Like many emerging brands, Sepoy & Co. – a range of botanical mixers and beverages – was borne from personal experience. Founder Angad Soni was drinking a Gin & Tonic on a flight to London, when he realised that a very limited range of tonics and other mixers was available in India. A period of research and developing the right formulation in London followed and the brand launched in the Indian market in late 2018.
Filling the Gap
Sepoy & Co.’s brand name is inspired by the fact that tonic water was prescribed by the British for soldiers or sepoys stationed in India. Quinine is the essential ingredient in tonic and soldiers drank it to avoid malaria. Soon British expatriates had adopted the drink and started mixing it with gin.
When Sepoy & Co. launched, the Indian market was dominated by Schweppes, a canned, high-sugar tonic with synthetic ingredients available for around Rs. 55. On the other end of the spectrum were imported, highly-priced variants for Rs. 150+. Sepoy & Co. tonic launched with the promise of natural ingredients and a price of Rs. 95 to fill this gap.
Go Global to Make in India
Since the brand launched in offline stores first, Soni says he knew that the packaging needed to stand out on the shelf and tempt trial.
After sifting through scores of accounts on Behance, he approached award-winning Norwegian design firm, Olsson Barbieri, who designed both the bottle and label. In addition to the brand positioning brief, the other requirement was to adopt as sustainable a route as possible, which meant glass bottles and recycled paper labels.
The final design approach employs a visual vocabulary that balances modernity with classic cues. For instance, the label uses a sans-serif typeface as well as a stylised serif one with dramatic flourishes. The bottle is inspired from medicinal bottles used to store quinine, while the pastel colour palette is fresh and surprising for the category.
The logo, used on bottle caps, visualises a modern crest with the illustration of an elephant. Sepoy & Co.’s philanthropy initiatives are tied to elephant conservation initiatives, like their partnership with World Wildlife Trust, India.
A beverage formulated in London, designed in Norway and meant for Indian audiences – did the complexity ever seem daunting? Especially for a founder with no previous experience with consumer brands?
Soni says that one moment of reckoning came when he attempted to manufacture the custom-designed bottle with its intricate ridges in India. He faced – and overcame – the “Yeh design nahi ban sakta” moment (This design is not possible) and worked closely with manufacturing partner Hindustan Glass to achieve a satisfactory solution. This points to a fact that is not discussed enough in the D2C world – the need to develop deep relationships with your vendor ecosystem.
The other challenge Soni highlights is balancing commercial considerations with a commitment to sustainability. Loss through breakage, for example, was high in the beginning until the team devised a way to pack the bottles securely with corrugated paper and bring it down to under 1%.
Like many other brands, Sepoy & Co. moved focus to their own website during the pandemic and saw the D2C component of their sales grow by 200%. The current split between online and offline sales is 60:40, but Soni expects that this will reverse as offline retail returns to normalcy. In addition to their own website, Sepoy & Co. is currently available in Foodhall, Nature’s Basket, and other modern trade stores in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru. The brand also retails on Amazon, which accounts for 50% of online revenue.
Sepoy & Co. has built brand awareness through its Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as (pre-Covid) offline events. The brand’s digital presence is handled by Delhi-based agency Unomono and the design sensibility that is evident in the packaging also permeates social media and marketing efforts.
Soni says that their content strategy has been a major driver for the brand.
“Our content strategy has three pillars:
1. The content must be well-designed and have visual appeal to break through the clutter
2. Since this is an emerging market, we try and showcase pairings, recipes and consumption ideas
3. It’s important that we demonstrate our ethos and what we stand for as a brand, from natural ingredients to sustainabilityAngad Soni, Founder, Sepoy & Co.
It’s not rocket science but it works.”
India is primarily a dark spirits market, with whiskey and rum dominating consumption. In the last few years however, there has been a millennial-driven surge towards alternatives like hand-crafted gins.
The prolonged lockdown has also accelerated experimentation at home – and as Soni points out, ”You now want to make that Negroni in your home-bar, instead of waiting to have it when you go out.”
Both these trends have provided Sepoy & Co. with tailwinds.
Of course, this has also meant that a flood of competitive brands have entered the market but Soni is confident of their premium position. “In all liquor categories, you have a ladder from mass to premium. We believe the same is true for mixers and we will dominate the premium end of the market.” The brand has won the Superior Taste award from the International Taste Institute, Brussels, every year from 2019 to 2021.
Sepoy & Co. is also expanding its product range, with the recent introduction of low-calorie lemonades, including a Tropical variant which pairs well with dark rum.
While Soni is reluctant to disclose revenue numbers, he says the company is profitable. So far, he has bootstrapped the venture with investments from family and friends, but the next phase of expansion may mean an external fund raise. As Sepoy & Co. pursues scale and reach, their strong brand narrative should serve them in good stead.
Building a D2C brand? Here’s advice from Angad Soni
- Understand what capabilities your team lacks and fill them out thoughtfully. You cannot do everything and there are many nuances, which can make the difference between success and failure. For example, you need to find the right distributors, who will place your product in the retail outlets where your target audience shops.
- Stay focused and understand one market really well, apply the lessons and then move wider. Do not spread yourself too thin.
- Invest in your online presence – be a brand people are proud to associate with.