Call of Beauty: Cosmetic market is getting a makeover – know about brands bringing revolution in your vanity case

Indian consumers no longer need to look at foreign cosmetic brands, as a slew of Indian companies are changing the rules of the game with their unique and innovative offerings. From crowdsourced products, customised offerings to vegan cosmetics, there’s a mini revolution brewing in your vanity case. We profile some brands that are giving the Indian beauty space a much needed makeover…

vanity, cosmetic market
From crowdsourced products, customised offerings to vegan cosmetics, there’s a mini revolution brewing in your vanity case.

India’s first 100% vegan brand

Science and nature find a balance in Mumbai-based Plum’s skin and haircare products

Ivinder Gill

He is an IITian, with work experience in HUL and McKinsey, so when you have a conversation with Shankar Prasad of Plum cosmetics, you expect to hear a story that ticks all the right boxes. Wrong. He’s in the beauty business, but refuses to make a fairness cream. He’s had corporate and financial experience, but his venture is completely bootstrapped. He uses natural products, but refuses to tout the same. Yet, he managed to be profitable in just a year of Plum’s launch four years back, has over 60,000 customers, has expanded his product line from 16 products to 45, has multiple retail channels and even gives back 1% of his sales towards environment protection.

He obviously sensed the sector’s ever-growing demand when he ventured into the cosmetics business, but what excited him more was the potential for innovation. “Segments like beverages and automobiles can reach saturation, but beauty products will never saturate. Even for us, we presently have around 45 products, but I can see us at around 200 products easily. And this applies to only skincare and haircare. If we talk about colour cosmetics, then we can easily do 400-500 products,” he says.

Having launched a completely vegan brand, he, however, is also pragmatic in accepting that there can’t be any beauty product that is 100% natural. “In today’s age, for the kind of performance people want, shifting to all-natural will not get, for example, the right lather, the right fragrance and skin feel, with the right level of SPF, etc. My philosophy is that all-natural is not necessarily the best. At the same time, are all chemicals bad? No. So I feel that one has to find the right balance between using natural ingredients and chemicals. I feel that one should use the good part of science and the best part of nature. I don’t tell people that we’re all-natural. On our website as well, we have mentioned the quantum of chemicals used in products. I want to educate people on why we use certain ingredients and why we refrain from using the rest. I can’t think of all-natural products… if someone claims their products are all-natural, I would really doubt that.”

Now that’s a controversial statement, because there are many brands that command premium prices claiming to be completely chemical-free. But he points out that there are standards for organic products abroad (and not in India yet).

Hearing his story and looking at his business card that describes him as ‘chief everything officer’, you suspect it has been a solo story so far. He concedes that, admitting that not only has he invested his own money into the business till now, he has ideated on products, analysed market demand and customer feedback, even thought of the fancy names and descriptions on the various bottles, and gone to the extent of testing all products on himself! So far, so good. But he has bigger plans and is looking for not only investors, but broadening his product portfolio as well. The smart marketeer knows the men’s grooming market is big and so are colour cosmetics, and he’s headed that way.

But how does he compete with attractive foreign brands that have flooded the market? “There’s lots to learn from them. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t compete. You can compete on consumer understanding and price, for instance. The product is one thing, brand is another. If you can find any consumer who believes in your philosophy, then they will also believe in your products. I think of my achievement in asking if we can do business the right way, can we be transparent and not get copied? Can we offer a no-questions-asked return policy and expect people not to misuse it? Can we donate 1% of our sales towards the planet and still survive? Can we keep to the philosophy of using only the right ingredients, the right kind of plastic and no false-bottom jars?” he says. In essence, be good, which is what the tagline of Plum is. “I mean it as such…Be good to yourself, others, and the environment,” he sums up.

Customising haircare with AI

A Jaipur-based company gives consumers products that are specific to their needs

Isha Arora

Gone are the days when brands made homogeneous products for a heterogeneous audience. If clothes, accessories and skin products can be personalised keeping a consumer’s tastes and needs in mind, why should haircare be left far behind? Enter Freewill, a Jaipur-based company whose premise is personalised care for all hair types—think straight, curly, coarse, dry, coloured, chemically treated, voluminous, etc.

