Dip dip at a tea stall in Noida

Is the humble biscuit getting its rightful “bang” from the market? Are the bucks spent on producing and designing biscuit packaging delivering the most “bang for the buck?” Over tea and biscuits at a popular café, Debabrata Deb, an experienced packaging industry stalwart meets Deepak Manchanda to discuss the current scene in biscuit packaging. Both are packaging technologists, with a long perspective on the evolution of the industry. The free-wheeling conversation drifts to observations on the current state of design of biscuit packs and onwards to opinions about the tremendous potential of the biscuit industry itself.

DM: The biscuits served here are good. They are so crisp, nutty and yummy compared to the aam admi packaged biscuits we get at the neighborhood grocer. Why don’t packaged biscuits today have the fresh-baked aroma and taste and get delivered biscuit powder-free and unbroken in packs that are convenient to open and use? In fact, I think the imported biscuit varieties are so much more interesting and better presented and might be offering a better value proposition even for the aam admi at some levels.

DD: Well, to begin with, what you get at these tea parlors are not biscuits in the real sense – these are cookies. I believe cookies were first invented as a nutritious food for sailors going on long voyages and that makes them full of rich fats and proteins. Sadly, the aam admi in India is too far removed from the joys of a well-made cookie. You know, I believe India is among the largest producers of biscuits in the world and yet the per capita consumption stands at a dismal 1.5 kilograms. Over 900 million Indians consume biscuits in some form or the other.

At the base of this consuming pyramid stand the popular varieties — Parle G and Tiger. This alone constitutes about 40% of the total market estimated around Rs 3000 crores (approximately US$ 600 million). And if you add the Marie category to that figure, it amounts to almost 80% of the branded biscuit market. These are just the guesstimates for the branded market. Add the unbranded, unorganized biscuit market and you get a colossal figure almost double the size. I’m sure you can appreciate how large these numbers are.

A market of this size has the potential to influence not only the development of packaging materials and machines but the social sector too. And that, you know, is what saddens me. Here is a truly great market — one of the mega markets that India can be proud of, like dairy and agro products. What saddens me is to see how the controllers of this great market – the biscuit-walas — are just not doing enough in the ‘right directions’ to qualitatively improve the product offering and thereby leverage the industry to what I believe could be a world-beater – you know, even something like our IT industry.

DM: Those are strong comments. But don’t forget our biscuit market is largely a “chai-wala, dip dip” market. I mean, a biscuit is mostly sold as a tea time snack to be easily affordable to the mass market. Such products are driven by price points and have no pretensions of being world-class.

DD: Precisely. It is just this irrational quest for low-price packaging that I find short-sighted and self-defeating. Consider this: Typical laminate specs for a so-called mass-market biscuit pack laminate are – 15-micron BOPP laminated to 15-micron White Opaque Heat Sealable BOPP. The resulting reduced GSM laminate is justified for its reduced cost and by the argument that it is for a “fast-moving product.” We forget that India is a vast country with varying geography, climate, culture, environment, logistics, markets, and economic strata. We also forget that major sales of biscuits are reported from semi-rural towns with populations less than a lakh. We see how the biscuits that are sold to us are often layered with biscuit dust or broken, soggy or brittle, or simply off-flavor.

As packaging industry insiders, we know how reduced laminate specs can lead to seal integrity problems or pin-holing that lets in moisture and leads to flavor loss. Not just that; print designs on the packs cannot remain smooth in packs with flimsy laminate because the biscuit “ridges” and silhouettes interfere with the appearance. This is what I find self-defeating. You make good biscuits and then you pack them in inadequate packs and then go out to the customers hoping they will accept sub-standard quality just to save a few paise.

DM: You don’t argue with hunger and poverty. Every fraction of a paisa shaved off the laminate cost of a mega-market product can be the difference between creating affordability and deprivation. For a brand manager, there is no better argument than an improved margin.

DD: And here is the short-sightedness. A reduced cost laminate is not necessarily the best for the brand. Brand managers are also concerned about achieving penetration – market penetration! Compare: A 15-micron BOPP/15-micron HSBOPP laminate replaced by a sturdier version – an 18-micron BOPP/18-micron HSBOPP, which is thicker. Such a laminate will have so many more obvious benefits. Let me list them out:

– Less machine wastage and down-time
– Faster machine running speeds
– Higher BOPP opacity
– Better barrier protection
– Lower biscuit breakage
– Better tactile feel
– No ugly ‘ridge’ marks of biscuit edges.
– Less chance of odor contamination by shop environment

In fact, I believe, the 15mic BOPP film standard in India was created primarily due to the cheap biscuit pack demand. On the other hand, if all demand was to be clubbed into the 18mic slot, I’m sure it would create more flexible deckle utilization and in consequence better production efficiencies that could be passed on to customers.

