FreshToHome is a young fish, meat and chicken provider that is making waves in the Indian market with fresh, chemical-free offerings as its core proposition. WARC speaks to Vanda Ferrao, FreshToHome’s head of marketing, about the DTC brand’s consumer-first approach as it expands aggressively across the country.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on the Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) model in India. Read more

Key insights

  • FreshToHome’s proposition is antibiotic-free, chemical-free, fresh; that resonates with those who want safe, healthy food.
  • CRM channels are very important for FreshToHome because its frequently purchased products require top-of-the-mind recall.
  • The consumer is integral to DTC and marketers must always think consumer-first, not channel or communication-first.
Please share with us how things were before 2020 and they have things changed for FreshToHome post-pandemic.

We started in 2015-16 with the premise that Indian consumers deserve better meat and seafood. We started in Bengaluru and it has been an interesting journey in the last six years. We are now present in 150 cities in India and the Middle East. We have over two million customers and we do more than two million orders a month, which literally means an order a second.

This industry is very interesting, with over 95% dominated by the wet market and many people don’t even know about us. They don’t seek to buy meat and seafood online. This was a complete Blue Ocean space for us.

What happened during the pandemic was a tectonic shift. See the construct. There is traditional, which is the wet market, the regular chicken and butcher shops. There is transitional, wherein people are attempting to make it cleaner, better etc. There is modern trade that includes the food halls and then there is online. If you see the consumer journey, 95% is the first two. We were getting people to buy online but we saw this huge shift (during the pandemic). We grew tremendously.

With every wave, we saw a lot of customers coming to buy online. The awareness of online grew as people understood that meat and seafood could be bought online. They wanted to eat safe and healthy. And when your proposition is being antibiotic-free, chemical-free and fresh, it resonated strongly.

People also didn’t want to venture out and they had food arriving at their doorsteps. There was also convenience because people were multitasking. The home became an office, school, gym, you name it. Convenience was becoming a huge determinant. The mix of these things resulted in huge growth for us.

We realised that more consumers were coming onto our platform and our retention rate was growing. Not just in metros, we saw enormous opportunity in the Tier 2 cities as well. This led to our expansion from being present in seven cities to 150.

We increased the range and assortment. Our proposition of pack-to-pan clean and fresh meat resonated strongly. This is a frequently bought category. So we saw there were at least 10 occasions when people consume meat, seafood and poultry. Along with this we realised a good fit was batter, eggs and marinated food. So we increased the basket. Our range widened from just raw to value-added as well.

Our growth came from footprint and category expansions. It also came in because convenience was key. Customers also wanted faster deliveries. So we began express delivery. All these levers helped us grow from 2020 and it has been meteoric growth to where we stand today.

How does reaching the consumer directly help your brand?

The need gap we realised was that the entire existing system in meat and seafood was broken. When we went direct-to-consumer, we cut out on time, which is the key determinant of freshness.

In meat and seafood, there are a lot of steps put in place to extend shelf life, be it chemicals or antibiotics. It also changes hands a lot. This is one of the key reasons why Indian consumers were not getting the best quality.

So we reached out to 3,000 farmers and fishermen directly, we go to 300 coasts in India and we have our own supply chain that in the quickest time comes to our processing centre. We give directly to consumers; we own our first mile as well for better produce and quality, and accessible pricing. We had to go directly to consumers to give them the freshest produce. To us, supplying to a retail store or going to other channels that went directly to the consumer would not make sense.

How important are concepts of branding, product design and customer loyalty to FreshToHome?

Consumers are happy buying from their local meat and seafood stores. There is a lot of trust and there is no dissonance. They don’t know better.

We are actually creating a category that is buying meat and seafood online. This category creation is time-consuming. A lot of education and awareness need to happen. Branding, hence, is very important.

Secondly, this space is rather cluttered. If you don’t stand for something that is clear and distinct, your proposition doesn’t hold and you’re going to get lost. You must have a strong proposition. You have to look a certain way.

As I said earlier, it was all about creating this category. To nudge customers to buy, you have to be impactful. While we use digital and print, what we realised is with a family eating meat, with it being a collective decision, TV has worked well for us.

With our presence in over 150 cities right now, TV is really efficient for us. Also, in this clutter, where you want people to stand up and see you and want to buy you. Therefore, whenever we have associated with IPL, for example, it has really accrued to the brand.

To us, CRM activities are very important. As I mentioned, meat and seafood are consumed frequently; we see an average of 10 times every month. That is twice or thrice a week for many families. So when mine is a frequently purchased product, if I am not top-of-mind, the consumer goes somewhere else. Hence, CRM channels to have top-of-the-mind recall is very important to us.

Loyalty, too, is critical. We bind the customer into buying from us and hence, subscription becomes important. People are coming online. The perception of shopping online is also getting good deals. So we have been building strong subscription programmes to incentivise the consumer to buy more frequently from us. We also incentivise by waiving delivery charges and several other barriers.

The most important thing is our proposition. We say that we are fresh and chemical-free. How does this touch every aspect where a consumer interacts with us? For example, the app, the packaging, the communication they see on social media, even the bags that they get, there’s a single theme that runs through it all, and the consumers know what FreshToHome stands for.

Across these five channels of branding, marketing and CRM, we try to stand for something very distinct so there is traction with consumers.

Has your media mix/strategy been affected in any way in the last two years?

We have added certain channels to the mix. We were always a digital-first brand. We used print very strategically. Meat and seafood consumption is very intrinsic to a person. It’s like dialect and it changes every 30 km. For a Bengali, it’s the rohu, for the Malayali, it’s ayila (Indian mackerel) or even curry meen (fish curry), or for a Goan, it’s the kingfish. And therefore, you can’t have a one size fits all approach. You have to resonate very strongly with these ethnicities. Hence, for us, vernacular print has really worked.

