I recently bought my A2 desi ghee from a farm in Bhodani in Maharashtra, along with a fat jar of ‘limited edition Amlaprash’, that is, immunity-boosting chyawanprash. The agriculture startup that sold me this ghee—from Gir cows—is called Two Brothers Organic, because two ‘ex-MNC’ (multinational corporation) brothers Satyajit and Ajinkya run the company. They used to be the usual corporate ladder climbers. They are now organic farmers. Just the sort of story we like to hear as our city lives disappoint us every day.
The ghee passed the test of purity beautifully. In the Indian summer, pure A2 ghee should appear as translucent liquid in room temperature (without air-conditioning). If it doesn’t, then it is not pure. Two Brothers ghee arrived, and stayed, liquid. They also sell a ‘full moon cultured ghee’, presumably the ghee is hand churned on full moon days which, in Indian astrology, has special significance on the health and well-being of people, though I have not tried this yet. The chyawanprash was just right too. It did not taste extra sweet or tangy (what we call khatta in Hindi)—always signs of additives.
All in all, I was impressed.
It occurred to me that there are so many things that I am ordering directly from firms, without any Amazon or Flipkart kind of intermediary. The list includes coffee from Wayanad to candles from Goa, hair products and soaps from Uttarakhand, coffee from the Araku Valley, and since I have not been able to buy my favourite Allbirds shoes from London or New York in nearly two years now, I have been checking out India’s own woolen, and cotton, shoes, Neeman’s. My favourite energy bars these days comes from a brand called The Whole Truth.
If you shop online in India, it is impossible to avoid that the country is going through a direct-to-consumer (D2C) revolution. A few simple things have made this happen.
India always had tremendous local products but many of them could not scale because distribution was horrid. It was expensive, unreliable, and just painful at every level. Also marketing and sales all-India was a big money game. So, the only thing to do was to sell to large distributors who would squeeze the producers and creators as much as they could. The age of the giant e-tailers resolved a lot of the distribution issues, but the margins continued to be an issue. There was/is a palpable sense that it was the platforms that held all the cards and not the producers/creators.
Then, competition in Internet supply space made India the lowest priced high-speed Internet destination in the world. And a host of organisations, from a spruced-up India Post to startups like Delhivery, Wefast, and Dunzo, and many others, solved the last-mile delivery problem.
With WhatsApp and Telegram, and Instagram, new avenues of low-cost community building and marketing became very simple. I calculated while writing this essay that almost every new brand that I have purchased from in the last six months, I discovered first on Instagram.
This is having a breakthrough impact on small brands especially based in rural or semi-rural areas. No longer do such ventures need to toil away in obscurity. They can now—at little cost—find customers around India and even all over the world.
Mahatma Gandhi had dreamt of self-sufficient village communities. Idyllic as it sounds, it was never quite clear how such a model would rise above subsistence levels. Now it is clear that such models could exist around specialty products which could retain authenticity or place and manner of production, and yet find consumers in far and distant places without having to sacrifice large margins or pay heavily for distribution.
If the old-school distributors and platforms squeezed creators and producers for better visibility, placement, and with demands of exclusive sales rights, in a centralised tightly controlled model, D2C uses fast Internet, low-cost promotion, and swift delivery to decentralise the model, and make it much more democratic. Instead of sacrificing a major chunk of the profits to platforms, distributors and big retailers, creators and producers are now spoilt for choice to design a go-to-market plan that works best for them.
This is also where India’s demographic advantage comes into play. The market size is so diverse and so large that multiple players can, and are succeeding; there are enough customers, if not for everyone, then at least for many, many producers.
I want to end this essay with an unusual D2C brand example. I want to mention it because it is close to my heart. Who is the greatest brand in Carnatic classical music? Undoubtedly Sanjay Subrahmanyan, a man who has been given the greatest honour of his craft, the Sangita Kalanidhi award by the Madras Music Academy. This honour is usually reserved for maestros at the end of their career, while Subrahmanyan has been given it at the peak of his career (2015, when he was not even 50 years old). The singer now has a special members-only platform where for a fee, you get access to beautifully recorded (on video) concerts that you can stream at leisure by becoming a ‘patron member’, i. e., paying for the access. The Sanjay Sabha, as this new offering is called, has several tiers: free subscribers, people who pay $1 a month, and others who pay $10 a month. The highest paying patrons receive a new concert recorded exclusively for them every month.
In the future, when we study and list what low cost, high speed, technology did for the Indian economy, my bet is D2C brands, and their successful proliferation, will come at the top of that list.
Views are personal. The author is a historian and a columnist. He is a multiple award-winning author of nine books.