Monday, December 6, 2010

Whose Mutter Paneer is it Anyway?

Whose Mutter Paneer is it anyway?
Bas naam hi kafi hai. Or what Shakespeare asked, ‘What’s in a name?’ Actually...
Mutter Paneer is neither an invention,  nor is it a discovery. We cannot even trace back its origins. What we know confidently is that, our mother knows how to cook it best and our fingers can vouch for it. Cannot say about any other dish, but Mutter Paneer happens to be the most easily available dish in any part of the country, readily understood and widely consumed. However what changes from plate to plate is the color, texture, taste and appeal for the senses.
I am married to a hard core Vegetarian and what I have learnt is that, she is bored of it. All her life she has had it almost so regularly that when it’s time for her to cook in our kitchen, it is the last preference in our menu.
So we decided to not cook at home and find ways to appease our hunger for Mutter Paneer somewhere else.
To our surprise, as a dish it was easily available at any retail outlet in a packaged format. More literally speaking, in today’s consumerization, a ready to eat format. Or more precisely, pre cooked only heating required before eating. There were many brands available on the shelf that were offering not just Mutter Paneer but a range of other delicious variants like Dal makhani, chole, chicken and what not.
But before I delve further in the modern retail scenario and the availability issues, what makes me think about, is the inception.
Our tiffin box is probably the closest ancestor that I can think of. My mother used to give me home cooked food in my tiffin box so I could eat properly and not run after the street food which not be so hygienic. She used to cook fresh every morning and pack the tiffin with some chapattis, one subji, pieces of carrots, two cream biscuits as sweets etc. Normally the menu was different at least three-four days a week unless there was some demanded repetition. Eating out experience was first in school. You could also share or mix the subji from other friends and create your own lunch plate. Otherwise eating out, I mean, eating in restaurants was a seldom affair and we used to go out only on occasions. Special ones I must say, like birthday or parent’s anniversary.  
I also remember and I am sure others will recall, when I was young and used to go away from home for studies, outside of home town, my mother used to pack some dry snacks in a steel container for me. This was meant for those lonely nights when I would be (expectedly) studying and feel hungry in the middle of the night. These were the delicacies, intended to remind that someone somewhere really takes care of you and is watching you while you ‘study’. Not sure about the later half but definitely the remembrance would drive the deepest of emotions and compel me to study harder. Mission achieved. I would often keep them stored inside in the most secretive place to avoid being noticed by my other outstation friends, as this was something you did not want to share. Without being selfish, I would share a fraction of that on the day I would arrive and declare assets as finished.
Marrying the two thoughts as narrated above, I realize that ready to eat (heat and eat) food category is doing macroscopically abysmally. The brands are just not getting what they are expected to do and don’t do eventually and get nowhere but on the shelves.
If you look closely, stop at any of the food category aisles and watch the Ready to eat food brand packages, you will be surprised to see how Mutter Paneer looks so different from each other. Everybody is trying to sell you Mutter Paneer, and that is, but ironically want us to decide which one tastes better by selecting which one looks better. And the whole game is this. It is like a game.
You will never win if you were to compare any of these with what your mother cooked and served at home.
Recently while working for a foods company (as a brand design consultant), who have a range of products in the ready to eat (heat and eat) segment, I was actually confused about what should the ‘brand design speak’.
Several marketing / branding platforms have been tried in the last ten years but none have seemed to work for any one of them, at least in my view.
In the beginning, as an entry strategy or category creation move, brands looked at the time factor and used the scarcity of it, to convince the harrowed customer. The critical factor is the paucity of time to cook for a working woman. Because she is so busy with work, has to manage family and profession, has to take care of kids and adults, has to manage the kitchen and office, she ends up running behind schedule, quite often. And therefore she looks for something that is quick, easy to manage, less tiring and satisfying for all. So she picks up Ready to Eat (heat and eat) products from the shelf on her way home and makes her life easier. But is this true? Is she really the one who is moving the SKU’s from the shelves? Does she feel guilty about the short cut she adopts or the excuse for not cooking?
Another way of looking at time, is the lengthiness of the recipe. There are some foods which taste good when cooked as per the recipe. There are particular women, who follow a cooking process. They are the ones who do every step of the cooking to make sure that it tastes just like the veterans (their mothers or mother in-laws). They are keen to prepare different delicacies at home but feel short of right recipes, information or inspiration. The cookery shows, magazines do not motivate them much as they seem to be over indulging with ingredients, materials and preparation. For them it was a bonus but didn’t go down well as it lacked the “touch”. For us, Indians, there has to be that touch or haath ka kamal to appreciate the consumption.
