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Published on: June 28, 2020, 10:42 p.m.
The coloured zebra prances on
  • Hemant Jalan moved out of generic cement paints into specialised paints

By Sekhar Seshan. Consulting Editor, Business India

Zebras, as Kiran Khalap, MD and co-founder of brand consultancy Chlorophyll points out, have a very high digestion capacity. “You will never see a thin zebra, as I learned when I was in Tanzania.” Ergo the zebra’s head for his client Indigo Paints – and, because paints mean colours, it had to be a coloured zebra.

Hemant Jalan, founder and managing director of the Pune-headquartered Indigo Paints, says he started the business ‘as a joke’ in Jharkhand two decades ago after visiting a cement paint manufacturer. “I went to the market and assured potential customers that we would give them a bill including taxes. This was something unheard of in this business, so people laughed at me,” he recalls. “But it became our USP!”

Jalan soon realised, however, that Jharkhand was the wrong location for a cement paint plant, as the major raw materials came from Jodhpur. He put a small advertisement in a local newspaper there for a closed small unit on rent. He got one and started manufacturing there.

The company was doing reasonably okay, so he decided to add products like distemper, primer, and emulsion, and took over two units in south India: Kochi in Kerala and Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu. “I had no coherent strategy or vision: I had to fight for survival,” he says. Volumes continued to grow under its four brand names for its four different products, but not fast enough for Jalan’s taste – so he decided to go to a brand consultant.

Chlorophyll ‘collapsed’ the four brands into one. Khalap also advised Jalan to stay away from generic emulsions and create niche products like a metallic finish for walls and special coats for floors and ceilings. This would take Indigo out of the cluttered space for emulsions and make its ads stand out, even with a limited budget. For instance, nobody had ever advertised primer earlier.

Popular packaging

With different price points for the silver, gold and platinum varieties under a monolithic brand which, he says, stand for what the product stands for, the coloured zebra started living up to its tag line, ‘Surprising Solutions’. “If it’s not surprising, let’s not do it!” the agency advised its client. The packaging became so popular that dealers everywhere wanted at least the can if not a dealership, he grins.

Selecting cricket legend M.S. Dhoni as Indigo’s brand ambassador was another good move: a series of tv commercials with him patting a zebra with coloured stripes stays in public memory. With Dhoni skippering csk in the IPL, that city showed four-digit growth, Khalap says – “from a very low base, of course!” Sales of bright ceiling paint in Kerala grew a whopping 99 per cent in 2014-15.

The campaign included painting police chowkies, the boundary walls of the Yerawada Central Jail and Pune Railway Station. “We don’t believe in logos, we create identities!” Khalap adds.

As the new factories came under the Indigo fold, the first product, cement paint, continued to be manufactured only at the parent plant in Jodhpur. Says Pavan Sharma, general manager – technical, who is a 17-year veteran in his first job: “Kochi has only water-based liquid paints, mainly for the Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh-Telangana markets; Pudukottai makes all the solvent-based enamels and wood coatings.”

The coloured zebra continued to gallop, taking the brand from Rs50 crore in 2011, when Chlorophyll took it on, to Rs600 crore in 2018-19. Against the target of Rs850 crore for the following year, however, it rose to only Rs688 crore. Explains Jalan: “Half of our sales in March, which is usually our heaviest month, was lost due to the lockdown.” He has projected a turnover of Rs2,000 crore in four years – a target he says is unaffected by the Covid pandemic – though his plan for an ipo “will probably get delayed by six months”.

“All our plants are open since end-April, after the first lockdown. So far the recovery is fine, but we need more time to assess the real impact,” he admits. Indigo Paints has, however, issued increment letters to all its employees as a measure to help them during the crisis and to build the confidence that they can continue to ride on the coloured zebra.

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