Two Brothers Organic Farm is a popular direct-to-consumer brand in India and WARC speaks to one of the brothers, co-founder Satyajit Hange, about what the duo have learned and experienced in the eight years since they started the business.
This article is part of a Spotlight series on the Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) model in India. Read more
- During the lockdown, Two Brothers experienced positive growth as it was e-commerce-ready with logistics, website and customer care in place, thus benefitting from online purchases.
- With little capital to burn as a startup, social/digital media is a free platform for the company, which focuses on Facebook and Google Ads to help find new customers.
- DTC has a bright future in India because technology is a great leveller, allowing startups to access marketing features for much less than what big players spend on.
How did Two Brothers Organic Farm start? What was the need gap you were looking to fill?
Both me and co-founder Ajinkya Hange come from a small village in Maharashtra, India. We were put in a boarding school away from the village. Our parents were of the view that farming does not have a future, no economic value or social respect left. So we completed our education, got jobs as was recommended by family and social circles.
A few years into our jobs, we realised how it wasn’t our area of interest. When we asked ourselves what we really love doing, the answer was always farming, being among nature and livestock, growing food and leading a slow-paced life. We lacked the guts though to give up a good job. Not so much because of the lifestyle or comfort but the social stigma attached to farming. What would others say if we quit our jobs and went back to farming, which is not viewed as a viable career option? It is seen as a career option when you don’t do well academically and don’t have a good job perhaps.
It took us some time to un-condition ourselves and we finally bit the bullet around eight years back and got into farming for the love of it.
When we got into farming, we did not have the background nor the qualifications. It took us some time. We practised chemical-based farming, which really is contemporary farming. As we researched, we realised this isn’t sustainable in the long term. And yet, we were surprised to know that no one was astonished. We went through data points of our farm for the last three to four decades to understand how much productivity has gone down. To know that the productivity of your land can come down to one-third in a span of 30 years is alarming.
The quality of food that we are producing is also not “good food” for human consumption; it is loaded with chemicals. This led us to turn to organic farming. We met farmers who were farming the “right way” and we were surprised to know that the organised education techniques around farming, the agricultural colleges and universities taught nothing about sustainable farming or organic farming. They were mouthpieces for conventional farming practices that were chemical-based.
Those who were actually doing organic farming, the ones we otherwise would call “illiterate”, I personally found to be highly “educated”. They might not know how to read the Bible but they know very well what the soil requires, how to tend to it and keep it sustainable, and produce good food. We met such people across India, learnt from them, followed people who wrote books on organic farming globally. We started applying the learnings.
For instance, we learnt how a “customer eats fruit with the eyes first and then with the tongue”. If the fruit is not attractive, you won’t get a higher value for it. And organic is ugly! Organic has blemishes, spots, lacks shine. But it is full of goodness within. This hurt our self-esteem badly because after putting in so much effort and working holistically soil upwards, we thought we could command a higher value. It made us wonder if growing food in a holistic way but not getting the right value could be sustainable. This wasn’t a hobby for us. We wanted to live on our farming income.
We then took our produce to handcart vendors. Meeting with small success, we went to malls. Slowly, this led to the formation of the brand – Two Brothers Organic Farm. It is a fact because Ajinkya and I are brothers who quit our corporate careers and turned to farming.
We started selling our produce at what we believed is the right price for good food. We got to know of the amazing organic farmers markets in Mumbai and set up our stalls there.
We love selling to people, telling them about how their choice affects so many things in the back end, from soil to water to biodiversity, and to their families as well when they eat nutritious food.
We set up a not-for-profit initiative in Mumbai called OrganicWe, a platform for other organic farmers to help set up more organic farmers markets and make good food accessible to more customers. This also led us to working with many schools in Mumbai and Pune where we established organic farming clubs; we now work with students to grow organic food on campuses.
We then realised the potential of e-commerce and opened our shop online. We started off small and fast forward to today, we have around 30-35 products. We are working with a couple of hundred farmers. We have trained over 10,000 farmers. We have around 50,000 customers spread across 50 to 51 countries who order regularly from our website.
How long did it take you to reach where you are today?
We started farming eight years back. It took us three years to understand the nuances of farming and get the farming aspect right. We started marketing the brand around five years back.
How difficult was the brand building exercise?
It wasn’t difficult because we didn’t start with the idea of building a big brand or business. We just started (marketing) because we wanted the product to be named something. It would lose its identity otherwise. We wouldn’t be able to sell or resell to the customer at the right price.
We honestly enjoy doing it. We don’t consciously make effort to build the brand but the brand was built with the attributes of good quality, story, transparency etc.
A brand is built on the pillars of certain truths and education is one of them. Awareness about good food, ecological impact and environment contribute to this.
Communication in the most transparent way is another pillar. Our farm is open. We have had visitors from over 14 countries and close to 10,000 farmers have visited our farms. Nothing is hidden.
The third is, of course, market attributes – pricing affordability – and the fourth is non-tangible – emotional connect. These pillars have helped us build the brand.
How difficult was it for you to position Two Brothers Organic Farm uniquely and find your feet in a segment with similar players?
As I said before, we did not set out with the target of creating a brand or a big business. We did not even notice the existing players in the market. We never tracked them, we didn’t try to do what they were doing. We just did everything soil upwards.
If you see our product category, you will not find another player so varied in its offering. We make ghee (clarified butter); we make peanut butter as well. One is traditional and the other a very cosmopolitan product. We also make wood-pressed oils, traditional grain atta (flour), and we are also working with some coffee farmers. We are also making chocolate.
