"The best quality tea," said ancient Chinese sage Lu Yu, "must have creases like the leather boots of a Tartar horseman, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like the mist rising out of a ravine and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain." But even the best teas need more than just quality to become the favoured cuppa of the millions.
With a market share of 19 per cent, Tata Tea is the brand leader in the Indian tea industry. Its basket of offerings includes Tata Tea (India's largest selling brand of packet tea) as well as Gemini, Chakra Gold, Kanan Devan and others, which are strong in particular geographical territories.
Superior taste, aroma, colour and strength have been the hallmarks of the teas that the company makes, but the critical factor that makes the Tata Tea formula a winner is a not-so-secret ingredient — consumer focus.
The company's value statement says it all: "We believe that our customers define the success of our organisation. They should be top-of-mind in everything that we do." This belief guides Tata Tea's business at every step, beginning with sourcing the finest teas from its plantations, customising blends based on local customer preferences, checking for consistent quality at all times, ensuring timely delivery to distributors and tracking customer and consumer satisfaction at regular intervals.
Tata Tea's consumer orientation also finds expression in customer service. An efficient complaint-management system ensures prompt response to consumer grievances. All marketing heads are accessible in their sales offices every day of the week and all complaints are responded to within 48 hours.
"Consumer focus is vital in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) businesses like ours," says S. Swaminathan, the company's vice president for marketing. "Transparency in customer dealings is an enduring doctrine here. Tata Tea's customers are not only those who drink our teas, but also include people who sell our brands in their shops."
Recently, when there was an instance of a quality issue, the company was able to speedily identify the problem and, with the help of its quality and sales team, the matter was resolved within 24 hours. Stocks were immediately retrieved and replaced. "I cannot think about the cost to the company," says Mr Swaminathan, "I must first think about my customers."
The company ensures that all its teas conform to the standards as given by the PFA (Prevention of Food & Adulteration Act). Stocks are checked regularly for freshness at the retailers and any that are old are replaced with fresh packs.
Tata Tea also has to deal with unhealthy practises followed by some local players in the tea industry, such as selling adulterated tea or using look-alike packaging, which not only harms the company's business but can be a threat to their customers' health and safety. Many customers in small towns and rural areas are not educated and their only recognition of a particular brand of tea is its packaging, which includes colours, name and visuals. Imitation packaging usually has the same colours as the original, with a similar logo and brand name in a matching typeface. The company's name and address is often fictitious.
In Andhra Pradesh, where Tata Tea's Gemini is the market leader with a 33 per cent market share, small shops sell Gamini, Jamuna or Geminine tea. Chakra Gold is another strong brand that has often been duplicated. "They always duplicate the leader because that is what sells," says Mr Swaminathan.
Tata Tea has a team dedicated to this issue. "We try to track down these duplicate manufacturers, taking the help of the local police where necessary," says Mr Swaminathan. "We explain to them that what they are doing is inappropriate. They are usually educated but are not always aware of the laws. For instance, we had to explain copyright laws to a person who had put a rhino instead of an elephant on the Gemini pack." The team also educates imitators about the illegality of using similar-sounding names.
These cases, according to Swaminathan, are best settled out of court. The company has a standard settlement contract, which the erring manufacturer must sign, agreeing to stop imitation. Occasionally, however, the company is compelled to take the case to the local court. Legal action has successfully stopped some imitators from continuing with production.
"It's an ongoing battle," says Mr Swaminathan, "Today we stop two people and tomorrow three more begin operations in another area. When they find that the company is on their trail, they move to another place." Once imitators are on the company's list, a sales officer monitors their activities. For repeat offenders the company goes in for judicial process.
It also tries to pre-empt imitators by developing point-of-sale educational material, especially in rural areas, to educate consumers on key elements of its packaging and how to distinguish the original from an imitation. It has also changed the Gemini pack design to incorporate a watermark, which is not that easy to duplicate.
Customer focus is more than being sensitive to consumer preferences, quickly redressing complaints and ensuring that what the customer believes is the company's product is of the highest quality. It dictates that the customer is the only person qualified to specify what quality means. Customers want three things from the company they patronise: a great product, good value for the price and good service. It is because Tata Tea constantly tries to properly balance these three core competencies that it has remained the market leader.