The Last 10 years of Natural Ice Cream
How often does your organization change? Everyday? Every month? Maybe every year?
But how often should you change? This is the kind of question that earns consulting firms their millions.
For me, one of those never changing icons from my childhood was the Natural Ice Cream store in Juhu. Well into my adulthood, this one store was always a dependable source of delicious tender coconut ice cream.
But then a few years ago I started noticing that all the Natural stores that I knew and loved were starting to change. The logo moved away from the scenic beauty of coconut trees and the ocean and to a much more modern looking logo.
I just couldn't understand it, why did they need to do this? their old style was working so well.
Last week I had a chat with Srinivas Kamath, director at Naturals Ice Cream, and spearhead of all this change. I had to ask him why he made all these changes, couldn't he just leave my childhood in peace?
The Need for Change
Well, as it turns out, the reason for all this change was because Srinivas listened to his customers and they were the ones who told him that maybe the brand needed to change with the times. Natural had thrived for the 25 years before Srinivas joined but that did not mean that it would continue to thrive in the future. As my father always says, “the biggest obstacle to future success is past success.”
Listening to their customers’ feedbacks, Natural changed the SOP’s of all of its outlets to place customer service at the core of brand’s ethos. This meant training for all customer facing staff, changing hiring practices, encouraging franchise owners to out from behind the cashier’s table and much more. Natural was able to show emphatically that putting their customers’ needs at the forefront wood increase revenues across all their stores.
However, change needed to be felt across the entire brand. Customers needed to be shown that Natural Ice Cream was different from what they were before. And they needed to do this from a position of strength before they were forced to do it while sales were slumping.
The entire rebranding exercise that has taken place over the last few years has shown customers that they mean business about improving customer experiences. Every outlet talks about the story of the Naturals brand, their philosophy and how they make every flavour. The new and improved stores aim to bring customer experience to the highest international levels.
How do you Change a 35 Year Old Company?
In order to show that this new way of thinking can make an impact across the entire brand, Srinivas had to build credibility. His training as a lawyer, unfortunately, did not build enough credibility within this Ice Cream brand to make the changes that he wanted. In the end, he would set up a new subsidiary of the parent company and open his own retail store to insulate his experiments.
By changing hiring practices and SOP’s, they were able to quickly revive a slowly declining franchise in Vile Parle East. Revenues jumped quickly by 30% without any additional marketing or sales activities. This was the credibility that needed to be built and which eventually led to the programme being shipped to franchises across the country.
I believe this approach of slowly building credibility is epitomised by Natural’s own slow philosophy. Their websites states that “slow is good. It does take time but in the long run, that time is totally worth it.” Taking over, operating, and then changing the retail outlet must have taken time but in the end, it was totally worth it for the wonderful changes it brought across the brand.
This is an important lesson that I wish I had learned earlier. If I ever join an established organisation, I would rather take it slow and build credibility first before pushing for the change on a larger platform. Experimenting with these changes in an insulated sandbox environment is the perfect way to slowly build this credibility.
What did I learn from Naturals?
1. Quality: Product & service quality are the bedrock to a strong brand. Natural's has not wavered on quality in the past 35 years of their operation and that is apparent from the rabid fan following. Srinivas told us a fantastic story where Vivian Richards was so in love with their ice cream, specifically Chickoo, that he did free publicity for them. Naturals is now doubling down on quality by making sure that even service matches product quality.
2. Details Matter: When it comes customer experience, it's the details that matter. In hindsight, having Srinivas, who is a lawyer by profession, lead this effort was a perfect match. The detail orientation that lawyers have to imbibe helped him observe the small things and get them right to improve the overall customer experience. The next time you're at their store, look at how well thought through everything is.
3. Build Credibility: Joining a family businesses is extremely hard. You have to build credibility within the organization for you to be heard. Having a project that doesn't interfere with the existing operations is a brilliant hack to gain confidence in yourself and credibility from others. Srinivas used this beautifully by setting up a subsidiary and letting that manage the entire process of improving the customer experience.
4. Take it Slow: As embodied by their Slow Philosophy, the brand doesn't seem to be in a rush to be somewhere. I think as a culture, they just love creating great ice-creams and want to do this for eternity. Sure, there's ambition from the newer generation, but they seem to be enjoying the journey of growing this company and are doing this sustainably. I feel like a lot of bootstrapped businesses can learn from this.
My Prediction on Naturals Ice Cream
My perception is that Naturals is ripe for Private Equity investment. Private Equity loves a profit-making consumer facing brand with strong customer loyalty. Also, processed food industry is seeing remarkable growth right now with brands such as Epigamia, Raw Pressery & more. I predict that we’re going to see a significant private equity investment in the next 3-5 years which will see them super-charging their franchise growth across India and finally go international. How will this meld with their ‘Slow Philosophy’? Well, I guess we’ll have to be patient and find out.
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