So, the spectrum is not decided by emulating or copying somebody. It is decided when people and farmers come up to us and want our help to grow food organically. We then help them to bundle that as a product that can be sold to customers.
We never go to the customer for their feedback and then make a product. We work on soil feedback – what will grow well on a particular soil.
The context in which you are asking me is from an academic point of view of how this brand was created. I didn’t create anything. It got built by doing what we were doing best, by listening to the soil, not trying to impress customers by doing what they want.
How do you go about building your customer base and your product portfolio at the same time?
Customer awareness is what we harp on a lot. Our website is content-rich. You’ll find insightful stories and posts on our Instagram.
For example, you’ll find a post on niger seed oil. It is not consumed much now in India. People buy avocado oil from abroad but niger seed oil is way more beneficial. The oil seed itself requires much less water and it enriches the flora and fauna. We have been educating people on why niger seed oil must be used.
Communication, education and spreading awareness help us increase our customer base.
When it comes to products and R&D, we listen to the farmers.
How did the last two years pan out? How did the pandemic and the lockdown affect your business and strategy?
When lockdown struck, we moved our despatch operations to our farm from where it was easier to function. Demand grew for our products.
We personally experienced positive growth during the lockdown because we were e-commerce-ready two years before. We had our logistics, website, back-end, customer care and packaging in place already. As people turned to online purchases, we benefited.
Secondly, people started prioritising the consumption of good food and that is our space.
These two factors together helped our manifold growth in the last two years. On the sourcing side, there have been problems with growing demand.
What were some of the lessons you have learned in the last two years?
From a marketing strategy perspective, we have focused a lot on social media. Being a startup with not much capital to burn, social media was a free platform for us. We made the farm life live on social media, sharing our routine, harvesting, processing and even customer testimonials. This helped tremendously to grow organic demand.
So, digital media became super important, much more than traditional media. Focusing on Facebook and Google Ads helped us get new customers.
Did you ever rely on traditional media at all?
Where do your customers come from? Are they more skewed towards the urban regions?
Our customer base is super-urban. I have more than a few customers from Bollywood. My customer is cosmopolitan, very aware.
When your customer is cosmopolitan, digital surely makes a lot of sense. But if you have to look beyond the metros, do you think your strategy will have to change?
We do not strategise to target urban consciously. We target like-minded people. I don’t care if the customer is from urban or rural as long as there is demand.
Secondly, I do not even want to make that demarcation. We have many customers from Ludhiana and interiors of Punjab, villages in South India etc. I don’t have a mass product that I can promote with a large print ad or through television.
And then, the production and the back end are not equipped to handle 100x demand if we do a blast in a newspaper. It will take us time to reach that stage, maybe five to eight years when we would have planted so much organic stuff that might have the potential to meet the demand that might be created on a mass scale.
I am sure word-of-mouth plays a big role in spreading the brand message?
We have very strong word-of-mouth. We have customers writing us long handwritten letters. There are a lot of video testimonials. People readily recommend us to their friends and family.
We have had some of the most premier business families coming to the farm observing what we do, celebrities have spoken about us on social media without us proactively targeting or approaching them.
Are you also leveraging the reach of established e-commerce players to sell your products?
We are listed on Amazon only but the margins are exorbitant and the support is zilch. The experience hasn’t been healthy. We are thinking of delisting.
Do you have no offline presence at all?
We do promote passionate people who sell offline. We do not supply to organised retail chains because they do not do justice to selling a product like ours along with the telling of the story to a customer. But 15% of our revenue does come from offline.
You are also investing in experience centres.
We have an experience centre opening up in New Delhi. The concept is such that only 30% of the space in the store would be earmarked for selling our products. The remaining space is a studio that can seat around 25 to 30 people, along with a library.
The studio will be extended to brands and people who are working in the sustainable space, be it physical, mental, intellectual or spiritual, absolutely free of cost.
But if you find your experience centre contributing positively to sales, would you consider getting more aggressive with your offline strategy?
No! It will only be a touchpoint where we can help to build a community.
How promising does the future look for DTC brands like yours in India?
Looking at the Indian landscape, DTC has a very bright future. It is the way ahead. With technology, a small startup like ours can get access to the features that, for instance, Amazon has at a fraction of the money the big players spend. Technology has been a great leveller.
Making products with the great passion, accountability, quality, transparency of a DTC brand, I can easily compete with the likes of Amazon if I had the money to burn in advertising.
What would your advice be to existing and upcoming DTC marketers?
I would tell them that there is a huge rush of people who want to fund you guys. Don’t be in a hurry to catch the bus. Capital will always be available for good ideas that are scalable and provide value to customers and investors. Don’t rush and partner with somebody who will make you compromise on your core ethics, values, principles and dreams.
If you know you are providing value, however small you may be, focus on every single customer, ensure their happiness. That is a job well done. A happy customer will go out and tell your story to a hundred more people and be your brand ambassador.
However, if you chase a million customers with a huge burn but not doing justice to each experience, ultimately, they will end up buying your product once and not return to your website again.
Go slow, enjoy the process, focus on every single customer and your product. Nothing else will ensure a repeat customer and organic word-of-mouth. Digital media will take a huge part of the money you spend to acquire new customers but word-of-mouth won’t.
Take one customer, give him the best experience; he will go out buzzing about your brand to the world.