In pre-independence Bangladesh, businesses and Bangalis appeared to be synonymous with small retailers and some traders of agro commodities.
The making of a local brand was a distant dream then, but things have taken a different turn now with the rise of great entrepreneurs in independent Bangladesh that gradually gave rise to a thriving private sector to dominate the economy.
And they played a part in positioning hundreds of local brands in the consumers’ minds with many ascending to the top of the lists.
Half of top 50 brands local
Kantar Worldpanel, a world leading market insight firm, found in 2018 that half of the top 50 brands in Bangladesh were local ones reflecting the strong emergence of the local soft assets in the economy.
In modern Bangladesh, consumers take pride in dozens of local brands that either overtook the foreign competitors or gave them a run for money.
Local players are also dominating the market of pharmaceuticals, food, salt, cement and steel.
Bangladeshi brands, closing the gaps over time, supplement Bangladesh’s story of an economic rise with the fastest growing GDP alongside its enviable progress in social indicators, internationally being referred to as a role model of development, said Policy Research Institute Research Director Dr Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, also the chairman of think-tank Research and Policy Integration for Development (Rapid).
He thinks Bangladesh’s rapid economic transformation has greatly been facilitated by the emergence of a dynamic private sector.
“A relatively well-developed private sector made Bangladesh quite distinct from other LDCs and many low and lower-middle-income countries,” he noted.
Bangladesh’s sizable manufacturing-GDP ratio (about 20%) – which is twice the average of the LDC group and is even higher than that of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – enabled brands to flourish here, he said.
Independence: Creation of the base
In the Pakistan era, few rare Bangali-owned private industries, such as Mala Saree by Dhaka’s Anwar Group, set the example that Bangalis too could thrive in big businesses.
Post-independence Bangladesh was solely focusing on fulfilling the basic needs, mainly food while the state took over all the industries left behind by West Pakistanis.
The handful of local entrepreneurs, having prior experiences in businesses, kept moving ahead with their business efforts, while full-scale privatisation was yet to come.
Bangladeshi entrepreneurs began with taking care of the existing brands such as Nabisco biscuits and Tibet ball soap.
The big change they brought was through creating their own brands.
Over the course of time, they broke the monopoly of foreign brands and Bangladeshi brands are now dominating the market in a large number of fields, while in some sectors, foreign players found it profitable to exit the competitive market.
Contending, then overtaking
With ample human resource, Bangladesh was more focused on exports to global brands, mainly in apparel, leather products and some other categories.
The focus was gradually shifted to the local market to cash in on the fast-growing consumer class and their rising purchasing power.
The legendary rise of the local pharmaceuticals industry began with import substitution motto in the 1980s, with Square, then a Pabna-based small drug-maker, setting up a factory near Dhaka.
Beximco, belonging to the first batch of entrepreneurs in independent Bangladesh, entered into its pharmaceutical venture and won it all through dedication and excellence.
US pharma giant Pfizer left the market selling their business to locals before the new millennium and it turned into today’s Renata. The vaccine king GlaxoSmithKline shut their pharmaceuticals plant in Chattogram in 2018 amid the emergence of world class cost-effective local competitors, such as Incepta in vaccines and dozens of other drugs.
Now, beginning from over-the-counter drugs to anticancer ones, Bangladeshi generic brands are everywhere.
Multinational Bata was the synonym of shoes to Bangladeshi consumers for decades and it had no competitor brand to contend with here.
Local venture Apex Footwear that began as a contract manufacturer of Japanese and Italian brands in 1990 kept thriving in exports and in the early 2010s, it eyed the local market seriously.
Apex did not take even a decade to overtake the century-old global brand Bata in the Bangladesh market.
Another century-old foreign brand Singer has lost its refrigerator and television empire to the local brand Walton over the last decade.
According to a 2021 research report by UCB Asset Management, Walton now holds 72% of the refrigerator market, while Singer caters to only 12% of the market while Jamuna, Minister and many other local brands also have eaten into Singer’s market.
Singer was a top player in the television market too, and Walton is now widely ahead of all with a 27% market share, while Singer is in the number two position with an 11% market share.
Local brands are yet to overtake foreign brands in air conditioners, washing machines and diversified kitchen appliances categories but with their increasing market shares they might not take many years to replicate the refrigerator and television success as local players. Walton is now investing heavily in research and development and marketing with its eyes on a global market.
Bangladeshi kitchen appliances brand Miyako with 21% market share is only behind Samsung.
Walton began as a low-cost market contender in the late 2000s. Its Chief of Business Operation Sohel Rana believes on top of the supportive government policies, manufacturing and marketing products in line with the need and ability of local consumers helped the company grow big and now chase its global dreams.
Indian Hero and Chinese Phoenix were the bicycles Bangladeshis had been riding for decades but now world-class Bangladeshi exporters, such as Meghna and RFL’s Duranta, are grabbing a big chunk of the local bicycle market and set to overtake foreign brands.
Olympic began as a local confectionery brand in the 1990s, while the market was fairly divided among a bunch of local brands and imported foreign ones.
It has now emerged as the market leader by a large margin.
Bangkok-based frozen ready meal giant CP entered Bangladesh in the late 1990s and expanded its retail outlets across the market in the 2010s. But the strong local contender Kazi Farms Kitchen has apparently overtaken its market in recent years.
In their busy lives, Bangladeshi consumers made Radhuni and Pran their top brand choices for ready spice mixes.
Local brands ACI Salt and ACI Aerosol are the market leaders by far here.
In tea, local brand Ispahani is the top brand leaving foreign ones, such as Lipton and Tetley, behind in competition.
Where foreign brands still dominate
According to a BBC Report citing Kantar Worldpanel market intelligence in 2018, top nine brands in the Bangladesh market were multinational ones, Tibet ball soap occupying the tenth spot and leading all the Bangladeshi brands in terms of brand strength and value.
Understandably, Unilever’s Sunsilk shampoo, Lux soaps and Rin detergent are the strongest three brands.
Local “Halal soap” Aromatic’s sudden spark and demise, local mass market soaps Meril and Keya or premium soap Sandalina are not ignored at all by a large group of Bangladeshi consumers.
In tobacco, paints, hair care markets, foreign players, including British American Tobacco, Berger, and Marico are still leading the pack but local aspirants did not leave them unchallenged.
Foreign hygiene product brands – Dettol and Savlon – have long been ruling the market but local brands, such as Square’s Sepnil, are chasing them.
FBCCI Vice-President MA Razzak Khan said the post-independent business environment and facilitation helped local brands grow and the Made-in-Bangladesh nowadays is fuelling the trend.
Bangladeshi corporates now have the needed financing capacity and value proposition to offer and very importantly the brains to let a brand compete and ascend to the top.
He believes a large number of local brands will come up stronger at home and abroad in the coming years.
In many industries, including the apparel sector, the market is still not much concerned about brands, but the situation is changing rapidly and local players, such as Aarong, Yellow and Sara are investing for their fair share amid the absence of formal retail outlets of global lifestyle brands.
That might make Bangladesh’s market a new battleground for retail brands someday.