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Biscuit buying has suddenly become more complicated

Biscuit industry professionals will probably laugh at me, but speaking as a chocolate biscuit fanatic, I divide the world into three.

Naturally, this division is based on biscuit preference. In India, our chocolate biscuit of choice is the Bourbon, most commonly associated with the Britannia brand. (Actually, Bourbon is a generic term for the biscuit and other companies also manufacture it.)


In England, the chocolate biscuit of choice is the McVitie’s chocolate digestive, which is so ubiquitous that when you ask someone for a chocolate biscuit in London, they assume that it is the chocolate digestive you are after. (Once again, chocolate digestive is a generic term, so many other companies also make variations but McVitie’s did invent the original digestive biscuit.)


   But in terms of sales, I would imagine that the king of the chocolate biscuit empire is neither of these. When it comes to global reach and power, there is nothing to beat the American Oreo. Like the Bourbon, this is a sandwich biscuit in the sense that it consists of two separate biscuits encasing a bit of cream. While the Bourbon relies on chocolate cream, the original Oreo had a vanilla cream centre, though you now get variations with all kinds of cream flavours.


   The problem with my neat distinctions is that the biscuit industry does not see either the Bourbon or the Oreo as chocolate biscuits. It concedes that there is cocoa powder in the biscuit dough but argues, quite correctly, that cocoa is only one of the constituents of chocolate. As for the chocolate digestive, industry professionals see it as no more than a derivative of the basic digestive biscuit and not so much as a biscuit in its own right.


   All this may well be true but I am not sure that as consumers we care very much about the distinction. Most of us grew up eating the Britannia Bourbon, which, I imagine, was the Indian version of the Huntley & Palmers Bourbon biscuit from England. (Huntley & Palmers was one of the companies that combined to form Britannia in India.) In England, the Huntley & Palmers version was not regarded as the definitive Bourbon (Crawford’s was higher rated) but we in India did not know any better. Nor did we care that there were specific dimensions for a Bourbon. Each Bourbon had to consist of two separate cocoa flavour biscuits, of the dimension 61 mm by 31 mm. There had to be specks of sugar on the outside and every individual piece was required to have an embossing of 10 small holes.


   I spoke to Sunil Alagh (who is an Indian biscuit industry legend, having reinvigorated the Britannia brand and launched the best-selling Tiger biscuit) about the Bourbon. Sunil’s view is that while people like you and me probably enjoyed eating Bourbon biscuits, the big seller in the cream sandwich category was always the orange flavoured biscuit. And throughout his time at Britannia, he worried that the Bourbon would eventually come under attack from the Oreo.


   In the ’80s, the Oreo was owned by American biscuit giant Nabisco. Whenever Nabisco entered new markets, it launched two brands, the Oreo and the Ritz Cracker. Sunil believed that it was only a matter of time before Nabisco and the Oreo hit Indian shores.


   Accordingly, he spent much of the ’80s trying to find an Indian alternative to the Oreo. The biscuit he came up with looked like the Oreo but was slightly sweeter. While the Oreo appeals to consumers of all ages, Sunil decided that the Britannia version would be an adult biscuit. Inspired by the positioning of up-market Black Magic chocolates, he decided to call the Britannia version, Pure Magic.


   But by the time Pure Magic was launched, events had overtaken Britannia. First of all, Britannia’s holding company in England sold out to – you guessed it! – Nabisco. So Sunil was given access to the Oreo recipe for his Pure Magic variation. Then, Nabisco itself was taken over by investment banking firm KKR. One fall-out of this deal was that the foreign shareholding in Britannia passed to Rajan Pillai. And Pillai brought in French food giant, Danone, as a partner. Eventually, Pillai lost control of Britannia and Danone found a new partner in Nusli Wadia. Then, Wadia fought with Danone, who exited Britannia. Now, the company is controlled by the Wadias.


   While this corporate warfare was taking place, Britannia did not waste too much time on contemplating the threat from the Oreo or in pushing Pure Magic. And sure enough, Sunil’s fears proved groundless. For over a decade after Pure Magic was launched, there was no sign of the Oreo in the Indian market.


"The days when the biscuit market was dominated by Britannia and Parle are over. ITC is now a major player. After the success of the Oreo, Cadbury-Kraft is certain to introduce more biscuit brands."

