A fact commonly overlooked about India is that it is home to Ayurveda, an ancient system of medicine. Ayurveda is seen by several Indians as an alternative, healthier medicinal system as it is based completely on natural products.
In 1917, Ram Dayal Joshi Sharma and Ram Narayan Sharma, who are brothers, co-founded the Baidyanath Group to commercially manufacture ayurvedic medicine. Baidyanath immortalized Ayurveda for millions of Indians, eventually pivoting into several successful businesses such as Ayurveda research.
Ayurveda has seen a new lease of life during the coronavirus lockdown, as Indians are increasingly looking for natural products to boost their immune system to combat the virus. In March, Milkbasket, an e-commerce company, said that sales of products like honey and herbal tea had increased by 17% month on month. The Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH), which is tasked with promoting the development of indigenous medicine like Ayurveda, even released an advisory in January detailing ayurvedic methods to be used against the coronavirus. (While trials have shown the drug dexamethasone can lessen the impact of severe disease in patients, there is currently no known vaccine or treatment against COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus.)
At a time when Ayurveda is more relevant than ever, Baidyanath is looking to capitalize on the wave by becoming more mainstream and diversifying from its core business.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Siddhesh Sharma, a third-generation scion of Baidyanath and president of the company, about his vision for the firm and his new ventures in a field very different from what Baidyanath usually does: beverages. Sharma’s journey stands out as it is rooted deeply in his personal experience as a professional tennis player.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Ankita Mukhopadhyay: Baidyanath has a century-old legacy, yet the brand continues to be associated with older people. How do you plan to make Baidyanath a more accessible brand for millennials?
Siddhesh Sharma: Baidyanath focuses on a particular age group and demographic by design, but that’s not our objective. That said, for us to be relevant and to continue our legacy, we have to start making ourselves more relatable to the youth. We are slowly doing that.
The new ventures are all based on the science and know-how we have at Baidyanath. They are under the ambit of a new venture, but the research and development behind the venture is our Ayurvedic know-how that was built over 100 years.
At Baidyanath, meanwhile, we are trying to change format of certain preparations to reach a larger audience. For example, churan (powdered herbs) are now available in easier formats like tablets or capsules. This has made it easier for people to consume the old remedies in a new format.
Mukhopadhyay: Baidyanath has a set business with market leadership in several products. Why did you choose to diversify into the drinks segment at this point of time?
Sharma: I would like to rewind back a few years. I used to play tennis competitively since a young age. I won the silver medal at the national levels in India when I was 17. I qualified to represent India at the Davis Cup.
I have gotten significant exposure to what sports demands in terms of beverages. However, many of my teammates left India for many reasons. India has weaknesses such as infrastructure, nutrition, health, etc. I also eventually left India to pursue my engineering degree at Nottingham University in England.
Nottingham is also a great sports university. It has an amazing sports center where the pre-Wimbledon tournament is conducted. It was a great fit for me, as I could pursue my education and tennis side-by-side. When I started playing professionally in the UK, I realized that all our fitness coaches and tennis trainers paid more attention to our diet and hydration, as compared to those in India.
Because of this reason, while I trained lesser than what I used to in India, I was playing way better tennis and winning more matches. When I came back to India during the vacations, I realized how difficult it was for me to buy good ready-to-drink beverages in the Indian market. There were no lifestyle drinks that were healthy and every other drink was full of sugar, chemicals, preservatives and other nasty ingredients. I had set a goal back then — I will certainly do something in this space whenever the time’s right.
Fast forward to 2014. My entire passion for tennis led me to make a small investment in a tennis league here in India. By 2014, the whole food industry had also changed in India.
But there was still a gap in terms of the beverages we bought off the shelf. The ready-to-drink beverage category, where functional drinks are growing, we are still in a very nascent stage as compared to the US or anywhere in the West. I thought that this was a good time to venture into this space.
This led me to start working on the beverages. However, a drink based on Ayurveda and herbs was my number one priority. A hundred years of R&D, knowledge and know-how can’t be replaced or bought out. I was very clear from day one that I will lead my beverages with the super herbs or herbs story. But eventually, we will also have fortified vitamins, minerals, electrolytes in the waters and then launch the brand. That’s why the venture is also called Naturedge Beverages Pvt Ltd. because I want to focus on ready-to-drink products [and] I currently see a huge gap in the Indian market. That’s the background of my journey into drinks.
Mukhopadhyay: How do you plan to scale up your beverage company, Naturedge Beverages?
