Halfway through my Zoom meeting with Aman Gupta, co-founder of the audio products company boAt, I realise this: The 39-year-old loves marketing. From quoting the four Ps of marketing (product, price, place and promotion) to expressing a preference for being called the “H&M or Zara of electronics fashion”, Gupta knows how to keep a dialogue engaging.
Despite, in fact maybe because of, the complexities of the covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was a tremendous year for boAt, the audio consumer electronics brand Gupta founded with Sameer Mehta four years ago. In December, boAt was listed as one of the world’s top five brands in market intelligence firm IDC’s wearables and hearables list along with stellar names—Apple, Xiaomi, Huawei, Samsung and Fitbit (ranked joint fifth with boAt). “I never thought we would be in the top five brands of the world so soon. Being with the likes of Samsung, Apple...an Indian brand doing something like that felt nice. It felt patriotic,” says Gupta.
The mass shift to work from home was a windfall, with demand for audio wearables soaring. After all, it is hard to take a video call or conduct an online meeting these days without headphones, one of boAt’s largest selling categories: They contribute to around 60% of the business.
The Delhi-headquartered company saw a 20% surge in demand for products as more and more people spent an unprecedented amount of time at home. Before the pandemic, the brand was selling an average of 8,000-10,000 units, including headphones, portable speakers and audio products, every day. That figure reached around 15,000 in 2020. This was backed by a strong financial performance as the company racked up revenue of ₹701 crore in the financial year 2019-20. By FY23-24, the company is aiming to reach the ₹1,000 crore mark, Gupta told the Press Trust Of India in August.
Much like the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns that took everyone by surprise, Gupta says boAt wasn’t entirely prepared for the shift 2020 brought. “We never thought that the market would change so drastically. I was speaking to a friend the other day who works for an MNC. It seems they will be working from home till June,” he adds. “We are speaking on Zoom calls now. I was never used to it, frankly speaking. Virtual conferences were never something I did. It was always in person... Work from home is a reality for all of us. Studying from home, never imagined that. Or, my daughter using Google Classroom. Headphones have become essential now.”
During the early months of the pandemic, Indians spent more time on smartphones, engaged in different forms of entertainment: be it video-streaming content, gaming or just listening to music. Headphones are a common thread through these trends, which, says Gupta, had been emerging for the past few years. The pandemic has only amplified them. “You can call it the online way of life,” he adds.
Unexpected change seems to be part of boAt’s story: Gupta and Mehta didn’t plan on starting an audio products company together. In fact, they did not know each other before boAt’s inception in 2016. “It was like an arranged marriage,” he says.
Mehta was running RedGear, a gaming accessories firm, while Gupta was handling sales for lifestyle audio brands like JBL, Harman Kardon and AKG in India as sales director at Harman International. Buoyed by the boom in the Indian audio products market, each of them decided to apply to House of Marley, an American company, for distribution. Its country manager suggested Mehta and Gupta meet. “Both of you will be an amazing pair (business-wise), he had said,” Gupta recalls, adding that the duo met in Mumbai and “took a couple of days to firm up the partnership”.
“Once we got talking, Sameer knew that I was good at sales and marketing. I knew that he was well-versed with China, distribution and logistics, finance. It was a good fit,” he says. “We took a bet. My family was always against partnerships but it was God’s call. He (God) said, theek rahega (it will be fine). I took a leap of faith with Sameer and now we are the best of friends,” says Gupta, an alumnus of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Before boAt, Gupta had also worked with KPMG and German brand Sennheiser.
Affordable, yet aspirational
Keeping up with the market is something boAt does well. Having started primarily by offering “indestructible” mobile charging cables, it moved into the audio products segment, and has now ventured into the wearables and smartwatch space. Analysis firm Counterpoint Research says boAt had an 18.3% market share (in terms of volume for Q3, CY2020) in India in the true wireless earbuds category, ahead of Xiaomi, Realme, JBL and Apple.