I simply cannot see why anyone should have a problem seeing the benefit of such a packaging change. A heavier laminate will allow the product to stay fresh longer and even reach markets not capable of being tapped earlier. This is what I would term “net value delivery”, that is a trade-off between a marginally higher packaging cost versus a more efficient pack and delivery system.

DM: Your arguments are undeniable, but I’m sorry I still speak for the margin starved brand manager when he goes for the price cut. I mean, as packaging technologists we also have to consider our traditional role in the business organization. We have to ensure that the pack “works” and yet yields the desired margins for the business.

DD: In my view, this is not insurmountable. A bit of ‘smart design’ can balance the equation. What I see as “print designs” in the popular category market today are largely high ink consumption designs. Typically a 15-micron BOPP film (13.6 gsm) uses a high ink coverage design which often extends even into the sealing zones. On average I’ve seen ink coverage gsm’s up to 0.9 gsm which also results in higher adhesive coverage requirements up to 1.2 gsm.

Replace this situation with a smart design with sparse usage of ink and I daresay you could even bring down the ink consumption to as low as 0.5 gsm with a resulting bonus reduction in the adhesive consumption requirement too. In total this could lead to an overall increase of 5 or even 6 gsm in the laminate structure. I agree that could be quite significant cost-wise. But again, think of the ‘net value delivery,’ that is the cascading packing and handling efficiency benefits as well as the resulting reduced impact of less ink and adhesive processing on the environment and it definitely seems worth consideration.

DM: But I don’t think we can blame ALL biscuit-walas for their poor choice of laminate structures. For instance, I have observed that some brands, even in the “popular” category are not into the “cut-price” laminates; their appearance is evidently superior within the competitive price band and obviously intended to gain the confidence of the customer looking for better quality.

DD: That’s true. One cannot blame the entire industry but I do consider the majority to be technically ill-informed and unimaginative in their choice of packaging. By and large, I have observed not only insufficient packaging but also outmoded, manpower-intensive methods of end-of-line handling and secondary packaging. The end-of-line of a typical biscuit line in India is crowded with sorters, tray-packers, bag fillers, and case packers. I don’t believe the full potential of video-enabled biscuit sorting or robotic handling at the packing lines is being exploited.

DM: Nowadays there are several imported brands of biscuits in the shops and several of them do not appear to be in the BOPP/BOPP laminate uniform. For example, I’ve seen examples of partly clear laminate packs through which you can glimpse the quality of the product inside. This feature is not offered by Indian brands. Some imported packs have a matte, paper-like, natural material feel that gives them a superior image when compared to the glossy, “plasticky” appearance of the domestic brands. It gives me the impression that the local popular brands are following each other in practices rather than exploring new technology options and creating niches of their own.

DD: Exactly, I was coming to that. Our vision of biscuit packaging should not be limited to BOPP laminates alone. Of course, we know the biscuit market can be broadly categorized: Popular – Parle G, Tiger; Medium – Milk Bikis, Super Milk; and Premium – Good Day, Monaco, and others. Another emerging segment is the Sweet and Savoury – Fifty Fifty, Krackjack.  Each category obviously has its own market dynamics and the Premium or Niche categories offer a better chance for creating imaginative pack designs. But it’s really the popular category where the real design and technology challenge exists!

DM: You mean thinking beyond laminates? Would that mean, surface printed monolayer barrier films, for example?

DD: Why not? What about pearlized film, which I’ve already seen used in some cases. It’s an excellent way to create design effects as well as protect against the possibility of oil-staining that could happen when biscuit fats penetrate the film.

DM: I know in fact, I think the unorganized sector appears to have a more flexible approach towards the use of single-layer films and seems to be more willing to experiment with their product offerings. As you were just saying, in the semi-rural markets the unbranded segment would offer stiff competition to branded packs unless the packaging can match-up in deliverables.

DD: You said it. The “humble biscuit” is perhaps unique in its ability to “connect” with consumer strata across categories. It can enjoy the status of a popular snack-food; a nutritious energy food for the health-conscious; a mouth-watering snobbish treat for the food fashionistas; or even a mid-day meal substitute for millions of school children in government schools. In fact, within the vast market in which it exists, the biscuit appears in many avtars and it often blurs the lines between confectionery, snack-food, and health-food. Few products in the retail market today exist in the myriad forms within which biscuits can be found. From the “aam admi” glucose biscuit packs of Rs 4 to elegantly produced “taster” (assortment) gift packs in the Rs 400 range, each offering aims to create its own space in the market.

