Chai – time with Basilur

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When Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo said – Tea…is a religion of the art of life he really wouldn’t have envisioned that decades down the line, someone would go ahead to position tea and its packaging in the category of luxury and premium products. A Sri Lankan based tea company by the name Basilur went ahead to not only redefine the most unassuming and  mostly taken for granted beverage but also managed to position it at par with any other premium product.

Not so long ago when a proposal came knocking at the girl’s door for a prospective groom, the meeting would culminate over a cup of chai at the girl’s house where members from the boy’s family would more or less judge the culinary skills of their to-be-daughter-in-law from the taste of the tea served. Tea-time breaks are a must for us – whether at home or at work. This simple yet powerful beverage remains indispensible as part of our lifestyle and it has had its share of adulation but more often than not, it is a beverage we have been taking for granted. Though with changing lifestyle dynamics, tea is now catching the fancy of people as a ‘lifestyle’ beverage with the introduction of flavored tea / green tea / iced tea / tea as part of cocktails etc. Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism—Teaism. The popularity of tea is evident from the fact that today there are kiosks for iced tea and on the menu of any restaurant or fast food joint, there are various options available for iced tea too! Cola major Coca Cola recently went ahead to even launch bottled green tea in Taiwan targeting the large tea drinking population residing there. So much so about tea to set the context of what is to follow.

The Basilur Story in India
The story of Basilur in India makes an interesting read. Perhaps the association of tea with marriage is so strong in India that the entry of Basilur in the country too happened based on an event related to a marriage. When Raghav Gupta  and his family were busy preparing for his marriage to take place in December 2011, the thought of gifting ‘tea’ to all the guests being invited for the marriage crossed their minds considering the Gupta family had business in Sri Lanka and they wished to gift something of the Sri Lankan origin. Now this thought further laid the seeds of exploring the options available and Raghav’s mother who was in total awe of Basilur and their marvelous packaging declared there couldn’t be any better option. The idea finally bloomed into the possibility of being the Indian distributors for the brand! Quite a story, isn’t it!

Adding further, he states, “When we approached Basilur for an order of 2000 packs, out of the blue they suggested a business proposal of us representing them in India. Now, we were looking at a new business vertical under SVA considering my younger brother – Abhinav Gupta had recently then finished with his graduation. Looking at the product and the potential, we said…why not??? Well, there has been no looking back since then. We returned to India, did a bit of our own research. We checked the market potential for a brand like Basilur in India which sold tea in the range of Rs. 6000 a kilo and more. Based on the feedback we received and also out of passion of food and beverage that we both brothers have, we decided to go ahead with it. Two months before my wedding date, the first shipment arrived and we were rolling all out then!” According to the Gupta brothers, the USP of Basilur is evident from their business philosophy where they have no intentions of being a part of the mass market. Add Raghav, “Fancy packaging, flavors and unmatchable quality remains our niche and since the beginning Basilur never aimed at being a part of the mass market.”

The brands has presence in about  The very fact that they joined hands with SVA in India to be their partners based just on a relationship building meeting shows that for them the business of tea is much more than just a ‘business’. Passion rules the brand and also connects them to their various partners across the globe. In Russia, they went ahead to create an exclusive label for a chain of supermarkets and they assured them of exclusivity of that particular brand thus refraining from supplying the same brand to other Russian stores and super / hypermarkets. With the Gupta family, the association was based on the meetings they had where all they took into consideration was the dynamism of Raghav and Abhinav and their lifestyle which was exactly what Basilur catered to.  Says Raghav, “From day one, all that we were told was to just keep the brand image in mind and not allow it to get diluted in quest for bigger volumes. Volumes were never thrust on us and they extend all possible support to us to set ourselves in the Indian market. Inspite of us not even featuring in their list of top 10 countries that they export to, they agreed to introduce ginger flavored tea for our Indian patrons.”

