Shibu Thomas Is Building a Global Brand With Harison Premium Chocolates
Introduction by: Peter Marshall
It is always good to report on a real success story in Travel Retail, especially given how difficult and challenging times have been for everyone in the industry. An interview with Harison Premium Chocolates’ CEO and Chief Brand Architect, Shibu Thomas, features in this week’s blog. It is a clear example of one man’s belief in his brand and the art of the possible.
Peter Marshall (PM): Shibu, welcome. It’s been just over two and a half years since we last spoke. COVID has come in the intervening period. How did you cope – after all, Harison Premium Chocolates is an exclusive-to-duty-free brand?
Shibu Thomas (ST): There is no question about it, it was a very difficult period for us all. But as you know the industry is coming out of it now fast and we hope to make real progress this year as traveller confidence continues to build and we look forward to a great summer ahead.
PM: Well, as a business, you just didn’t stand still and wait for the comeback. We know that last year you secured a landmark, exclusive deal with Walmart to supply Harison to around 1600 stores US-wide. This deal was a quantum leap for your company, Sweet Garden. How much of a challenge was it for you and can you take us through the results so far?
ST: Yes, it was a tremendous thing for us. It remains a real learning experience, given the size and scale of the Walmart operation. The first thing I want to say is that what is so good about Walmart is that they have a great culture in pioneering and sourcing new products that they know will meet their customers needs and which will sell. The pillars of our business match theirs – offering an excellent product range in Harison that tastes great, is beautifully packaged and is priced very competitively.
We set up a structure where the business end is fully managed from Dubai. But we also appointed a great local agency that supports our distribution and merchandising there. I have personally travelled to the States on many occasions and physically driven to many stores over a number of weeks. It was a fantastic experience.
PM: What about the results?
ST: Fantastic. So pleased. February was 86% up on January this year and March showed a 56% increase over February.
Harison now enjoys distribution in 1600 Walmart stores USA-wide
PM: So what lies behind these results?
ST: It’s simple. We believe in supporting our brand. We invested heavily in social media – digital touchpoints are key today – and engagement here is something we firmly believe in as a business. So, we had a very strong three week campaign presence in Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and Tik Tok, where we used eye-catching videos and visuals to get consumers to quickly understand what our brand is all about. We managed to deliver some 16 million impressions. That delivered real brand awareness and the pick up at store level is seen by the results I just mentioned.
But, of course, we also invested in the stores themselves with a special Valentine’s Day promotion. That also delivered.
What was so pleasing was the kind of feedback we got from our Harison social media campaign. It wasn’t just about people saying that they enjoyed the taste, but that they appreciated the opportunity of trying something new, which they will return to. One customer even wrote to say that it was a one hour journey to travel to her nearest Walmart, but that she would go back to buy our chocolates!
PM: So what are your plans going forward in the US?
ST: Well, it’s clear that we have got a great platform there to build on and, as we move out of our exclusive arrangement with Walmart, we hope to significantly expand our operations in the US with other well-known domestic retailers.
PM: How will all this impact your travel retail ambitions?
ST: As you know, Peter, we have secured decent listings in travel retail which, of course, we also hope to expand on. It seems to me that there is never a better time for our business retailers to look again at what is different in the categories they offer to be better tuned into what the changing travellers needs now are. Because their needs have changed. The success of Harison with Walmart has shown what is possible and I hope that travel retailers will take note.
PM: Well, you are still relatively new to the travel retail confectionery sector. But I would imagine it will be difficult now for retailers to ignore you – as arguably they still do for many other new brands trying to get access to this marketplace – as you have now created a situation where there must be respect for the brand and its achievements.
ST: I hope you are right. Harison’s USP remains the same as it has always been for the travel retail market.
PM: So what are your immediate plans?
ST: This year. Harison, as for many, is all about consolidation. By Autumn we will have developed something new for the US and we look forward to expanding our range for duty free and travel retail in 2023.
PM: I wish you continued success, Shibu.
ST: Many thanks, Peter