For a long time we did not have any other types of milk other than cow milk or buffalo milk. But things have changed a lot now. There are many other types of milk and milk products that are now available in the market. The same is valid for a wide range of vegetable origin products and natural product categories, observes Rajat K Baisya.

Fresh milk and milk products are all based on cow milk in the western market. Whereas in India, we have most of these products from buffalo milk. And those producing anything from cow milk are talking about this in their promotional mailers, marketing communications and even in product packaging. We have in our market cow ghee, cow cheese and cow milk differentiating their products from the rest, which are based on buffalo milk. Buffalo milk constitutes more than 80% of our total milk production. Buffalo milk has helped India to become the number one milk producer in the world.

Therefore, it is no wonder that cow milk has some uniqueness to claim about. It is low in fat content and easily digestible. In the western world, they don’t have buffalo milk. All dairy products, including butter, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, are from cow milk and invariably pack design of all products will carry a photo of a healthy-looking cow. Of late, however, cow milk consumption is seen to be going down. Milk of vegetable origin is gradually gaining popularity in the market. Youngsters are no longer liking cow milk.

There are two reasons for this. One is the growing population of vegetarians, and cow milk is considered the source of animal protein. And the other reason is the ever-increasing negative perception about milk, and many are talking about some of the negative influences of milk on the human system. I found that many people now consider that milk is not good for them. And in addition, there are people who suffer from lactose intolerance – a syndrome that many children have – and they have already switched over to soya milk. In India, soymilk did not become that much popular because of its ‘beany’ flavor and taste. Whereas soya products like Soya chunk, which is marketed as meat analogue, are an incredibly successful product, Tofu and Soy paneer are also quite popular. Although, a large quantity of soya milk has found its market as a milk volume extender.

Western Market Insights on Milk and Milk Products

For a long time in the global market, both cow milk and soya milk were available, and we had low fat cow milk in tetra pack. We did not have any other types of milk in the market. But things have changed a lot now. Globally, there is an organized movement to support vegetarianism and natural products, including organic products. If shelf stock is any indication, low fat and even zero fat milk are no longer seen to fill the shelf space so much that I have earlier witnessed as a frequent traveller to the western world.

The shelf spaces are now occupied by other vegetable origin products and natural products. Pandemic has changed consumer behaviour drastically. As far as milk and milk products are concerned in western markets, we can see that soya milk-based products are being placed on the retail shelf in larger quantities. In addition, there are many other types of milk and milk products that are now available in the market and sold in large quantities.

During my recent trip to Europe on work, I studied the changes in consumer preferences of the western population. I have found that there are a lot of new products introduced in the market. Many new companies made entry into the market, and most of them are in the MSME categories. These products sell in the marketplace if their stock level on the retail shelf is any indication. The same is valid for a wide range of product categories.

Take the case of beer, there are at least a dozen brands available now in the market, and all these brands are doing well. They are available in many variants like IPA, meaning Indian Pale Ale which is fruity tasting beer and quite popular in the western market. These brands are selling in high volume. Beers are also sold in different alcohol concentrations, a large volume of beer is sold with zero alcohol.

Even large global companies like Heineken and other global brands have zero alcohol beer in the market, and they also taste exactly like normal beer. The production method is similar to regular beer, and then alcohol is distilled out, which makes the taste similar. We don’t get all these variations in the Indian market. We also don’t have so many brands, particularly beer, from MSME companies.

The retail trade and distribution system support smaller companies in the western market. But that is not the case in our domestic market, where MSME find it extremely difficult to establish a brand with a low or nil advertisement budget and little or no trade support. MSMEs in India thus struggle for existence.

Changing Preferences: The Shift Away from Cow Milk

Plant-based vegetarian milk is gaining increased popularity. On the retail shelves, we can see Oat’s milk. A popular brand is Oat-Ly which is Oat’s Milk in tetra pack. Looking at the stock level in retail outlets, I find that the product is stocked alongside cow milk and movement is quite good. Most of the people I talked to have now shifted to oats milk. The packaging also gives a natural and traditional matt finish. I have tried that product and found it very close to cow milk in terms of taste and mouth-feel. Now I am regularly taking this brand of oats milk in my breakfast along with cereals.

The packaging design is also quite attractive, which will motivate you to read the pack. On all sides of the package, they say ‘vow, no cow’ when all others selling cow milk mention the fact that they are cow milk and invariable showing or depicting a photo or picture of a cow. As against that, Oat-Ly talks about no cow, which attracts consumer attention. On one side of the pack, it is mentioned on the top ‘boring information’ and then in smaller font ‘but important’. On the side panel, they talk about the product, give the list of ingredients and nutritional information, various usage of the product etc.

oat milk
Fig 1: Front panel and two side panels of Oat milk.

The reality is that such information is boring, but will any marketer in India have that kind of sense of fun or courage to mention that they are boring information. Even consumers and regulators will take objection. But in western Europe, marketers have the freedom to say all these to make communication effective and that works beautifully well for their market. This product is doing very well. A snapshot of this brand of oats milk is shown in Fig 1.

The regulatory environment, as well as consumers in the developed countries, are favorable for marketers and innovators to experiment to differentiate their products which help them to succeed. After tasting and regularly consuming Oat’s Milk, the thought that is going in my mind is, if our regular cow and buffalo milk going to experience trouble? There may not be any threat in the near future, but in the distant future, it might be. Who knows? Only time will tell.

Author is the chairman of Strategic Consulting Group and served as Professor and Head of the Department of Management Studies, IIT Delhi.

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