Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Story of Shahi

Published in Nov-Dec 2020

Anusha Zahid looks at the turnaround of a Pakistani legacy brand.

How many Pakistanis are there (living here or abroad) who are not familiar with Shahi and their once flagship product Shahi Supari? A trendy replacement for paan, Shahi Supari gained immense popularity in the seventies and eighties and in the bargain, became a favourite mouth freshener and a digestive aid for both young and old. Whether at home, a restaurant, a five-star hotel or a festive occasion, guests were treated to Shahi Supari as a post-meal refreshment. At weddings especially, Shahi would be served on silver trays or packed in small fancy pouches along with assorted dry fruit, sugar balls and candies to be distributed among guests at the conclusion of a nikkah ceremony... at least that was how I tasted my first Shahi.

Fast forward to 2020 and Shahi still retain their brand loyalty and status as a trusted, high-quality brand, hence “Shahi Ka Hai Tou Acha Hi Hoga” (since it is Shahi, it has to be good). This is due to the fact that they have maintained their strict quality standards and diversified their offerings beyond the supari category. Ever since the time when betel nut gained notoriety as a carcinogenic, Shahi have been introducing healthier options, and today the Shahi Group offer a range of mouth fresheners (Shahi Classic, Shahi Deluxe, Shahi Elaichi and Aas Pas), potato, corn and wheat snacks (Fry-O, KinKorn, Pop Star and Wheat-O) and savoury snacks (Ballay Ballay and Shahi Nimco) under their two divisions Zain Enterprises and Shahi Enterprises.

For this story, I met one of Shahi’s founders, S.M. Ghayasuddin (a charming octogenarian with a remarkable memory) in order to gain a better understanding of the brand story. He starts off by saying that the family was in the printing and publishing business even before Partition. His father, S.M. Shujauddin set up Times Press, which was the first printing press in Pakistan and in 1949 was credited for publishing Karachi’s first telephone directory (previously, Karachi numbers were part of the Bombay telephone directory).

After graduating in economics from Karachi University, Ghayasuddin joined the family business. In 1958, he left for England to study Printing and Publishing at the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts (now the London College of Communication). Following this, he enrolled at the London School of Economics, where he made friends with Muhammad Parvez, the son of Zafarul Ahsan Lari, the first Managing Director of PIA (then Orient Airways). When they returned in 1963, Ghayasuddin returned to the family business while Parvez, was toying with the idea of starting a newspaper and he asked Ghayasuddin to join him. He declined “because I was working with my father.” In 1970 Parvez launched The Sun newspaper. Not long afterwards, Ghayasuddin parted ways with the family business and joined The Sun, which is where he met his future business partner Sarwar Peshimam, who joined as Associate Editor, Magazines.

By 1973, The Sun was on the verge of closing down due to financial problems and Ghayasuddin decided to quit. Coincidentally, Asfar Hasnain, Director Finance, PIA and a former colleague at The Sun who knew Ghayasuddin and his family business, rang to ask a favour. PIA urgently required boarding passes to be printed for a flight scheduled for the next day; the boarding passes were delivered within a few hours.

Returning the favour, Hasnain called him the following week to ask what he could do for him. Ghayasuddin inquired whether he could help him secure a contract from PIA and he was invited to meet Arif Abbasi, GM R&D, PIA, who took him to his office where his desk was covered with assorted items PIA offered their passengers, such as sugar, salt and pepper and milk sachets. “He asked if I could supply any one of these items.” Picking up the salt and pepper sachets (PIA had been importing them from Canada) he replied he could supply those. Abbasi gave him the contract and both Ghayasuddin and Peshimam became PIA vendors. Shortly afterwards, PIA officials asked them to develop an desi mouth freshener to offer passengers as a welcome snack – and that is how Shahi Supari came into being.

The logo, featuring a palanquin, was designed by Peshimam. Adil Saluddin (one of Pakistan’s foremost stamp designers) created the font in both English and Urdu. As for the colours, “we chose red and white because we did not have enough money to print more colours”. The product was an instant hit and passengers began asking where they could buy it. Realising the product’s potential the duo decided to introduce it in the mass market.

Shahi’s first 10-second commercial was aired in 1977 (produced by MNJ Communications) and according to Ghayasuddin, it made a big impact. They next decided to advertise on Neelam Ghar (of Tariq Aziz fame) and as a result sales went through the roof, so much so, that it became difficult to meet demand, and that is when substandard supari products began to enter the market. Shahi continued to advertise on TV until the mid-eighties after which the government imposed a ban on supari advertising. Despite this setback, Shahi remained a one product company until the late nineties, when they launched two variants of mouth fresheners: Shahi Deluxe and Shahi Meva. Danish Peshimam (son of Sarwar Peshimam) – an IBA graduate, who earlier had been working as an investment banker in Canada, joined the business in 2003 – refers to this period (late eighties to late nineties) as “a wasted decade” for the company; that was the time when several food and snack companies established themselves and invested in brand building.

The realisation that diversification was badly needed came in the late 1999/2000, when the two founders experimented with biscuits but the project did not see the light of day. It was only when Peshimam joined that the company began to actively look at different categories and identified snacks as something they could foray into. “At that time, snacks were a nascent industry. Only Kolson was there, Lays didn’t exist and Super Crisp was struggling,” recalls Peshimam. In 2004, Shahi introduced Fry-O (potato-based pellets similar to Kolson’s Slanty) – and the market response was phenomenal. This success encouraged Shahi to introduce other wheat and corn based snacks such as Pop Star, Kingkorn and Wheat-O over the years. Today, in the mass market organised sector snack category Shahi has a market share of 25%.

Peshimam attributes this success to Shahi’s distribution network across Pakistan which had always catered to the wholesale markets, which is why going into mass market snacks was a strategic fit both from the diversification and execution point of view. “We could not launch a product that required retail distribution capabilities, such as the ones possessed by EBM, Continental or any cigarette brand. Knowing your core competencies is extremely important and one of our strengths is that we do not pretend to be who we are not.”

Then in 2007, Shahi introduced nimco and according to Peshimam, although in the eighties about 80% of biscuit sales were bakery-driven, the ratio almost reversed 20 years later as consumer preferences moved towards convenience, innovation, new flavours and variety. Similarly, earlier nimco was not available at general stores, supermarkets or corner shops and consumers had to go to either the Bohri Bazaar or Delawala nimco shops. “We wanted to turn this category around,” says Peshiman. The first step was that instead of bigger packs, they introduced nimco in small SKUs priced at two and five rupees (never available before), branded them as Ballay Ballay and made them available at all stores, and that “really changed our fortunes, so much so that today it is a required category at every store, small or big,” says Peshimam. Then in 2011, Shahi introduced Shahi Nimco in bigger packs for family consumption.

Since then, the company has not introduced new categories because they believe there is still a lot of potential for Shahi Nimco and Ballay Ballay – not only in terms of desi snacks but in terms of variants not necessarily associated with traditional nimco. Speaking about the challenges, Peshimam says the biggest one is to make a high-quality product at an affordable rate, and with inflation rising, it has become difficult to manage pricing and at the same time manufacture a two rupee product. Another problem is the proliferation of counterfeit products. “As soon as you start gaining some traction in the market, 10 different people start copying you,” says Peshimam, adding that for those companies that comply with government regulations, it becomes a challenge to compete.

Going forward, Shahi are optimistic that with experienced professionals in the company and an improved distribution network (especially in the north), they will be able to meet their target of ‘Vision 3030’ – Rs 30 billion in revenue by 2030. “We are going to explore new categories, but we don’t want to do anything foolish,” concludes Peshimam.

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