This is what I meant when I said that our biscuit-walas must come out of their chai-chai, portion-pack mindset. Over the years several new technologies have emerged that can allow imaginative new packs for biscuits to be produced – even at the “popular” or “medium” price levels, without relying on laminates.

To mention just a couple of examples: carton packs for some biscuits are currently produced using reverse-printed PET film laminated to white Duplex board. The PET film is gravure printed. The resulting pack is expensive, flimsy, and cheap looking. I think a better result would be achieved by substituting the PET laminate with surface printed box-board of a lower gsm, duly finished with a non-toxic varnish. Adequate structural strength could be achieved by the use of inner-trays or intermediate monolayer film flow-wraps. The result would not only be more appealing but also environment friendly.

Carton production automation has undergone several technology upgrades since the early days when you and I were starting out in the industry. Unlike the old days when window-patching and multi-spot gluing were viewed as bottle-neck operations, nowadays such processes can be done efficiently and speedily. I think this allows a tremendous opportunity for carton designs to evolve and their full potential to be exploited. For example, the obvious benefits of having Display-Dispenser Packs at check-out counters has not yet been fully realized for the biscuit product category. After all, don’t forget even popular confectionery is sold at check-out counters or roadside shops in Dispenser Packs.

DM: That’s true. I cannot remember seeing any biscuit displays at the checkout counters like we see so much confectionery and chocolates.

DD: If you ask me the entire biscuit business from India has the potential to be a world-beater. Look at it – we have a huge domestic market to underpin the demand. We have an undernourished child population eager to get access to affordable means of nourishment. We have vast agro and horticulture resources that can be processed to create innovative new biscuit-food, snacks, health, and confectionery product concepts.

We have mega markets and we have mini markets. We need packs in millions and yet we need packs in thousands too. We need to look beyond shaving a few paise off the cost of a laminate and look at the bigger picture instead. The industry needs to seek favorable subsidies from the Government to leverage the business instead of cutting quality to achieve margins. Above all, I believe we need innovation to create the means to harness these apparent contradictions into a uniquely Indian business model.

DM: Are we talking beyond biscuit packaging?

DD: Yes, I’m talking about creating the means and circumstances to create biscuit varieties that combine the health benefits of fruit, for example, with the convenience and taste of a cookie. I’m saying why not produce unique new products from world-class factories in numbers and packaging quality that could go anywhere in the world.

Why not create short-run flexibility; value without waste; machines to handle variety; and above all low-cost robotics that can ensure foolproof quality and handling. Why not align the focus of the upcoming Food Processing Zones towards such a vision? Why not encourage the co-operative model – as was used so successfully for milk – to work in the biscuit sector for its obvious potential to favorably impact the social sector and deliver health benefits to the population. As they say, why not — a paradigm shift? Why not consider creating more biscuit markets instead of encouraging the production and sale of pan masala?

DM: In a way, I think you are thinking of raising the status of the biscuit from simply a functional product, or at best a fun-snack to a kind of “saintly” national icon of nourishment. In this context, we have to acknowledge the Parle Glucose biscuit. It stands for nourishment. It stands for affordability. It is a great leveler of social strata. Interestingly, the pack graphics have remained largely unchanged over all these years, while the laminate itself has upgraded from the old waxed paper to PP film… Thanks, DD, for this inspiring discussion, and I do hope some of the vision you have described could be made to come true.

This article was originally published in Packaging South Asia’s May-June 2009 print issue.

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Deepak Manchanda
An engineering graduate from BITS, Pilani and a Post-Graduate Diploma from Milan, Italy in Human Factors Engineering. Over 40 years of work experience in branding, packaging design & development. Worked as Head of Packaging at Oriflame – Silver Oak; Dabur India and Ranbaxy Laboratories. Currently - an Associate with The Packaging Consortium – a packaging development consultancy. Worked closely with Jindal Polymer Films for Application Development of Specialty Films for flexible packaging. Now a packaging consultant for some reputed companies. He is also an Associate Director with Firstouch Solutions – a design company providing services in Brand Comm, Packaging, Exhibitions and Branded Retail Environments. He is closely associated with the Indian Institute of Packaging as a Member of the Northern Regional Committee. He is also active as a contributor to Packaging South Asia magazine and other journals and at forums and conferences. Has been writing articles on packaging design and marketing for Packaging South Asia since 2007.