Brewing Further
Available at niche food and gourmet stores, Basilur in India was initially welcomed at Foodhall from where their journey began. Says Abhinav, “Future Group’s Foodhall helped us to gain an insight into the world of retail. With them, we initially began our journey and simultaneously we were also listing down the stores we would have liked to see ourselves in.” Initially, the idea behind introducing Basilur in India was to tap the gifting market specially keeping in mind the packaging of the product. They went ahead to suggest Foodhall to keep Basilur as part of the gift hampers for the festive season. The idea worked but simultaneously they also saw a considerable movement of the packets being picked off the shelves and that is when they thought of paying more attention to retail sale. Explains Raghav, “The strategy we adopted was similar to what a luxury apparel brand would adopt. Would they go about to stores asking for a shelf space or would they wait for retail stores having similar brand image to approach them.”

Pitching Basilur tea as a perfect gift for occasions ranging from weddings to festive to just about  anything, the Gupta brothers personally paid attention to the minutest of details  – be it in terms of maintaining relationships to ensuring that the customization of gift hampers was well executed. Reminiscing the arrival of the first shipment in 2011, Raghav shares, “Our experience related to our first shipment is imbibed in our memory. We were confused as to what would really sell hence we ordered a little of everything from the 200 SKUs. As against what we thought would sell well, we were in for a surprise when flavors we really didn’t think would sell actually generated a lot of interested. Till date, each shipment that arrives gives us some new thing to learn!”

Reaching the Boiling Point
The group went ahead to experiment with designing niche programmes to reach to their target audience. Apart from taking part in various trade shows, they would also go ahead and undertake special orders for setting up of tea counters at various high profile weddings / events. With an in-house tea sommelier in place, they take due care to ensure that the brand leaves an impression wherever it travels. Recently, they also got into a tie up with the Mumbai and Delhi Airports where they served 24 variants of our teas as part of a tea festival. Specially designed tea boxes with different flavors were kept before the audience to choose from the variety of flavors. The event generated a lot of interest specially because so far the only flavors that one can usually pick and choose from include masala chai, ginger / green tea and / or regular tea.

With the brand gaining popularity amongst its target audience, today they have huge corporate orders for gifting purposes which are then directly taken care of by the Gupta brothers. Shares Abhinav, “Today, people do not shy away when it comes to experimenting with various gifting options instead of sticking to mithais, chocolates and dry-fruits. Our product scores very well because of the exquisite packaging and not to forget the various flavors that we have to offer.” The idea of gifting Basilur tea as part of Raghav’s wedding helped them to tap the curious minds of their guests who are not a part of their regular clientele.

Adding Flavors
Across the years, the innovations to tap the market includes setting up of tea tasting counters at the high end retail stores that they are present in, keeping a tab of the regular customers and informing them of any new flavors / offers being launched, having a one on one communication with their customers to have a first-hand feedback and incorporate changes in their approach to reach out to them if necessary. Sharing details on the ‘Tea Tastings’ that they carry forth, Abhinav adds, “We do these in various ways. There is a fixed setup at locations such as Foodhall wherein guests can sample the teas and understand the differences in tastes/ flavors from the sommelier on site before buying. We do a range of private functions also where we offer tea tasting sessions for families and guests to learn about tea and the different flavors of tea.”

The group has also gone a step ahead to have a fully comprehensive and delightfully engaging website which not only tutors its patrons on how they can prepare their cup of Basilur tea but also provide options of enrolling for a membership which entitles them to receive a pack of Basilur tea every month. Commenting on this, Raghav says, “Online retailing – Only place where all our flavors are available. We offer free shipping across India and that really opened our eyes to the Indian market because we would receive orders right from Metro cities to Tier 3 cities. We have also partnered with Teach for India wherein we donate a portion of all our online sales.”

Explaining the concept, Abhinav shares, “We offer a different tea every month for an entire year wherein the flavor of each month is dependent on the season and every flavor will be unique. Each box will be sufficient to last the entire month. This concept is growing in India and have a small base but is increasing. People are enjoying the idea for themselves and also gifting it to their loved ones. The selection of teas is done based on a few criteria’s such as weather, client preferences and feedbacks, previous month selection, new arrivals as well as what we feel would be interesting for our clients.”

The Sri Lankan brand seems to be in safe hands of the Gupta brothers who are not leaving any stone unturned to create a niche for it in the Indian market place. Future plans include setting up of exclusive tea lounges in metros and tier 1 cities and the task looks do-able considering they not only have the required passion and enthusiasm to carry it forth but also hundreds of flavors to offer!

– Zainab Morbiwala

penned this feature for STOrai May – June 2013

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