Freewill, which commenced operations in August this year via its online portal, custom-creates a shampoo, conditioner and serum for users based on their self-created hair profile on the site—you’re asked basic questions regarding your age, hair type, hair length, hair colour, etc, as well as specific details about the weather conditions you’re living in, strands of hair lost on any given day, thickness of a strand, etc. What’s more, the final customised product comes with the user’s name on the bottle!

Naturally, the novel concept was not conceived overnight. “We had been working on the concept since the past one year… We have done our homework on what ingredients should be used for a particular hair type and what formation should be applied,” says chief executive officer Mohit Yadav, adding, “At a time when others are compromising and creating two-three product categories—for dry hair, oily hair, dandruff-prone hair—we are creating the exact product that one needs.”

Elaborating on the germination of the idea, Yadav says that even though the concept of personalisation is not entirely new in the beauty space, the haircare segment was bereft of any customisation, something he took note of after conducting some surveys. “Based on our initial surveys, we found that people are more open to using different brands on their hair rather than on their skin. And if one is comfortable using a specific brand for their hair, they are also more likely to stick with the same brand for skincare,” the 34-year-old says.

Interestingly, the company has invested heavily in automation to reduce manual labour. The result is that whenever the company receives an order, there is no need for a formulator or a designated professional to create the formulation, Yadav explains. “It’s all done automatically through our artificial intelligence system, which is the future of beauty,” he says.

Also, while most of Freewill’s peers are resorting to content-driven retail, cramming product labels with a detailed list of ingredients, Freewill, surprisingly, does not reveal the ingredients in the first go. It is only after the consumers receive their customised products that the ingredients surface. “We have a list of ingredients printed on the website. Besides that, till the time people are getting a sulphate- and paraben-free product, they don’t care about what else goes into the making of it,” believes Yadav.

On the pricing front, Freewill’s products are priced at a substantially higher rate (all their shampoo-conditioner-serum kits are priced at Rs 1,650) than most of the widely-sold shampoos in the market. The reason for that lies in the quality of products and services that Freewill offers, clarifies Yadav. “None of the products in the Rs 100-Rs 500 range (in the market) offer a sulphate-free solution,” he says. “If you have to compare, other brands that offer sulphate-free solutions are all more expensive than us,” he maintains.

Going ahead, the company plans to venture into offline retail. “We will venture into offline retail perhaps after six months or a year… it’s on the cards,” says Yadav. He also doesn’t rule out the possibility of venturing into different product lines in the future. “It’s work in progress,” he says. Till then, the brand will continue to focus on expanding demand while maintaining quality. “So far, the kind of demand we’re seeing is phenomenal… better than what we had anticipated,” he says.

Cracking the retail code

Nykaa’s mantra for success? A content-driven business model that makes it a one-stop destination

Isha Arora

With the rampant influx of startups in the Indian retail space, it has become increasingly difficult for companies to carve a niche for themselves. But Mumbai-based multibrand beauty retailer Nykaa is an exception. Since its launch in April 2012, the company has only gone from strength to strength. And a visit to its recently-opened Luxe store at an upmarket mall in the national capital will tell you why. The beauty retailer has gone to great lengths to enhance the in-store experience for consumers at the Luxe store. There’s a horseshoe-shaped designated area for consumers to try on products with the help of makeup artists and specialists that the company has hired as staff. Customers are also spolit for choice in terms of the wide range of products available—from Nykaa’s inhouse label to global brands such as M.A.C, Dior, Bobbi Brown, Jo Malone, Tom Ford and Huda Beauty, it’s a feast for any makeup lover.

Their website, too, is not bereft of choice and ways to amplify the user experience. has ample content to guide consumers and assist them in making an informed choice. The website boasts of a blog that has beauty and makeup advice for novices and the experienced alike. Experts render suggestions regularly on topics ranging from which lip colour to opt for as per your skin tone to what diet to follow. “We believe that beauty has to be advice-based, which is why we brought a lot of content online against popular advice,” says Falguni Nayar, founder, Nykaa.

