Can India produce a luxury beauty label?5 min read . Updated: 23 Mar 2016, 04:38 PM IST
Despite the Ayurveda lineage, local brands find it difficult to compete in a cluttered market
Unlike cars, watches and wines, where luxury offerings are seen as significant social markers, beauty is harder to pin down. Flashing a gold D&G lipstick, however beautiful it is, for example, may not set you apart socially, though owning a gold Porsche car would.
Beauty is more democratic and accessible than its other lifestyle counterparts, including fragrances. But a true luxury consumer is looking for luxury in every aspect of his/her life and wants the best of class in each category.
According to Jean-Noël Kapferer, author of The Luxury Strategy: Break The Rules Of Marketing To Build Luxury Brands, a luxury brand, besides being exclusive, priced way beyond its functional value, and a social marker, is also rooted in heritage, know-how and culture that can be owned. For that reason, Italians “own" luxury cars, the Swiss own watches, the French own couture, fine wines and fragrances, and so on. That definition may evolve but as a broad strategy it makes sense to play to your strengths. Caudalie, a grape therapy-based French luxury beauty line operating from a family owned Bordeaux vineyard, Château Smith Haut Lafitte, is likely to have more credibility than one from a vineyard in Nashik.
India’s beauty heritage arsenal has Ayurveda, a list of traditional ingredients like sandalwood and vetiver that have been famous for age-old remedial and beauty traditions that we can claim as our own.
But do we have what it takes to be globally competitive luxury beauty players? Equally, do we have a luxury beauty consumer at home who will buy this offering? The presence of Chanel, Lancôme and Estée Lauder in India at more than one location seems to indicate that we do have a luxury beauty consumer. But will those consumers be happy to pay the same price for a brand that is local? Ultra-affluent consumers in beauty have no problem trading down if they see value—we just have to see the loyal following that Burt’s Bees’ lip balm, Olay’s serum or Baba Ramdev’s sunflower shampoo enjoy to understand that.
Forest Essentials and Kama Ayurveda are two good examples of brands that have entered at the top end of the market and created a format called luxury Ayurveda. With swanky retail outlets, personalized attention and a range of fragrant offerings, they seem to tick all the boxes. A clear indicator that it has worked is that Forest Essentials has been bought partially by the Estée Lauder group. In my opinion, however, while they may have adopted luxury codes, they are still not global luxury players. There are international brands that have taken the Ayurveda tag and run with it earlier and faster than we have.
Like Aveda, a successful brand that was started by Horst Rechelbacher based on the principles of Ayurveda. The name Aveda is a short for Ayurveda. Aveda was sold to Estée Lauder but it’s jealously protected and its brand value is intact. Sodashi is a luxury Australian brand inspired by Ayurveda. Sodashi’s Samadara age-defying cream retails at approximately 500 Australian dollars (around ₹ 25,000). Some of their products can be tried at the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts’ spas in India.
Sundari, launched with much hype by American supermodel Christy Turlington and partners but then sold, is also an Ayurveda-based brand which uses ingredients such as amla and triphala in its products.
Knowledge of Ayurveda in a globalized and flattened world is available to everyone. Sri Lanka can claim the same rich Ayurvedic tradition as ours. Kerala’s Ayurveda centres are filled with international students doing three-month crash courses in Ayurveda, even though it takes five years to get a doctor’s degree if you want to be a genuine vaidya (traditional healer).
So, how we harness and officially patent our knowledge and convert it into a luxury offering will continue to be a challenge. The proliferation of mass brands with the same range of solutions—kumkumadi oil, neelibhringadi oil, brahmi and amla creams—will always pose a threat to exclusivity.
Recently, the Uttar Pradesh government signed a “sister city" agreement with Grasse in France—that is the place where flowers get distilled into essences used in the best fragrances in the world. The reason for this tie-up: Kannauj roses from Uttar Pradesh are famous, and have been for centuries, yet we have not been able to leverage a luxury beauty line based on them. In contrast, Lancôme’s brand flower is the hybrid Lancôme rose it has created, and it sells its L’Extrait serum distilled from two million rose-stem cells at ₹ 30,000 a bottle. Dr Hauschka’s Rose Day Cream Light touts the fact that every tube has the extract of 1,000 organic rose petals.
Dior’s wildly popular fragrance J’adore has close links with Tamil Nadu—its key ingredient is Madurai Malligai, or Jasminum sambac. Malligai has its own GI (geographical indication) tag, but we have not been able to offer a luxury fragrance or a stand-alone beauty line of our own. A rich source and ingredient story dating back to 300 BC is ours for the taking.
Hungarian brand Omorovicza, which is now available in India, has used its own Hungarian spa traditions and mud therapies to create an exclusive luxury brand. I have often wondered why we have not been able to make turmeric a luxury product—it is a single-ingredient story that has so much resonance.
In a globally competitive world, we need to be aware that other cultures have rich traditions too and we will all have to compete in the same marketplace, however exclusive, for the luxury consumer’s attention.
Chinese brand Yue Sai has a unique cream, based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), poetically called “Water Holds Silver Ear" emulsion, which has more hydration than hyaluronic acid. It also has ganoderma-based face tonics—ganoderma is a fungus known in TCM for its revitalizing properties. The company was bought by L’Oreal some years ago but its TCM heritage remains untouched.
AmorePacific, a Korean beauty brand, is among the 20 top beauty companies in the world. Its offerings are based on Korean beauty ingredients and rituals—camellia oil, ginseng and green tea. But they are all offered in a modern contemporary packaging, reflecting the Korean science-meets-nature approach to beauty. Its high-end luxury creams under the Sulwhasoo brand retail at the Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus stores in New York, both signifiers of the luxury club.
Chanel travelled to Ladakh to learn Tibetan traditional medicine from Amichi doctors for the essence of golden champa flowers, which are in its Sublimage revitalizing concentrate. If you don’t harness your own traditions, someone else will. Or you have to be fiercely protective, like the French are with the Bordeaux region.
Crème de La Mer charges over $300 (around ₹ 20,000) for its kelp-based patented “miracle broth". Why can’t Kama Ayurveda do it for its kumkumadi miracle fluid, which is a traditional Ayurvedic composition of saffron, lotus pollen, sandalwood, 16 herbs, and goat’s milk?
When we find the answers, we will have a real Indian luxury beauty line.