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Indian Gurus, Personal Care Products, and the Three Power Points.

“Now all tie-wearing people are sweating. They realize loincloth-wearing people can do many things,” says Baba Ramdev, “unpaid ambassador,” for Patanjali Ayurved the biggest of the various guru-associated Indian companies taking market share from Unilever, Colgate and Dabur in the personal care category.

Last week Bloomberg Businessweek had a fascinating article about the surprising and formidable challenge home-grown, guru-fronted companies like Pantanjali have given the large multinational companies who dominate this industry in India.

Unilever has seen its market share in personal care fall at least 5% over the last few years. Stolen from them by companies associated with various gurus like Ravi Shankar, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and Jaggi Vasudev.

We’re not talking about Sri Aurobindo Ashram or Sai Baba’s incense. Or Rudy’s bread. We’re talking about a billion dollar company in Patanjali’s case with a CEO, childhood friend of the guru, who is India’s 48th richest person.  This is a company that expects to grow its revenue from the present 1.5 billion and 1.2% of India’s personal care category to over 7 billion while capturing up to 35% of the market for Indian honey, Ayurveda medicines and ghee…in three years.

Unilever understands they have something they need to address in the Indian market as their CFO has said of Pantanjali, a company “which everybody has been following with a lot of interest-incredible branding created there.”

And a VP at IIFL Holdings says, “These ayurvedic product sellers are posing a threat to Indian and global players as the product has gained mass appeal,” noting also that profit margins have shrunk as the big companies are forced to address the competition  from the guru companies. And that’s because among other things, “it has made the existing players enlarge their marketing budgets greatly to try and protect their turf.”

All of the established companies facing competition from the Ayurveda-guru companies are rushing Ayurveda lines to market. Coalgate’s come out a line of toothpaste incorporating neem, clove and other traditional herbs and Unilever’s got its Haman soap and a version of the famous Brahmi Oil, a greenish coconut oil based hair treatment infused with traditional herbs


We used to get the latter in an Indian grocery in the East Village, off of 6th where all the Indian restaurants are. It’s got an herbal scent and it is…oily. Good for luster says traditional Ayurveda.

But while this is a great story about capitalism and competition and the power of the “little” guy to disrupt the Indian marketplace, this is not a straight forward story about marketing and the brand.

It’s hard for me to believe Bloomberg and the executives from the large companies quoted in this article don’t see what’s underlying this story.  It’ epic.

They may not want to publicly delve into the powerful complex of ideas fueling the incredible potential for the guru companies- because they may not have a real solution to neutralize the threat. They’re spending more money to counter the home grown Indian guru companies but they’re also continuing to lose market share to them. Not exactly a winning strategy, nor one they like explaining to their investors.

It doesn’t seem like the large companies can stop the babas invading their monopolistic turf because the momentum fueling the guru companies is fed by a unique blend of three of the most important movements-ideas -affecting the planet at this time:

  1. Nativist/Populist thinking and movements.
  2. The desire for natural and pure personal care products/foods/lifestyle.
  3. Religious/spiritual fervor-the realm of the zealot.

Here’s the picture designed for the Bloomberg article. There’s that quote about the loin cloth people and its author Baba Ramdev pictured.


He’s outspoken with nativist sentiments. “Why shouldn’t our country’s money stay here and be used for this country’s service?” But guess what, and this should feel familiar, his outspokenness and determination to act on his words have made Patanjali Ayurved the most powerful of the guru-companies.

In a way his focus on Indian products by Indians for India echo’s Gandhi. Also the current Prime Minister has added his voice to supporting Indian products.

In the early aughts I was a regular reader of Hinduism Today a magazine focused on the traditional practice of Hinduism. But they weren’t talking about yoga-most people’s brush with Hinduism in the West. The magazine preaches traditional Hindu life and does its part to keep the flame alive all over the world. They make no excuses for believing Hinduism is the only authentic path to keep India true to itself. Its message is delivered with a side of nativism.

This pride in all things India easily lends itself to the movement for pure, healthy, natural products. Traditional Indian cuisine and it’s affinity with Ayurveda practice is already a given. India’s natural products are totally in line with the West’s desire for organic, natural foods and body care. This area is a no brainer for the guru companies who already are aligned through their Yoga and spiritual ashrams. No doubt this desire has been helped by contact with all the western practioners and visitors already committed to a natural lifestyle.

And while products along these lines have always been available-even in the west-ashram-driven businesses  like Sri Sri Ayurveda are now using mass media, point of sales advertising and online marketing. They’ve even drafted Olympic silver medalist P.V. Sindhu as spokesman. I would suggest that the marketing of India’s legacy natural food products is just in its beginning phase with larger campaigns around natural product offerings set to take even more share from multi-national companies who presently dominate the Indian market. The guru’s emphasis on marketing milk, ghee, honey will pull all kinds of other natural Indian products into the guru companies plans.

The spiritual/yoga aspect really seals the deal for various baba aligned companies when you consider the zealot-like devotion to the babas. The religious fervor is a marketer’s dream but without the spiritual practice/yoga schools these gurus command all multi-nationals can do is dream about what it would be like to have brand loyalty like this.

For instance with nearly 10,000 stores selling only its products built on top of its existing franchised yoga studios it’s no wonder Patanjali sales have exploded and allowed them to become such a powerful force in the Indian marketplace.  This (and other guru companies using similar strategies) company appears unstoppable in the near future as their store count expands-taking advantage of more existing land around its yoga centers. They’re able to cut out all kinds of expenses around marketing  further increasing their margins. Patanjali believes they have enough space to expand for the next three years in this manner.

While these companies are not going to drive the multi-nationals out of the country, they are certainly going to make life more difficult for them. And considering the blend of powerful forces behind the home-grown Indian baba companies there’s little the large ones can do to combat them- not when it comes to the kinds of emotional/spiritual energies they have behind them.


(detail) from collage/mixed media work by Jodianna.

Contact the author for more info.  505.570.7325

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