The result of focusing on a content-driven business model is that Nykaa has today become a household name. But what set it apart in the initial days was that it ventured into a segment that was largely untapped by the behemoths. Over time, the retailer, which started off as a one-stop shop for makeup and beauty products, found itself selling clothing, accessories, appliances, lingerie, etc, as well. This kind of product differentiation came into being after recognising market needs, asserts Nayar. “Beauty is our main focus, but over time, we realised that we are becoming a destination for women and we would like to build up on that by providing them other value products as well,” says the 56-year-old.

Since its launch in 2012, the retailer has ventured into multiple product lines in addition to setting up 22 brick-and-mortar stores. It’s no surprise then that the company has not only managed to stay afloat in the oft-overlooked beauty space (which has seen many of its peers shut shop on the back of lagging demand and innovation), but has also experimented with the largely ignored men’s grooming segment in India. “While 80% of our consumers are female, we felt that men would also like to experience Nykaa products,” says Nayar on the rationale behind venturing into men’s grooming.

Two years ago, Nykaa launched its own product line, the demand for which is gathering pace, according to Nayar, a former investment banker. Nykaa created its own brand of products driven by consumer demand for particular trends that global brands did not cater to, explains Reena Chabbra, chief executive officer, FSN Brands, the private label arm of Nykaa. “A lot of people were coming online and telling us about the trends they wanted to see, which is why we ventured into making our own products,” she adds.

The retailer’s website is currently self-sustained and it is investing largely in offline retail. Even with big players like Walmart and Amazon vying for a stake in India’s beauty retail space (which contributes about 10% to the GDP), Nayar remains unfazed. “Some competition is always good, as it spurs you to be your best… also, the big wars are going to be fought over grocery rather than beauty,” says Nayar.

Going ahead, Nykaa aims to increase its number of stores to 40 by the end of March next year and almost double of that by 2020. It is also looking for avenues to integrate technology with in-store experience, says Adwaita Nayar, chief executive officer, Nykaa’s offline retail, which operates in two formats: Luxe and On Trend stores. “Services and technology are really the future of retail,” says Adwaita, who is also the daughter of Nayar. “We are envisioning a very seamless online and offline experience… what they call omni-channel. In offline, we are looking at integrating virtual reality and augmented reality with in-store consumer experience,” she adds.

Clean & conscious beauty products

This Chandigarh-based beauty retailer employs crowdsourcing to create new organic products

Isha Arora

Before launching its latest offering (Herb Enriched Skin Tint), Chandigarh-based Ayurvedic beauty products company Just Herbs conducted a survey of its repeat customers, asking them what kind of product they wanted. Based on the responses they got, they made prototypes and samples of the product (which were also sent to customers for approval) before launching the final version last year.

This process is par for the course for Just Herbs, which was founded by Arush Chopra and his wife Megha Sabhlok in 2013. The company, known for its brand of Ayurvedic skin and haircare products, is employing crowdsourcing to create products that meet the growing demand for natural and organic cosmetics in India. “There is a very high failure rate in the beauty business… the big guys are so far removed from the consumer that they don’t know what to make next. That’s where our expertise comes in,” says the 34-year-old, adding that they also provide complimentary consultations over WhatsApp.

Just Herbs, says Chopra, aims to build an interactive community, where consumers can help them identify trends so that they can innovate accordingly. “Our customers are going to guide our future trajectory,” explains Chopra.

Just Herbs started selling its products—it offers skincare, hair, bath and body products, priced between Rs 500 and Rs 3,000—in 2013 through its online portal Around a year ago, they ventured into offline retail. So far, the company has four retail stores—two in Hyderabad and one each in Chandigarh and Ludhiana. It’s also eyeing cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, where the brand already has a client base, as per Chopra. Besides its own website, the company distributes through Amazon and Nykaa as well, and even exports to Sephora in south-east Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Talking about the USP of their products, Chopra says, “A Just Herbs product is a minimum of 98.2% natural, which can go up to 100%. The remaining proportions are not parabens, sulphates or other harmful chemicals. They are safe synthetics as approved by Ecocert India (a France-based certification body).”

