McRennetts – Baked in Chennai

Its origin is local. The owner, Maanikkam Pillai started out a small bakery in the early part of the 1900s and decided that a ‘foreign’ name would bring more patronage. It worked. Much like the Iyengar bakeries that made a virtue of being vegetarian by not using eggs, McRennetts grew by having the ‘non-vegetarian’ range as a significant part of their portfolio. The vegetarian puffs are triangular, the egg puffs have four little pointy corners, the mutton puffs are squares and the chicken puffs, rectangular. This simple differentiation ensured that the sensibilities of the customers would not be affected and a vegetarian customer would not mistakenly be served with a non-vegetarian filling.

The bakery has grown steadily over the decades with more than 60 outlets around the city and while it still remains a predominant ‘local’ brand, it fits into a clearly defined niche – that of the affordable bakery. The busiest time at the outlets is from around 4 o clock in the evening, going up to 8 pm. Office-goers in need of a quick snack, hungry students with very little to spend and passengers waiting at bus stops constitute their largest segment. They have the regular cakes, bread and buns, but not the fancy stuff. Fresh cream pastries are limited because they need refrigeration. There are just a couple of chairs and no tables at the outlets.They want their customers to enter and leave rapidly and there is no attempt to hide the obvious.

And they don’t need the internet or any advertising. A half-baked attempt has been made to try and bring the business into the digital age, but it ticks along merrily with no need for any fancy branding or customer focused attempts. The counter staff isn’t courteous or welcoming. They aren’t surly either. They are nondescript and a uniform is now mandatory. But almost a hundred years of baking has cultivated a certain atmosphere that comforts their regular customers.

So, in spite of a big revolution in the bakery business in Chennai with the entry of a brand called ‘Hot Breads’, Mc Rennett has continued to hold its own. Price is a major differentiator since even a puff is twice as expensive at Hot Breads. Mc Rennetts has another competitor in the same space. Adyar Bakery started off a few decades ago and now has the same range and the same profile of customers. But there is room for at least a couple more brands in the same segment. In a city with a population of close to 10 million, there is enough room to expand and grow. Adyar Bakery does not even have a website but it has put up a Facebook page – and then abandoned it after getting over a hundred likes. Maybe some enthusiastic digital marketer waxed eloquently about the wonders of social media and the brand decided that it was high time they got ‘current’ as well. But when 95% of their customers have no access to the internet, let alone a Facebook account, it does not make any sense to be there.

These are small businesses that have defined their boundaries very clearly. Branding isn’t difficult if you know who you are. Or who you want to be.