The other strategy was price. This was meant for consumers who often got tempted to eat out but could not spend a couple of hundreds. India is a population of struggler's. We are always running around to make two ends meet. Our lives are like railway tracks. The tracks never meet, the track for income and the track for leisure. Meet if anytime, it is always a compromising situation. For the not so well off households, this was something that came as relief from pressure. Highly economical compared to restaurants and above all in the comfort of home watching TV. But what struck negatively is the limited quantity, less of mutter and paneer and more of curry, inability to fill the stomach aptly. Given that all Indian households are not ‘hum do and humare ek’ or even ‘ hum do aur humare do’.  But in average, families are more or less large, with at least three adults, of which two could be senior adults. If we are talking about ‘hum do and humare ek’ specifically then they are not the ones deprived of currency or ambition. But in regular Indian family of four or five, it is often arranged as an accompaniment and not the main course. While two things would be cooked, like one subzi and dal, this modern ready to eat Mutter Paneer would be served as an additive/ topping.
The other strategy was to target the well off. The segment which is considered as the shopper of Indian retail. High disposable income, travelled, educated , brand conscious and aspiring. They are looking for experiences out of the normal. They have the will and wit but rarer by choices. The strategy was to ignite the temptation of high life, fine dining, exotic mouth watering delicacy. The kinds that are served in so called Indian five stars, where dining is only a gift for someone you love or on invitation. But then everyday you cannot have dinner at a five star. And if you are the likes of those who have dinner at five stars, then we are not talking to you. So, to bring the sensation and the experience home, neighbours envy owners pride types, this was something special. The strategy was to attest the recipe or taste by the Chefs of five star hotels. This X Mutter Paneer has been prepared from the recipe books of the chefs of Nawaab’s/ Indian Maharaja’s. It didn’t cut ice as health was a concern, lot of Masala has been restricted, pills are more than the will at heart. Besides, the perception developed that to make the taste exotic, possibly there are artificial ingredients or flavourings or color used that would have adverse effect on the health.
Yeh bhi gaya kam se!
Now it was the turn to make us feel miserable and emotional together. That you live away from home and are deprived of good food is not your fault. It is your destiny. An insight used as strategy to appease the loners, near and dear one’s away from home thousand miles away. It was supposed to work with the youngsters who would get bored of eating out of tiffin everyday or could not afford junk food everyday affecting their health adversely. So Mutter Paneer that tastes like your mother’s recipe, as if cooked in your home kitchen in Lapata-gunj (a small town in a difficult to locate city on the map of India). If you are away from home, you miss the food that your mother prepared for you with all the spices of love, ingredients of Mamta and made you feel so special. But even this didn’t cut through with a generation hardly found in the four walls of what is called home away from home. Life is a struggle and even more struggling is to manage expenses. On top of it who cooks at home when there is “Raghu” downstairs giving you credit period for his smoky egg omelette's and hot tea with rusk or universally acclaimed Indian vada pav for Rs 5. If it is about substituting the taste of mother’s hand cooked food, then it is an illusion. Competition in today’s world cannot taste good with illusion.
And that you are staying in strange land is your company’s fault (to say the least). You were born and brought up in Bihar, studied in Delhi, graduated from Bengaluru, working in Chennai and married to a Gujarati.  Who is to be blamed for that? No one but your own self. So when you miss Delhi go and grab an Heinz Kitchen Klassic Amritsari Chole pack and if you miss your mamta pick up KCDas rasgulla, if you miss your friends pick up MTR Rasam Rice and if you love your wife so much get a Vimal Dhokla. Distances and memories were being challenged in the most myopic way. A generation that networks through bbm, lives on facebook, shops on ebay, meets on skype, shares on you-tube, will they need food to connect and express their emotions, knowing that nobody can ever prepare or compare with the Aloo parantha outside your college which you had with your un-facebook friends, whose memories are only there on a 5X7 Kodak photo paper.   
So finally we come back to Mutter Paneer.
How wisely all the Mutter Panner’s on the different packs look so different? With as many looks are as many questions of where is the ready to eat – heat and eat Mutter Paneer going to go. Who is the next cook, chef, loner or where is my kitchen?
What is the next wave of brand positioning? How do we make a Haldirams/ Kurkure/Polo/Mountain Dew/Alpenliebe/5 Star/ Fanta/Bisleri out of Ready to eat – heat and eat or any other in the category?

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