Case Studies - Brand & Marketing

What’s Brewing at Sleepy Owl?

We find out how the brand has used retention, collaboration and community to make a dent in India’s coffee market.

Sleepy Owl coffee and merchandise

Sleepy Owl occupies an interesting place in India’s growing coffee market, sitting between mass instant brands like Nescafe and Bru on one hand, and the many new, high-end, artisanal brands on the other.

Childhood friends and co-founders Ajai Thandi, Arman Sood, and Ashwajeet Singh positioned the brand in this space deliberately.

Their aim is to build a convenient, distribution-based FMCG brand which is “simply good coffee,” instead of a niche, premium product that could be hard to scale. (100g of Sleepy Owl instant coffee retails at ₹475, compared to ₹285-300 for Nescafe.)

Founded in 2016, the company grew its revenue from ₹1.8 cr in FY19 to ₹5.2cr in Mar 2020, while expanding its reach to over 1000 outlets across Delhi NCR and Mumbai. In November 2021, it raised $6.5m in Series A funding.

The Audience

Sleepy Owl targets the 24-30 year-old first-time coffee drinker who has just started earning and associating with brands. This has dictated much of the brand’s positioning, product portfolio, design and communication. 

Positioning, Personality and Design

Co-founder Ashwajeet Singh oversees Sleepy Owl’s brand-building efforts and says that the brand is positioned as cheerful, creative and “a challenger of the status quo.” 

The instantly-identifiable owl mascot incorporates a clever heart counter-form and the design, says Singh, uses colour, humour and ease to stand out.

Simple, clear language is important as is avoiding anything that sounds pretentious or elite (no elevated flavour notes, please).

Sleepy Owl enamel mugs blue and green
The Sleepy Owl brand focuses on colour, humour and ease, avoiding the flowery language associated with artisanal brands

Product Portfolio

Sleepy Owl entered the Indian market with a packaged cold-brew – a format and product that was alien to most consumers in 2016.  While the brand quickly expanded into other formats such as packaged hot brew, bottled ready-to-drink and the recently-released instant coffee, Singh maintains that entering with a unique format helped them stand out and build brand recall.

To address customers who prefer other formats, Sleepy Owl also offers their own French Press and ground coffee.

Sleepy Owl product range
The Sleepy Owl range now offers a variety of products and formats

Online vs Offline Sales

Sleepy Owl’s sales break-up is currently as follows:

  • Direct-to-consumer via its own site: 30%  
  • Online marketplaces and quick commerce: 30-40% 
  • Offline: 30-40% 

The brand views its own D2C site more as a brand-building channel, rather than a primary sales destination, partially owing to the escalating cost of customer acquisition. Approximately 60% of all online sales comes from repeat purchases.

Quick commerce and offline retail are the channels expected to deliver the best results for growth. 

Surveying the Community

While every brand carries out consumer research, Sleepy Owl takes it to another level. Every quarter, the company sends out a detailed questionnaire to a targeted cohort of its most loyal customers (Definition: Average Order Value (AOV) of 5x more than average, ordered multiple times, or opened the last 20 emails). 

Screenshot of SleepyOwl customer survey
A sample questionnaire from Sleepy Owl

Questions include current and future plans, brand perception and what customers would like to see from the brand. The survey is substantial, taking 20-25 minutes to complete and still draws 2000-3000 responses. (A token discount is offered to those who send surveys in.)

Infographic with sleepy owl brand insights
Some of the insights that Sleepy Owl has gathered over the years from its customer surveys

Occasionally, Sleepy Owl will also send smaller surveys to a database of 100,000. These are normally done for quick decisions such as packaging colour preference and readability.

Sample of a customer survey
Sample of a quick customer survey for cold coffee cans

“Everything we do is a function of customer feedback and surveys. We take our surveys very seriously. They help us shake off our biases and gain valuable perspective.”

Ashwajeet Singh, Co-founder, Sleepy Owl

High-Decibel Collabs, Silent Ads

There are also a slew of collaborations with other D2C brands that share the same ethos, including:

  • No Sleep – a cold brew-infused coffee gin with homegrown gin brand Greater Than. 
  • Breakfast Cereal Stout  a stout beer made with brewery Goa Brewing Co.
  • Coffee Crunch Granola – with muesli, protein bar and chocolate brand The Whole Truth
  • Chocolate Coffee Fudgesicle –  with healthy ice-cream brand NOTO

Singh says while such collaborations help reach new audiences, the bigger benefit is in the brand impact. “Such collaborations are exciting for the audience. If done meaningfully and consistently, they really compound and rub off on the brand.”

Sleepy Owl also does tie-ups with content creators like maverick travel vloggers Ronnie & Barty and community owners like trainer Kunal Rajput who sends out SleepyOwl hampers to his entire ‘Unlock’ community every season.

Four images of products created in collaboration with Sleepy Owl coffee
Some of Sleepy Owl’s successful brand collaborations

The brand is noted for its fuss-free ads, the most popular of which have been the series of ‘muted’ ads on Instagram. 

While the campaign delivered a click-through rate of 3x compared to previous ones, it also created buzz and traction, leading to a spike in organic growth.

Sleepy Owl is careful to align the ads with the overall authentic, direct look and feel of the brand. “When something feels over-polished, the audience picks up on it as un-authentic,” says Singh. “Creating intelligently for the social medium is also key and we keep our ads short and to the point.”

Going forward, “some interesting content marketing which is still under wraps” is on the cards. 

We’ll be waiting, with a cuppa by our side.

What do you think of Sleepy Owl’s brand-building strategy? Any comments or advice? Let us know below.

4 Comments

  1. Love the total clarity on consumer target and brand positioning plus the commitment to customer insight. Smart work.

  2. Thanks a lot for sharing. This was insightful as I am too working for a challenger brand but in a different category.

  3. Great case study as always. Love the way you find a different aspect to highlight in every brand

  4. At the outset, I am a fussy coffee drinker and thoroughly detest instant stuff. This view is from this myopic viewpoint:
    1. Launch of the product, progression, brand building and plans for the future are what I would have followed.
    2. The Sleepy girl ad is great!
    3. How does a new customer get confidence on consistency of flavour and quality?

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