   But there was a new competitor. ITC Foods launched Dark Fantasy, a chocolate biscuit that was clearly patterned on the Oreo, in 2005. Though the quality was outstanding (I actually preferred it to the original Oreo) ITC did very little to market it. A few years ago, the company suddenly changed strategy. Not only did it spend crores on promoting the brand, it also imported machinery that allowed it to introduce a new kind of chocolate biscuit. And this one was really a chocolate biscuit, not just some cocoa cookie. The Choco Fills, as ITC called it, consisted of a Dark Fantasy cookie with a filling of molten chocolate. So successful has the Choco Fills been that it is the best-selling version of Dark Fantasy. And the brand itself has multiplied in size many times over.


   I asked VL Rajesh, executive vice-president, marketing, at ITC Foods, about the runaway success of Dark Fantasy. While Rajesh is proud of the quality of the basic biscuit, he thinks that it is the innovative nature of the injection biscuit that really gave the brand its biggest push.


   Even as Dark Fantasy was taking the biscuit market by storm in India, corporate developments were taking place abroad. First, the new owners of Nabisco sold the biscuit company to Kraft, best-known in India for those slices of processed cheese.  So Kraft owned the Oreo but had no way of pushing it in India. That changed when Cadbury’s, a great British institution, fell into Kraft’s hands. This meant that Kraft finally had a route in India through which it could launch the Oreo.


   And so, many, many years after Sunil Alagh had stayed awake at nights worrying about the threat to Britannia from Nabisco’s Oreo, the biscuit did arrive in our market – only it was called Cadbury’s Oreo.


   From what I can gather, the Oreo has done well in the Indian market, at least partly because of shrewd marketing and clever pricing by Cadbury’s. (Is it my imagination or is the Indian Oreo slightly smaller than the American version?) But it has not had the sledgehammer-like impact that it would have if it had landed here in the 1980s when Britannia expected it to turn up. By now, Indians are familiar with two domestic Oreo variants, one of which is arguably of better quality than the original.


   Where does that leave the world of chocolate biscuits? It is a sad thing to say but I imagine that India will soon lose its status as the one market where the elite swears by Bourbon. Even if the Oreo itself does not become the dominant biscuit, its tribe will have won because of the success of such brands as Dark Fantasy. Faced with this onslaught from heavily-promoted circular sandwich biscuits, I don’t think the Bourbon’s popularity will endure into the next generation of consumers.


   But as Sunil points out, the days when the biscuit market was dominated by Britannia and Parle are over. ITC is now a major player. After the success of the Oreo, Cadbury-Kraft is certain to introduce more biscuit brands. And McVitie’s is already here. Plus, there will be a flood of imports at the top end of the market.


   ITC’s VL Rajesh says that with each passing day we are learning more and more about the Indian consumer. Who could have guessed that injection biscuits would take the market by storm? Why, in a society where biscuits are routinely dunked into tea and coffee, do consumers prefer a circular Oreo-type shape rather than the more dunking-friendly rectangular Bourbon?


   So, two conclusions seem inevitable. The first is that you can no longer divide the world into three neat chocolate biscuit categories. Globalisation has meant that the Oreo-kind of biscuit has become the dominant force in most major markets. And second, if McVitie’s does not introduce a chocolate digestive in India and put some serious advertising money behind it, then the English chocolate biscuit will never make a dent in this market. Or perhaps somebody else will take that slot; given ITC’s aggression, it seems ready to experiment with every kind of biscuit.


   Speaking for myself, biscuit buying has suddenly become more complicated. Each time I go to the shops I wonder: should I stay loyal to Bourbon, or should I defect to Dark Fantasy?


   Or should I just wait for the chocolate digestive?




  • lann perry 10 Jun 2013

    im incredibly butt hurt by this article, please remove it.

  • Rohini Kamath 01 Dec 2012

    I would personally wait for the chocolate digestive. I really liked pure magic because it wasnt over sweetened. I find Bourbon too sweet. I thought Milano is wonderful too - only wish they wouldnt break so easily.

  • Win Casey 01 Dec 2012

    Very valid dilemma and equally driven by loyalty & the taste buds. Having roved all over the available chocobiscuits I agree wholesomely. For me it's the sugar specked Bourbon and the DF fills that does the trick. The chocolate digestive is a no go and the McVities original for India is not a patch on Britannia's less sweet Digestive ! Indian brands take a bow !!!

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