Sharma: Naturedge Beverages are functional drinks in nature. When I say functional, that means less sugar, low calories. The whole idea is that we grow slowly but surely, in Mumbai, Bangalore and the Delhi national capital region — three major hotspots of the country.
We are growing across all channels and we are very widely present in all modern-day chains in India such as 24Seven or Le Marche. We are in phase one, where we don’t want early adopters but an early majority. Early adopters will only take you to a certain distance. When you target an early majority, you’re looking at a sizeable chunk of the market share and you can reach the mark of 1 billion rupees [$13.3 million] mark in two to three years.
We are growing across all channels — modern trade, general trade and even hotels, restaurants and cafes. We are not leaving out any particular channel because we want to create that 360-degree impact. You know how difficult it is in the beverages industry as the industry is dominated by some big players. It’s a very difficult and competitive industry — with fast-moving consumer goods and beverages, the margins are cut-throat. At the same time, the market is so huge. If we are able to grow, if we are able to correctly do this, we can make a big dent in the industry.
Mukhopadhyay: Is there a certain target audience for your products?
Sharma: My whole idea of getting into beverages was that we don’t confine ourselves to the sports hydration industry only, because then that would make us very small in terms of the market share.
The idea was that I won’t just restrict the audience to sports or highly athletic individuals. The idea is to replace your everyday unhealthy drink with a healthy drink for any occasion. We are targeting the age groups of 25 to 40 because that’s the early majority in terms of the target audience. But we are definitely great in terms of benefits for anyone who is 6 years old to someone older like 18.
Millennials today want Ayurveda in their lives — they just don’t know how to. With Shunya drinks, I can cater to all those millennials and the Gen Z, who can embrace Ayurveda in their lives but are confused on how to have it. The idea is to actually offer great-tasting healthy drinks packed with the power of super herbs. Which is why we have both fizz and non-fizz variants.
Unlike the common perception, fizz is not all bad. Carbonated drinks have always been seen as evil and unhealthy, which is why people stay away from aerated drinks. Now, the funny thing is that most of the world is drinking sparkling water, right? It’s not that carbonation in drinks is harmful. It is just that, historically, all drinks in India have had a lot of sugar, chemicals and preservatives. [It] doesn’t mean that the sector doesn’t have any demand.
You will admit that, sometimes, you are tempted to have something aerated because it gives you that refreshing feeling. Which is why we have gone ahead and done the fizz variants in our beverage range. Our target age group is currently 25 to 40 because they are the ones who are constantly looking out for newer products.
I took four years to launch my products because I was clear that I don’t want to compromise on formulations. I wanted to be clear on the fact that whatever ingredients we use is as clean as possible and we arguably create one of the healthiest drinks you can buy in a bottle or a can in the world.
This means that the ingredients are slightly costly. So, if you notice, our beverages are 60 rupees [$0.80] a can and 75 rupees a bottle. We are more expensive than a mainstream brand, as the quality of our ingredients matter the most to us.
We are focusing in phase one on people between 25 and 40 because these are the young professionals, who want to take care of themselves, who can afford to pay a premium of 10 to 15 bucks more for their health. We have actually done clinical trials on our products. All drinks across the category are healthy for kids and diabetic patients.
I was clear that in my beverage brands, the formulations will always lead with the Ayurveda story and then come down to other functional benefits of a drink. We are leading our story with Ayurveda ingredients and flagship ingredients like Brahmi, Khus and Kokum. Globally today Ayurveda is very acceptable.
Several companies outside India have built an entire portfolio of products mainly based on Ashwagandha. It’s clear that everybody wants plant-based and natural ingredients now. When you say natural, the first thing that comes to your mind is Ayurveda. In India, the Gen Z and millennial generation are very evolved in their thought process — they are influenced by the West, but they are very accepting of something home grown.
Millennials today want Ayurveda in their lives — they just don’t know how to. If we can introduce that in the form of Shunya [drink brand], then I can cater to all those millennials and the Gen Z, who can embrace Ayurveda in their lives but are confused on how to have it. That was the whole idea of merging Ayurveda in beverages.
Mukhopadhyay: What exactly constituted the research in your products? What were you looking at?
Sharma: In December 2014, I had four key things on my wish list. First, the beverage has to taste well. At the end of the day, if you don’t like the taste, you won’t like the product. Second, we wanted it to be a very healthy drink. Third was that we will add no artificial ingredient. The fourth was we will have no sugar. We didn’t want to do this funny thing where we say no sugar and have this asterisk where we say fructose or fruit sugar has been added. These were the four pillars of our research — great taste, a healthy beverage, no artificial ingredients and no sugar.
