This is the welcome message on the home page of the dabbawalas’ website. It is, like the organization, deceptively simple. A “dabba,” in local Indian parlance, is a lunch box or tiffin with home cooked food; the person who delivers it is called the “dabbawala.” The name, however, has long lost its generic connotation and is associated with one of the most innovative organizations worldwide in supply chain management: the dabbawalas. With a fan club that includes Prince Charles and Richard Branson, the dabbawalas are a brand to reckon with. What started as a service during the British colonial rule has evolved into a brand that symbolizes low cost innovation, teamwork, and brilliance in operational efficiency.
As the day begins in the commercial capital of India-Mumbai, the doughty dabbawalas strut across the hustle-bustle of busy streets collecting tiffin boxes. The dabbawalas deliver warm lunches from the homes of customers, and the women who work in those households usually decide what is being served. Traditionally the process has been conducted via personal networks, but today dabbawalas have websites in place to facilitate the process. A total of 5000 dabbawalas move almost 200,000 lunches everyday, an activity that has been carried on with utmost precision and punctuality for over a decade now. Little wonder, then, that at the recent Mumbai Marathon, Standard Chartered applauded them, “The dabbawalas keep the city moving.”
The organization has become symbolic of Mumbai’s culture, and the dabbawalas themselves have structured their own narrative as an indigenous brand that thrives on little technology and basic infrastructure. They claim to be the descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji, and belong to the Malva caste—a legacy that is well in sync with their highly indigenous operations. Donning Gandhi caps and regularly getting together for cultural ceremonies, the dabbawalas both draw upon and contribute to the cultural fabric of Mumbai.
The local trains of Mumbai are the mainstay of the dabbawalas' impeccable supply chain process. Having become indispensable to the quotidian activity of office goers and businessmen, the brand has come to acquire tremendous goodwill amongst its customers and employees alike. In the last 125 years of existence, they have never gone on a strike. Raghunath Megde, president of the Nutan Mumbai Charitable Trust which manages the dabbawalas, says that after the railway strike of 1975—which caused huge losses to the dabbawalas—the organization realized the importance of abolishing the employer-employee relationship and instead put in place a structure where every worker is a shareholder. So today, part of the goodwill and mindshare that the dabbawala brand enjoys can be attributed to their ideology of inclusive growth—what branding industry professionals commonly refer to as "living the brand."
The mainstay of the entire organization is these workers-turned-shareholders. This uneducated workforce of men, with very little exposure to technology, has become the most potent brand ambassadors of the organization, with unflinching standards of teamwork and customer service. There is only one error in every 600,000 deliveries—a service standard which has earned them the Six Sigma Certification for Quality. Such has been their impact that leading business schools like Stanford and the Indian Institutes of Management (the premier Asian B Schools) invite them for lectures and workshops on supply chain management and teamwork.
The dabbawalas have never carried out self-branding exercises via advertisements or promotions to build their brand. The credibility associated with the brand has largely been acquired through word of mouth and buzz (again, this was never part of a formal strategy) because of their high standards of legendary customer service.
Leading brands in India—in an effort to increase their own brands' outreach and goodwill within the local consumer marketplace—have started exploring synergies with the dabbawalas. Microsoft, for example, used the dabbawalas to promote its Windows package for a campaign called “Asli PC,” meaning “Genuine PC.” Microsoft could not have found a better channel in Mumbai for reinforcing the value of authenticity associated with its brand. Media conglomerates and financial and telecom service providers have also used the dabbawalas as agents for direct marketing. Airtel, India’s leading telecom provider, used the network of dabbawalas to deliver and promote handsets, new connections, and pre-paid user cards.
According to the Trust’s President, these campaigns have been successful because “The dabbawalas are a brand that is synonymous with trust and commitment. I believe this is the reason why most reputed organizations like to associate with us.” For instance, in a gesture that underscores the trust and credibility that these workers carry on their shoulders, the Mumbai State owned Corporation Bank appointed the dabbawalas as its brand ambassadors and entrusted them with the task of account opening activities. Furthermore, Reliance, one of India's top most companies, recently used them to promote its Reliance Power IPO.
Indeed, this is considerable acclaim and brand muscle for an organization that has only recently learned to a create website in order to keep pace with the changing world. But for the dabbawalas, nothing seems impossible. As their Chief Information Officer told me recently, “If the commitment is there then qualification can be built.”