Its Watch Storm smartwatch, available for ₹2,499, generated an impressive response, selling out in a matter of minutes across three online flash sales in recent months. “We were a lifestyle brand primarily playing in electronics from Day 1,” says Gupta. “We never used to call ourselves an audio brand.” He insists that the company’s products and ethos resonate with India’s millennials and their lifestyle needs: be it making products for users who “love bass” (quoting a popular number from a 2016 Salman Khan movie) or offering design-friendly products.
He is following a similar approach with wearables. “If you look at the youth today, they are all fit or trying to be fit. Fitness is critical for a big part of our population and wearables are mostly used for fitness-tracking,” he adds. The firm is also looking at gaming peripherals.
It has used aggressive pricing to its benefit, some of its wireless earbuds costing as little as ₹1,299. “We are not as cheap as some of the other Indian or Chinese brands, or super expensive as some luxury audio brands,” says Gupta, adding that he wants consumers to try a new product every six months. Feedback is key here. “We will probably get them new technology, new colours. We want to sell headphones as you are buying T-shirts or jackets,” he says. “Around 30-35% of our consumers buy a boAt product again. My loyalty factor is 90%-plus,” Gupta explains. “We are an affordable, yet aspirational brand.”
I tell Gupta I can’t remember the last time I saw a boAt advertisement on TV. That is when our conversation turns to “boAtheads”. Cricketers Hardik Pandya, K.L. Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Shikhar Dhawan, Prithvi Shaw and Shreyas Iyer, Bollywood celebrities Kartik Aaryan, Kiara Advani and Diljit Dosanjh, musicians Neha Kakkar and Naezy—these names are the gamut of brand ambassadors who endorse the company’s products on social media and other digital channels. “We get a lot of feedback (on the products) from all of them. They have become more like chief technology or chief lifestyle officers. We have grown with them and they grow with us,” he says.
Come to think of it, the young company has smartly tapped the areas that Indians love. Cricket? Check. Bollywood? Check. Audio products that are value for money? Yep. But why rely less on traditional marketing channels? “Old-school marketers used to say put 60% on ATL (above the line marketing), 30% on BTL (below the line) and 10% on digital. For me, in the first three years (of boAt), it was 100% digital,” says Gupta. “We haven’t done a magazine advertisement so far or put out a hoarding. We only did TV (advertisements) in 2020 for IPL (Indian Premier League),” he adds.
Though most of their business— 60-70%—is online, Gupta wants to address the issue of reaching consumers through offline channels. “We started offline (sales) only in 2019. Earlier, maybe 90% of our business was online. A big part of India is still offline and you cannot ignore that,” he says, adding that boAt is working closely with the likes of Croma and Vijay Sales on offline sales strategies. “We haven’t gone beyond the top 10-20 cities,” he adds. “We still have a lot of room to grow in India and then go beyond.”
There are some obvious challenges. Most of boAt’s products are still manufactured in China—a tricky proposition for a home-grown brand. “We are trying to move our supply chain. It won’t happen overnight but we will do that going forward,” Gupta says, recalling how demand for headphones outstripped supply in the early months of the pandemic.
Gupta calls himself a “Delhi boy”. He lives in Hauz Khas as part of a joint family and his office isn’t too far away either—Hauz Khas Village. But working from home is now the norm. He would spend more time in office earlier; now, his calendar blocks time for at least a family lunch and dinner daily. The number of work hours has gone up too. “It’s very weird. People say you should have a work-life balance. Right now, there’s too much work time and family time happening simultaneously,” says Gupta, who became a parent for the second time in June.
He swears by cricket. Watching the IPL from home this time didn’t affect his love for the game but in recent years he has grown fond of badminton too. “I used to play quite regularly at Siri Fort,” he says. An evening jog has also become part of this fitness routine. When he cannot step out, owing to the potential risk of transmission or bad air quality, he follows YouTube exercises at home.
Apart from his own family, his professional family too has grown during the pandemic. Using more cricket analogy, he says: “There’s something called a strategic time-out in the IPL. The pandemic has given us a time-out where we could think about the last four years and strategise for the next few years.” Their workforce has grown 50% over the last few months—including the formation of a new research and development, strategy and growth team.
“I am missing my office family,” Gupta admits. “There are some (new) members of the team whom I haven’t met until now. The X-factor of a social life is something I miss.”