As we have grown bigger, we have realised how to reach the next million – we would have to go to a far larger canvas. So we got TV into the mix. It has helped because TV gives you credibility, breaks clutter and reaches far more people. The family watches TV. When a purchase decision is changed, there are different influence sets.

Then we have our CRM channels that we are always on. These are our media channels.

Over time, we have become far more strategic, concerted and focused on what the USP of FreshToHome is and therefore communicated it. So it accrues more to the brand rather than being a generic message.

Ultimately, you must have a differentiator. We bring about differentiators in terms of our range and offerings, packaging and communication.

There are different things we prefer doing from a channel as well as communication perspective.

Social, of course, must have had a huge role to play.

Social helps us reach out to our early adopters and have affinity. We have a very strong pen portrait of the urban Indian millennials who are strapped for time and they are on social always. Social media gives us this wide canvas to showcase our products, drive conversations and also build stickiness.

Ultimately, it’s food, right? For a glistening salmon or a great-looking prawn, this is the medium for people to see it. It drives a lot of awareness and consideration for us.

Tell us about the influencer marketing programme.

Since you are changing a habit, it’s always good to tackle it from all sides. While you do TV and you do top-down, influencers help you build credibility. As consumers, we look up to influencers for different things, be it fashion, food etc. When they say something, it’s credible.

Influencers have worked for us in Tier 1, Tier 2 India. It’s a part of our playbook too.

For example, when we are launching in Madurai, Nashik, Lucknow, I announce that FreshToHome is in these cities and I use a bunch of influencers from the cities to put out programmes, content to talk about convenience, versatility of our products.

It helps in a big way for consumers to try our products.

What has been your expansion strategy? Did you look to first build a strong base in the metros before moving into the Tier 2 cities? You also have a strong presence in the Middle East.

We have been in the Middle East for two years now. When we started our first campaign, we got a lot of search interest across India. It gave us an idea that the smaller towns are ready for an offering like ours. It gave us the confidence to launch.

We have a model where everything is localised because we are in the business of fresh. From an infrastructure point of view, we could cater to this business and go to Tier 1, Tier 2 towns.

Our first success was Kerala where we went beyond Cochin, Trivandrum, Calicut etc. We found there was a lot of demand in satellite towns. There are a lot of places that are landlocked, where people want marine fish but it isn’t available. What comes to them is probably preserved with chemicals or ice. So if you have an offering like ours there, who wouldn’t want to have fresh squids, crabs or seers? Everyone sees content online and we are making it accessible to them.

We are in places like Warangal, Trichur, even Jaipur. From India, we have gone to Bharat, as they say.

You're in a segment that is cluttered and your closest competitor also launched around the same time. It's a unicorn already but it is probably struggling when it comes to being in the black. What do you think you're doing differently from them?

The market is enormous. Our source of growth is the wet market. We are always happy when there is competition because whatever they put out there helps us grow the online business. All of us are in this endeavour to reach out and get the next million.

What works for FreshToHome is that we have a wide range and assortment. While we have a strong range in raw, we also believe we can go to the consumer at different times of the day. We are relevant at lunch and dinner. What about breakfast or snack time? So now we are also launching a range of cold cuts, sausages and salami. At 4pm, when you want a quick bite, we have nuggets and other offerings. We also have Indian breads and batter, everything needed to make a great meal.

Our USP has been fish, which is a fairly frequent consumption item in Indian households. We are perceived as an accessible brand that gives value. This has helped us grow, deliver value and have better retention.

We really go to the very back end; where the fish comes off the boat, there is a FreshToHome person there. We really own the back end. We have our own dedicated farms where we grow our own fish, for example.

From there, we get considerable benefits to give you better quality, better pricing and freshness.

A lot of DTC brands are going into physical retail from online, employing traditional marketing tools like FreshToHome. Does an omnichannel strategy seem like a good idea right now?

Nothing is watertight! You have to see the consumer. We tend to think channel-first. It is actually being where the consumer is. Today, the consumer wants options. Whatever lets you reach him works.

I spoke about traditional, transitional, modern trade and online construct earlier. What we realised at FreshToHome is that we are trying to recruit the consumer from traditional to online. But this is a market where there is a lot of touch and feel. For our next million too, we have very entrenched users. They are not going to come online directly. In that regard, we are also expanding our retail footprint.

What we have realised, in regular brick-and-mortar stores as well, six or seven times after a consumer make his purchases, he is okay to order in or place one over WhatsApp; then he graduates to coming online.

Especially for our industry, touch and feel is important. We are opening retail stores and therefore, omnichannel is the way to go for us.

What would be your message to upcoming DTC marketers across categories?

The consumer is integral to your business. Always think consumer-first. We tend to think channel or communication-first, rarely consumer. Understand your consumer – what place does your brand have in his or her life? What are the triggers and barriers that will make them consider you? Build your strategy around these.

Secondly, understand your proposition. This comes from understanding the consumer, triggers and barriers. What you solve in the consumer’s life is the proposition. Stay true to it. It must be distinct.

As a startup marketer, it is very easy to get swayed into doing different things or using different channels. Be consistent. Sometimes, you have to make those choices. You build a brand, you are consistent and then it accrues to you.

Branding is when you put out things in different formats but the consumer assimilates and links it to you. In this day and age, media and cost of content creation are so expensive. Have a common theme that runs through everything and build on it.