The Maggi Magic

In spite of all the health scare, ban and the “junk” reputation, Maggi continues to retain its place as the favourite, romanticised comfort meal. 

By Madhulika Dash; Image credit: Chef Amit Vashist/ Forever Frame 


Some might call it the first comer's advantage, others will vouch for its Indianness of taste  – none in the category have managed to match the magic of the tastemaker; more would justify their see-and-you-want urge to nostalgia garnished with that certain sense of romanticism (think: Pahado Wali Maggi). 

Reason, whatever it may be, the truth remains that when it comes to instant noodles, none have managed to do what Maggi, Nestle's most recognised product, has achieved. Such is the association that today Maggi is to noodles (even the traditional hand made, ramen and others) what  Xerox is to photocopies and Walkman for portable audio devices. 

In fact, despite the many downfalls the iconic brand has suffered including the 2015 temporary ban on the sale after  it was reported to be with high levels of lead and undisclosed amount of MSG, Maggi has been able to chart a comeback that is akin to the rise of the phoenix. 

While industry experts would credit Maggi's comeback and rise to love again to the fantastic campaign charted by none other than the Midas touch leader Suresh Narayanan, the present MD and Chairman of Nestle India and his brilliant team; no one can deny the crucial role consumer sentiments played in mapping Nestle's leading revenue churner comeback. Maggi alone contributes to a steady 25% of the total revenue in India, this in spite of all the competition that the two minute noodle has seen over the years with the Korean bandwagon of instant ramen joining the fray recently. 

The Maggi Mania

What made Maggi keep its position of a favourite all-time snack in all these years – and why does this two minute noodle still hold our fascination and consent even as it has been constantly reprimanded for being an empty calorie food or as nutritionist Shaveta Bhassin would put it, “king of junks”? The answer to this fascinatingly is the story of the Maggi in India, and a course in marketing 101. 

The seeds for Maggi were laid some 4,000 years ago as fresh noodles made with  millet, rice and eventually wheat. Was it China where the noodles was developed first and then travelled to the East via different countries and  reached Italy and thereon, or was it an art form that developed simultaneously in both sides of the Silk Road along with the dehydration technique is a subject for much debate even among anthropologists. 

What however remains an agreed fact is its wide familiarity across culture courtesy its shelf life, portability and filling nature. Noodles then called ition or itrium meaning a homogenous mixture of flour and water, became a part of both the Greek and Syrian physicians' food that healed. And noodle broth by the sixth century was a standard meal for those recovering from any kind of ailment. The ability to slowly get one back to health and the patronage of Chinese and Arab traders together helped the long strings earn their spot in global popularity.

That should elucidate why in the 19th century when Swiss entrepreneur Juilius Maggi decided to create his own line of precooked soup, sauces and others, he turned towards noodles.  Juilius worked along with physician Fridoline Shuler to standardise the recipe of many of his products that had both the shelf life and the taste. In written history, it was the first time that fresh noodles were cooked and then dried to create one of the earliest iterations of what we today know as instant noodles. 


The Birth Of Instant Noodles

It was 1897 when Juilius launched his new line of precooked meals of soup, noodles and sauces with a one liner “as easy as salt and pepper.” How well the product was received in a place like Germany and then in the US where it debuted in 1912 can be ascertained from the fact that by 1947 Nestle had acquired it as the multinational planned its expansion. 

Among the line of products was  Maggi, cleverly named after the maker himself. While the precooked line was popular and even gained market share, during the two World Wars, they were a rather small part of Nestle market that was into other more in-demand products like milkmaid, chocolates and such. 

That changed in 1958 thanks to inventor Momofuku Ando. The Taiwanese businessman decided to up the instant noodles game with his own twist to it. The catalyst this time for innovation wasn't just a want of being different but the need of time. The devastating second world war had just gotten over, leaving Japan and its empire in bad shape. 

As Japan, which had Taiwan as one of its colonies, rebuilt itself, a guilty America (Atomic Bombing) decided to help by dumping an excess amount of wheat as part of the relief measure. A predominantly rice and millet eating region, Japan and Taiwan faced the issue of having a surplus of wheat without much use. 

