NR Narayana Murthy's faith in us is a reflection of our values, says Paper Boat's Neeraj Kakkar

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Paper boats gliding by dirty ponds, gutters, even a tub of water is a memory of most children in the pre-technological age. Hector Beverages, makers of traditional Indian drinks under the brand name Paper Boat, decided to kindle that memory which invokes nostalgia. The 250 ml packaged drink costing Rs 30 has nine flavours with two new variants to be out soon. It sells close to 1.2 million packs a month and expects to touch Rs 100 crore revenues by 2016. In 2010, Neeraj Kakkar, former Coca-Cola executive, along with his friends started the company. It has recently entered into a partnership with Indo Nissin Food Ltd (makers of Top Ramen Noodles) for distribution of Paper Boat products to more geographies. Kakkar talks of the origins of the firm, its unique flavours and dreams for the future.

Excerpts from the conversation:

What prompted you to come out with non-carbonated beverages through Paper Boat? 

After having spent nearly a decade at Coca-Cola, I was captivated with the idea of starting something of my own. This was while I was completing my second MBA at Wharton. However, Paper Boat happened over a stray incident that led us to venture into this uncharted territory of traditional Indian beverages. One of my American partners’ parents were visiting India and wanted to buy aam panna [drink made from green mangoes], after having tasted it at someone’s home. After a fruitless trudge through restaurants and stores, we realized it was almost impossible to source the authentic flavor. It got us thinking about traditional drinks and hence the inspiration to launch a line of traditional beverages that nobody had thought about packaging, just yet.

 NR Narayana Murthys faith in us is a reflection of our values, says Paper Boats Neeraj Kakkar

Neeraj Kakkar, Founder and CEO, Hector Beverages

What gap in the market were you aiming for? What is the size of the market and what is your share of it?

Paper Boat is a traditional Indian beverage brand. This, we think, is a strong differentiator in itself. The overall fruit juice industry in India is worth Rs 4,000 crore and primarily dominated by international players in the market. We, as a brand, have taken an initiative to introduce ethnic drinks that have a strong connect with childhood memories.

What is the genesis of the name Paper Boat? Whose idea was it?

Paper Boat, as a name and an image, bears the nostalgia of our collective childhood. It is the first lesson of craft we all learn. It simply signifies the innocence of bygone, simpler days.This was an insight imperative to capture while branding these drinks that our mothers or grandmothers made for us during summer vacations after a hard day’s play. After several discussions and presentations, our branding and packaging partners, Elephant Design, finally cracked this name – a name so evocative, it has become the centrepiece of our existence.

Which was the first drink/s that you launched in the market?

When we started about two years ago, the idea was to offer an array of refreshing and delicious Indian kitchen secrets to the young urban Indian – as several routes back into her/his childhood. We began with a test-launch of aamras and jaljeera, and quickly followed up with aam panna, imli ka amlana and golgappe ka pani. We started with these drinks since they appealed to a wider consumer base owing to their familiarity – and to their taste. Then we began to introduce more region-specific tastes like kokum, and most recently chilled rasam. We wanted to launch aam panna first (as that was indeed the genesis of the company!), but while setting up to produce this on a mass scale, we ran into a few problems – we didn’t have the quantities of green mango that we would require and the machinery to pulp these mangoes – operational problems that needed solving first. Which is why we began with aamras and jaljeera which were comparatively easier to produce.

How do you decide on flavours? Where do you source your recipes from?

It’s a little like finding items for a museum – it’s a constant process of curation, and we are, in essence, collecting and preserving pieces of rich history. For us, the decision simply rests on: How old is this recipe? 100 years? Great! Then let’s run with it!

How many flavours do you have currently?

At present the portfolio comprises of nine traditional Indian kitchen favourites. We recently launched an array of new traditional variants including Chilled Rasam, ice tea in two flavours: ginger lemon and tulsi. We are coming up with five new variants that would be seasonal and geography-led. The new variants would include: thandai, kanji, neer more (buttermilk) and sometime in the future, hoping for even coconut water.

You have said in the past that you cannot assure the consistency of flavour. Has that affected your clientele?

Yes, and this is because of two reasons. The first and most important reason – because of our fruit. Most of our taste depends on our fruit (the rest depends on the recipe). Year on year, our yield changes. This factor is entirely out of our control. We don’t use preservatives or any methods to improve the fruit’s natural taste – simply because we don’t believe in improving on Mother Nature. The other reason is we constantly tweak our recipes. With improvement we seek to hit the sweet-spot with every drink we make. Our aim is to be the benchmark taste of whatever Indian drink we have ventured out to recreate.

What interesting trends have you noticed across the country with regard to Paper Boat sales? Can you share an incident or two?

Among the most interesting trends we’ve seen emerge is the story of jaljeera in Chennai. Wisdom said we ought to not sell jaljeera in Chennai, as it was an entirely unfamiliar drink to the region. However, one of our salespersons who did not (thankfully) listen to conventional wisdom did test it in Chennai. To our sheer delight, jaljeera’s sales percentages were just as high as in the drink’s native Delhi. It flouted our expectations --  which meant that in the country there are takers for well-made tastes, irrespective of which corner of the country people  came from!

A similar positive story is also the one of kokum. The kokum fruit has long been restricted to the Konkan coast. We were the first in the world to package this delectable taste and to distribute it to other corners our country. Going by the reception, we can say we’re pleased to have democratized this underrated fruit’s deliciousness! These tales really spur our aspirations in making more memories and more local tastes accessible to different parts of the country.

You have innovative ad campaigns. Is that deliberate?

The idea was to tell simple stories, keeping them as earnest and as evocative as possible. Malgudi Days has been part of our DNA even before we imagined we’d ever come out with a TVC. In fact one of the first murals we painted in our office was of the classic Malgudi railway station. Once the TVC came into the picture, we gave the agency the brief: Make us a film that’s about Drinks and Memories. Malgudi Days was implicitly understood as the soundtrack for our film.

Which amongst your drinks did not enthuse the consumer and had to be withdrawn? 

Some drinks in our country are acquired tastes and we have found that some of these tastes are harder to acquire. For us it was sattu that could not make a mark with the consumers. We received quite a bit of flak too. The recipe we used was a North Bihar one that was a variant without sugar at all. Sattu is also consumed in other parts of the country – UP, for example – and customers for whom this was meant to be special, simply did not identify with the taste. So, we gradually phased it out. Another of our recipes that we rolled back was the imli ka amlana. This traditional Marwari recipe, it turned out, was not to the liking of many and was eventually discontinued. (Though to this day a few Marwari customers do ask: Hey, where did the amlana go?)

Which fruit/flower is a challenge to be juiced and you'd like to?

Repeat requests from customers have been to package ganne ka ras [sugarcane juice], and it’s a challenge that we’re trying to package – all while staying true to our terms of no preservatives or added flavours.

You have had Narayana Murthy's Catamaran Ventures investing twice in your venture.

We are indeed honoured by his continued patronage and we are also grateful for how much we have learned from him, and how much these learnings have become part of our culture. Our value system is an extension of his personality. Our inspiration of technology, to a huge extent, comes from his own contributions to the tech industry. For us, his faith in us is a reflection of our values.

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Updated Date: May 15, 2015 17:09:34 IST