Run your next marathon in Patanjali shoes

With everything from instant noodles to sports shoes slated to fall under the Patanjali belt, the growth of Baba Ramdev’s empire is a study in marketing

Close to Haridwar, north India’s most easily accessible holy hotspot, a yoga guru is ushering in a Walmart-type revolution with his brilliantly crafted tagline: Everyone sells products, we sell civilisation in jars.

Swami Ramdev, who initiated complacent Indians into yoga by exhorting them to rub fingernails, now wants to sell food, clothes and even shoes for those who believe in his kind of yoga. Dressed in his trademark saffron loincloth, Ramdev is leading his Patanjali Ashram’s second charge — the first was yoga — into FMCG and healthcare products.

Baba Ramdev started Patanjali Yog Peeth (UK) Trust in 2006.  pic/ AFP
Baba Ramdev started Patanjali Yog Peeth (UK) Trust in 2006. Pic/ AFP

In a country, dubbed the world’s diabetic capital, Ramdev is not short of buyers. Hundreds, sorry, thousands, are buying products from his wholesale and departmental stores, where the latest offering on the shelves are wheat noodles packed like Nestlé’s Maggi and offered cheaper, to trigger blistering competition in India’s $49 billion FMCG market. Ramdev’s eyes are — obviously — on the 14 per cent growth the market is registering annually.

For every sale of a Patanjali product, there is counter gyaan. If you are buying toothpaste, you will be reminded that the ones produced by other companies have bone dust, while the Patanjali product is made of tree barks.

Acharya Balkrishan
Acharya Balkrishan (above), considered the second-in-command at Patanjali Ashram and Herbal Centre (below) says an estimated 10,000 Patanjali stores are already selling products endorsed by Ramdev. PIC/Shantanu Guha Ray

The Swadeshi drive is very apparent. But Ramdev and his men say all is for global health, cash and profits are secondary. In brochures handed out to hundreds of visitors across the sprawling Patanjali complex, his workers state that “accepting swadeshi is our dharma”. Those visiting Patanjali are routinely shown a gigantic statue of sage Sushrut, the founding father of surgery. Ramdev’s men greet visitors with the word Om, the spiritual icon in Indian religion.

Patanjali is just one part of Ramdev’s wealth. It also has a small island off the Scotland coast, donated by a wealthy Scottish-Indian couple. He will acquire 100 acres of donated land for a health centre in Houston, US.

“Health is wealth,” says Acharya Balkrishan, distinct with his flowing, white robes that many consider the last stage before attaining sainthood and saffron dress.

A packet of Putrajeevak Beej, an Ayurvedic medicine from Baba Ramdev’s pharmacy. Earlier this year, he defended the tablets, saying they helped with infertility and not sex selection. PIC/AFP
A packet of Putrajeevak Beej, an Ayurvedic medicine from Baba Ramdev’s pharmacy. Earlier this year, he defended the tablets, saying they helped with infertility and not sex selection. Pic/AFP

Balkrishan, considered by many as the second-in-command at Ramdev’s Patanjali Ashram and Herbal Center, says an estimated 10,000 Patanjali stores are already selling products endorsed by Ramdev, another 25,000 franchisees have been signed.

This is in India. Internationally, the group will soon tie up with a global 24X7 store to sell Ramdev products in as many as 150 countries. In India, it has a tie-up with stores run by Kishore Biyani’s Fortune Group.

Hyped on mystic India, the products are cheaper than those offered by Indian and multinational giants. The Patanjali Ashram has a no-care attitude, ostensibly because of the support from the ruling BJP-led NDA government at the Centre. It even launched the noodles without a mandatory certificate from the market regulator.

Balkrishan, who many claim is the brain behind Ramdev’s business diversification, calls the foray into FMCG the world’s best marketing combo: low price and pure, healthy food. “We are asking everyone to stay healthy; we are not into a price game.” Ramesh Sharma, who runs the group’s 35-acre herbal park near the group headquarters in Haridwar, says: “We will make, not mint, money like the MNCs.” There are many in India who are already loving the Swadeshi vs MNC line.”

Ramdev, who engages millions on television through his rapid-fire series of yoga poses, is on a nationwide tour to promote noodles and other products ranging from medicinal herbs for cancer and diabetes to snacking biscuits. There is a herb in each of his products. There’s a Facebook joke on how Ramdev will soon launch herbal whiskey and various WhatsApp groups have one on Ramdev sandalwood condom for holy sex.

BJP-ruled states are laying out the red carpet. Those ruled by Congress and other parties, are not far behind, doing more-or-less the same because Ramdev has huge followers across India. Even his political mission — to clean politics of corruption — is neatly garbed with health, yoga and Ayurveda. He walks into a stadium, does his yogic poses and tells thousands: “Sweat, sweat, sweat, you will remain forever young.”

Thanks to his ever-growing craze, Ramdev, synonymous with his smile unfazed by the wild bush of his beard, is to fitness what Bhagwan Acharya Rajneesh was to sex. He has offered his services to the Indian hockey and cricket teams, though the BCCI and IHF are yet to say yes. Many sportspersons use his products, take personal lessons.

Once he trained PM Chandra Shekhar; now many NDA ministers are his followers and get specialised home trainers.
Encouraged by his superlative success that is pushing similar products by other Godmen into the backdrop, Ramdev wants to diversify into clothes, even shoes. Why not? If he can ask you to train as per his schedule, ask you to eat what you should, he can ask you to wear a special brand of clothes and signature shoes. His men claim the shoes, which will take on global giants like Nike and Adidas, will be unique in nature — almost like the wooden sandals worn by Brahmins in India.
“You can wear them on either foot and it would be fine, unlike this current left foot-right foot syndrome of global shoemakers,” says Sharma.

Thanks to the FMCG and health products, Patanjali’s business is a R5,000 crore plus bonanza. And, if the Patanjali Vastram branded dresses and shoes make it to the shelves, Sharma says it could be India’s “holy answer to Walmart”.

Bengaluru-based brand expert Harish Bijoor says Ramdev has got his branding right by talking about his product. “He needs no stars; just his face will work”.

Ramdev’s men know that their guru’s magic is working. “Purity is the key word, our products will make an instant difference once in the market,” says Sharma, who has his market cut out already, India’s second and third-tier cities which cannot match the price of international brands.

Sharma is confident that Patanjali will move seamlessly into its latest passion: business. And that, it will succeed.
If it does, it will be the trump card of Ramdev, the son of an impoverished farmer who rose to the uppermost ranks of India’s spiritual hierarchy.

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