There’s a dire need to debunk myths around the use of preservatives in cosmetics, Chopra stresses. “We don’t make blanket statements like ‘this product is preservative-free’… it doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “The oil used in making pickles at home, for instance, is a preservative, but it’s not a bad preservative… that’s the type of education we aspire to impart,” he says, adding that products with water content tend to get spoiled and, hence, these require a small amount of preservatives. It’s up to a brand, however, to choose the kind of preservative they want to add. “We can go with parabens, which are cheap and have been in use since ages, but there are concerns around them being carcinogens. So we don’t use those,” he says.

Just Herbs also gives a complete list of ingredients on the product label, so that consumers are fully aware of what they’re using, says Chopra. For instance, ‘SLS-free’, a term used for products devoid of sodium lauryl sulfate (responsible for producing lather and foam), has become a fad these days, with even powder-based products proclaiming to be SLS-free. But the chemical is used only in water-based products, he says. “It’s a way of clever marketing,” quips Chopra.

Going forward, Just Herbs plans to venture into different product lines, but that’s work in progress, the co-founder says. “It’s not important to be 100% organic. It is, however, essential to be clean. Clean and conscious beauty is necessary,” he says.

It’s all in the quality

Authenticity is the word for this Ayurvedic beauty retailer

Isha Arora

Kama Ayurveda, which is often considered the trendsetter in Ayurvedic beauty retail in India, attributes its success to product quality and range. “If the products are authentic, everything works well,” says Vivek Sahni, co-founder and chief executive officer of the company. Kama Ayurveda, which disrupted the Indian beauty retail segment in 2002, has been riding on its success by making the most premium products. A bunch of startups have, in fact, taken a cue from the Ayurvedic retailer to make ‘natural and organic’ products that are slowly becoming a fad in the Indian beauty retail space. The co-founder, an alumnus of Parsons School of Design, New York, drew inspiration for starting Kama Ayurveda while working with the government of India on a project to revive khadi, he says. That exposure helped Sahni understand the importance and relevance of natural cosmetics. The idea was perceived, however, keeping the West (US and Europe) in mind. “Back then, Ayurveda was completely underdeveloped… so we started looking at the West, but India (being influenced by the traditional system of medicine) was definitely a very good surprise,” he says.

Unlike most of its peers, Kama Ayurveda ventured into offline retail first and then developed its e-commerce domain. Upon inception, the brand started selling its products through luxury stores such as Goodearth. It was in September 2012 that the company opened its first ever retail outlet in Delhi’s upscale Khan Market. “The response was great, following which we started focusing a lot on the Indian market,” says Sahni. Ever since, the company has opened 29 retail stores across the country in all four metropolitan cities, as well as in tier I and II cities such as Ludhiana, Coimbatore, Pune, Gurugram, etc.

Besides its own portal, its products are also available on e-tailers such as Nykaa and Amazon. Kama Ayurveda also exports to countries in the UK, European Union, US, etc. Sahni, however, maintains that exports form a “very negligible” portion of their sales, as India remains the dominant player.

Of late, a string of startups have entered the beauty space with natural and organic products, but what sets Kama Ayurveda apart is its relentlessness to remain as authentic as possible and stick to its forte of making skin and haircare products with Ayurvedic raw materials. “We now have COSMOS certification—which is the highest certification for organic products—besides getting Ecocert (a France-based inspection and certification body) certification,” says Sahni. “All our products are PETA-certified as well, and also certified for not using any banned raw materials,” Sahni adds.

The company has ventured into the wellness domain as well, a product category gaining traction in recent times, but it doesn’t plan to dwell too much on the segment. Reason being its authenticity and pledge to remain a skin and haircare brand. “We do have candles, incense sticks in the wellness portfolio, but that’s not something we are going big on,” Sahni says. While most of their peers are looking to disrupt as many areas in retail as possible, Sahni maintains that they are not looking to enter other product lines. “We are an Ayurvedic brand, so I can get an Ayurvedic remover for lip colour, but otherwise no… we don’t plan to get out of the authentic Ayurvedic space,” he adds.

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