The herbal story is something we understood well at Baidyanath. If I genuinely need to make a truly healthy beverage, then I need to extend the benefits of the drink even outside the purview of Ayurveda. Many drinks which have made millions worldwide are either vitamin-fortified or hydration drinks like Gatorade. They have electrolytes and certain minerals. Abroad, people need a reason to hydrate. In India, that isn’t the case. We are a water-drinking nation. In Shunya, we have got a full range of B vitamins and we have got vitamin C. Statistics say that 80% of Indians are deficient of the minimum vitamin allowance. Today, if you have a bottle of Shunya, that one bottle gives you 50% daily allowance of all vitamins.
I was very stubborn about the ingredients. There was a time when I had to replace one ingredient, and there were replacements available, but I wanted to replace it with the best. I had literally put everything on hold to wait for that ingredient to come up from the lab.
All these energy drinks, highly-caffeinated drinks and, of course, the energy drinks — such as Red Bull and Monster — have high quantities of chemicals like taurine. This, along with copious amounts of sugar, really spikes our blood sugar level at a rapid rate. This is the worst thing you can do to your body. Which is why on our label, we very clearly say that we add no flavors, no caffeine and nothing artificial.
Mukhopadhyay: Why did you start an entrepreneurial journey?
Sharma: I grew up in a business family and [was] surrounded by businessmen. I was also very passionate about the science of Ayurveda since a young age. My grandfather [wrote] a book on Ayurveda and the great benefits of the ancient science. The vision that he had with Baidyanath eventually came to my father. I was always proud and happy that this is something our family is doing — preserving the ancient Indian science in an era of allopathy and toxic effects of other medicines. I was always very keen to get into this business and make an impact.
After I finished my dual degree course in England, I had the option to stay back and continue to work there. There was a Rolls Royce manufacturing plant close to my university and I had an opportunity there. But I was very clear that I wanted to come back and create an impact on the Indian business ecosystem. We can see that the family businesses in India are like none other in the world in terms of their contribution toward the GDP. I never gave it a second thought. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
My brother and I have always felt that there’s a legacy that we have to take forward. Not many people have an opportunity that we do to take forward a business. The responsibility of having this platform is huge. While my father and grandfather took Ayurveda national, it is my responsibility to take it global. Which is why we are in 20 to 25 countries and growing at a very fast rate.
The way I think personally is that it’s great to be in the startup ecosystem and it makes you learn so much because you are running a reasonably big company with a 100-year-old legacy. It is great to also start from scratch and learn the various dynamic things that happen when you start a new business.
Which is why [I got] into Naturedge Beverages. I want to position myself as a strong health entrepreneur and ensure that people trust and have faith in our food, supplements, beverages and pharmaceutical products.
Product is the hero, but we are also building a nice community around it. Which is why we are using social media and all these below-the-line activities that are not like the traditional medium of billboards. We are not immediately getting an endorsement with a big name either. We are focusing on more on-the-ground activities, collaborating with the best events, any event like yoga, Pilates, where people are trying to seek an alternate product for a healthy lifestyle. A Gen Z or millennial is smart. They won’t buy a product just because a big star is endorsing it. They would rather look at an influencer the brand is collaborating with. This is the style of marketing we are adopting with our brands.
Mukhopadhyay: You have also launched an “anti-hangover” shot. Why did you choose to focus on an anti-hangover shot, and how do you differentiate it from other products? Is it the key selling point of Naturedge?
Sharma: We are definitely leading the nature story with Shunya as the brand under Naturedge Beverages. ARMR is an attempt to make Ayurveda user-friendly. ARMR is a 100% herbal shot. All it has is 15 [different] herbs which are amazing for your body. It is just positioned as an anti-hangover shot, but every ingredient in it is great for energy, immunity, detoxification and it’s great for your liver health. It’s positioned as an anti-hangover shot for our target audience of working professionals between 25 and 40.
Social drinking is a norm in office parties nowadays. People want to drink on the weekday and not go to the office with a hangover. ARMR is our attempt to say that indulge responsibly. ARMR enables you to indulge but in moderation. You may drink three times a week but wake up fresh, as you will remove the toxins of alcohol faster than ever. Again, it’s a great health shot. That’s the great thing about ARMR — it’s making Ayurveda cool and trendy. We are ensuring that we use the power of Ayurveda and let that aspirational millennial lead a complete life without compromise.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.