and understanding the nuances of new business development along with operations. We could have easily said no to a lot of these additional responsibilities but we didn’t because the bosses allowed us to do things that one wouldn't imagine doing at an agency. According to me, our first no-risk stint in entrepreneurship happened at WebChutney.
We got opportunities to interact beyond the brand managers. That helped us a lot to understand brands from different lenses. We came to a point where we asked ourselves, why aren’t we doing this for ourselves? We have a deep understanding of business functions and have experience in building brands. It was a matter of bringing this together with a business idea in place. Also, once you are at an agency like WebChutney, you wonder, what next? We had the experience of working with the best of the best in the business. So going to another agency didn’t even cross our minds. That’s why we thought to startup and get on something completely new.
There are several coffee brands in the Indian market. In fact, it’s a category where there is an immense level of loyalty. What makes your brand unique?
I am a hard-core South Indian. I take my cup of filter coffee seriously. Having lived outside Chennai, I have realised that most of South Indian cravings of people like me cannot be fulfilled easily. Of course, there are a few pockets of restaurants and a few brands in every city. However, for your everyday cravings, if you walk into a supermarket you would find aisles full of snacks from different corners of the country. In the coffee section, the selection of homegrown coffee brands is still limited compared to the international and a few national products.
The consumers who enjoy the tea and snacks have ample options. However, filter coffee lovers and the ones who love authentic South Indian snacks still have limited options. We want to be that brand that wants to serve consumers who are looking for these authentic products. We want to cater to consumers who are overseas and have even lesser access to these home like snacks and coffee. We also want to be the gateway to those consumers who want to experience a slice of our culture through our food.
Our ambition is sort of to become the Halidram’s of South India. We want to be the destination for South Indian food. Today, consumers want to experience a brand’s promise. We have got into the business of representing our food culture and want to take it far and wide. In this process, we are debunking a lot of existing prejudices.
What brands inspired you while you were developing your own brand?
We looked closely at brands that aced the storytelling aspect of their business. For instance, Hector Beverages, that owns Paperboat. They are not just selling authentic drinks but also a promise that their products have a certain amount of nostalgia attached to them. We also looked at a few legacy brands. For example, Mother’s Recipe. Right from the name to the product range, they have it all right. It was an inspiration for me personally. Imagine if Mother’s Recipe was born in the digital era. They would have been a different brand altogether. Another brand that we studied carefully was Innocent Drinks because of its quirky brand personality. We looked at different brands for different things. All said and done iD Fresh Food can be considered our biggest competition. However, you have to give it to them for genuinely creating a category that didn’t exist.
Do you think nostalgia is an evergreen theme for developing products and advertising around the world?
We may come across as a brand that’s built on nostalgia but that’s not the case. Let me explain. To South Indians, yes, we may remind them of home and good old times. However, to others, we are just a gateway to our culture and we are telling you the stories of culture along with selling products that give you the right taste.
I often ask my team members what nostalgia means to them. Honestly, some of the things surprise me. What is nostalgic for one generation will not be the same for the next. Hence, that will keep changing over time, and building a brand and selling products just based on nostalgia may not work. It has to be a combination of several elements to attract a larger consumer set.
You have expanded into experiences and pop-ups. What’s that like?
We have experimented with a few offline engagements. Catering authentic meals is one such area. Recently, also curated a pop-up where we called in artisans and local fashion brands from the South, along with our food, sampling of snacks, and filter coffee. This helps us interact with consumers directly. Understand what they are and aren’t looking for from brands like us. It is a great consumer insight mining session. We are working on how we can scale this up in multiple cities.
You appeared on Shark Tank. What was the experience like?
From an experience perspective, it was super fun. We had engaging conversations with all of the judges. From a brand exposure point of you, definitely, a show like Shark Tank has a GEC reach. In 15 minutes, a lot of people would discover us that we wouldn’t reach via our ads. The effect of this in the medium and long term is something that we will have to wait and watch. The initial signs are positive so far.
Being an adman what comes as an advantage and disadvantage while building a brand?
To be honest, we do have a lot of prejudices. Coming from an advertising background, a lot of times, you don’t tend to go to an agency. That’s mainly because you have a network of people from the industry who give you advise time and again. You ideate a lot. You know the direction that works for you the best. You don’t want to repeat mistakes that some of your former clients have done in the past. You know a lot of things that will not work for you. That’s of course an advantage but can also come across as a disadvantage. An agency partner can bring in a fresh perspective for sure. For us at the moment, working in-house is working well. However, I do think we can do better in the marketing areas.
Today, founders of startups are taking extra care of their personal branding. What are your views on it? How does it boost your brand?
It is important and I think I need to do a better job of it (laughs). For example, today, Peyush Bansal is the face of his brand Lenskart. People know him. Similarly, consumers do know the people who are building brands more than ever before. It helps when more of these founders themselves are endorsing their brands. Founders have massive social media reach. They are getting smarter to use that to connect with consumers. It builds immense trust factor too, both for the brand and the brand maker.