Ando decided to use Juilius' example to create noodle versions that were pre cooked enough to effectively cook at the same time as one would steep tea. While Juilius had made and fried the noodles instantly for the desired effect, Ando decided to make the noodles following the traditional style before boiling, dehydrating and then frying. So each batch of noodles would be sun dried before the rest of the process followed. The tastemaking too was liquid sauces and dried vegetables. 

A take that was in keeping with the traditional palate. Two decades later Nissin used the technique with a few tweaks of course to create the cup noodles that negated the want of stove. 


The India Debut 

Curiously, while India had the taste of noodles and its different avtaar thanks to Chinese immigrants and Japanese travellers much through history, it wouldn't be till a free India reopened its economy that precooked noodles and soup made its appearance here. The year was 1984, the company Nestle and the product was Maggi – in a radically remodified avtaar. 

Aside from the noodles that may have gone slightly thinner in size mimicking the popular variant here, it was the tastemaker that was worked most on – and became the deal maker. After all, India was a country that while on one hand was still developing with a growing market for packaged food; it also had a vast repertoire of breakfast and snack dishes on the other, all very popular and unputdownable. 

Nestle that had spent a while in the price sensitive market knew a thing or two about launching a product that not only had to appeal to the masses but also make its place between culinary legends like parathas, upmas, dosas and such. Saying instant wasn't going to make the grade. Here's where the magic of marketing along with innovation came to play.

The Game Changing Narrative  

From the bright yellow and red product grammar to the bowl partitioned packet and the tagline “Bas Do Minute”, Nestle reworked their storyboard to suit the audience of a hard at work young India, even if it meant extra cost. 

The reportioning wasn't the only ace in Nestle Maggi armoury of success, it was the whole brand grammar – from the attractive yellow-red packaging that deceptively showed Maggi as a bowl of hakka style noodles in the bright hue of turmeric to the graphic based cooking process and the unbelievably low cost of the packet. All made Maggi standout in its aisle of traditional egg and hakka noodles. 

Then came the advertisement. For a product that had scored with masses elsewhere and could easily be marketed as one, Nestle curiously decided to narrow its target audience to the homemakers, esp mothers and their comfort. Hence, began the tagline of 2-minute despite the brand taking up to 5 to 10 minutes to make. That tagline cleverly weaved into an ad film that showed mothers preferring Maggi over  traditional snack sealed the deal. 

The beauty of it was that the comfort and convenience along with a familiar masaledar taste that appealed to kids and grandfathers too made one overlook the slightly irritating issue of the first instant noodles – the tiffin shaped cake that would face every child that opened the tiffin at lunch break. 

The softness to which the noodles could be cooked made it a favourite easy meal for elderly people too who would often garnish it with farsan to make it pleasing to their palate. 


Making Tastemaking History

What however won the day for Maggi were two things: the taste and its presence across the country, even the remotest places had the familiar yellow packet and at the same price as Parle G, the other alley favourite then. It was a tactic that Kingfisher followed too to win the market years later. 

The clever use of MSG and Indian spice mixes aided Maggi to score on both the Umami-ness and the puckering feeling that makes our food so delicious and satiating. There was of course the filling all purpose flour noodles that would swell up to give that short-lived but extremely comforting full feeling. 

The fact that it yielded the same deliciousness irrespective of the region it was cooked in and the different experimentation done that used sausages to garlic to sprouts and such thanks to a standardised recipe of the tastemaker made Maggi, an undeniable grocery essential. In fact, not just kids, travellers and even on foot army often would use Maggi as both the food of sustenance and indulgence. 

This dual role play and the consistent mouthfeel along with nostalgia became the biggest defence for Maggi against the many allegation that the brand had over the years – be it its bad repute as a junk food, which was matched with the launch of ATTA Maggi and slew of recipes where mothers advocated the little ways it could be made healthy including using eggs and veggies in it; or the lead and MSG ban that was countered by debunking the myth of MSG or Ajinomoto, which is a plant based salt product; or the current carcogenic and liver damage health scare that has been countered with the theory of moderation. 

Which makes us question what makes Maggi flourish where others have managed to only leave a dent?  The answer is  somewhere between the hormones, the brain and the marketing ingenuity 

that deems Maggi a good friend with a few vices. For that sheer delight, Maggi truly deserves the prime spot it is in.