DMT Beauty Transformation: What High-Street Brands Get Wrong — and Right— in India
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What High-Street Brands Get Wrong — and Right— in India

June 11, 2024BruceDayne

India’s fashion retailers were in a fluster earlier this year when local media suggested that one of the country’s largest conglomerates was about to bring a game-changing new competitor to the market. The alleged deal between Reliance Industries and Primark has since been denied by both companies but it is only a matter of time before lower-priced chains turn their focus to the country. Just last month, Reliance’s retail unit secured a local partnership with Asos, another mass market player popular in the UK.

Indian consumers have had a decade or more to get acquainted with global fast fashion and high street giants like Zara and H&M, though Uniqlo and others touched down more recently. Now, most big names in this price bracket are in expansion mode across the country. In April, Inditex confirmed it will bring Bershka to India “in the coming months.” The Spanish group’s flagship brand Zara has been in the market since 2010, through a partnership with Trent Limited, part of the Tata Group.

Zara’s early entry served as a litmus test for the feasibility of the Indian market, and the brand now has a footprint of 23 stores. Its main rival H&M followed in 2015 but has demonstrated a more rapid pace of expansion. The Swedish brand counts 62 stores across 29 Indian cities today.

“India is a priority market for us, and we’re focused on expanding both physically and digitally here in a big way. We’ve already opened four new stores this year, with more to come,” said Amit Kothari, head of customer activation and marketing at H&M India.

With India’s luxury and accessible luxury markets in the spotlight, it only follows that the country’s mass fashion sector is poised for substantial growth, presenting ample opportunities to both overseas and local companies.

India’s mass fashion segment was worth €16 billion ($17 billion) in 2023, according to Bain & Company.

“The Indian [mass] market proved to be very dynamic in recent years, solidly rebounding post-Covid,” said the consultancy’s senior partner Federica Levato, noting a compound annual growth rate of 15 percent between 2020 and 2023, twice that of the global market. “The market is expected to keep its dynamism going forward and post a low-double-digit growth rate to 2028 versus the mid-single digit expected for the global market.”

Indian actress Kiara Advani has appeared in local campaigns for Spanish high-street brand Mango.
Indian actress Kiara Advani has appeared in local campaigns for Spanish high-street brand Mango. (Mango)

Future growth will be fuelled by India’s economic development, its swelling middle class population with growing purchasing power, and a ‘youth bulge’ that will become a demographic dividend in the years to come. Around 66 percent of India’s total population — more than 808 million people — is below the age of 35, according to the International Labour Organization.

However, the mass market is increasingly competitive. India is already home to several international players, such as Mango, Bestseller Group’s Vero Moda, Forever21 and Gap to name a few. These players have domestic counterparts in popular local brands such as Westside, Fabindia, Shoppers Stop, Pantaloons and Reliance Trends alongside e-commerce offerings from the likes of Myntra, Nykaa Fashion, Ajio and Amazon India.

This organised cohort of local and international brands sits alongside a fragmented group of homegrown direct-to-consumer labels, Instagram-only shops, shopping arcade sellers, informal street markets, mom-and-pop-shops, and export surplus stores (stores which sell branded stock sourced from garment manufacturers that are rejected for not passing final quality checks).

But what makes Indian consumers choose one fashion item over another in this unique and rapidly changing segment of the market?

Into the psyche of the Indian consumer

Homegrown online fashion e-tailer Myntra, a key player with 2.3 million styles to choose from, has been able to track the evolution of Indian consumers by studying the company’s more than 55 million active monthly users.

Jayanti Ganguly, VP of business at Myntra (whose parent Flipkart Group was acquired by Walmart in 2018), explains that “Indian consumers [in the age bracket of 18 to 42] used to be largely brand-driven, but in the last few years we’ve seen a shift towards a trend-first approach. The Indian high-street consumer is seeking trends before anything else now.”

Umashan Naidoo, head of customer and beauty at Westside (also part of Tata Group’s Trent Limited), one of India’s leading homegrown fashion and lifestyle retailers going back to 1998, emphasises the importance of agility and speed to draw in the trend-conscious Indian consumer.

“It’s really about, ‘What’s new? How fast can we get it? And what’s after that?’ So, we have over a hundred new SKUs every Friday. And over 500 new SKUs every fourth Friday,” he said. Westside sells 25 in-house brands across categories of western wear, lingerie, loungewear, traditional Indian wear, beauty and more.

Indian fashion e-tailer Myntra's Spring/Summer 2024 campaign.
Indian fashion e-tailer Myntra's Spring/Summer 2024 campaign. (Myntra)

Ganguly echoes the importance of speed. “It’s all very real-time. If Kim Kardashian is wearing a dress, there will be instant searches on that style,” she said, noting that many trends are now global. Last year, for example, Myntra saw a 550 percent increase in keyword searches such as ‘hot pink’ and ‘barbie-core’ around the release of the movie “Barbie.”

But it is often local superstars and influencers who have sway over many trends and consumption patterns. Myntra, for example, saw demand surge for their Bollywood-inspired looks during the latest festive season, with saris being a favourite.

And while there is a case to be made for luxury brands going beyond predictable celebrity marketing tactics, in the case of high street brands, Bollywood promises desired eyeballs among the masses. Many famous faces have been roped in to do just that: Katrina Kaif for Uniqlo, Kiara Advani for Mango, Ananya Panday for Only and Amazon Fashion, Shanaya Kapoor for Madame, and Athiya Shetty for H&M’s 2023 Diwali campaign to name a few.

Some celebrities have also launched their own high street brands, Salman Khan’s Being Human was an early example. Virat Kohli has menswear brand Wrogn, Hrithik Roshan’s HRX is focused on activewear, and Saif Ali Khan’s House of Pataudi does Indian wear drawing on the actor’s royal lineage. Alia Bhatt’s kids and maternity wear brand Ed-a-Mamma got the backing of Reliance last year.

“Partnering with a celebrity helps with the top of the funnel, that is awareness. But it cannot guarantee success. Actual conversions boil down to so many other attributes, including your actual product,” said Preeta Sukhtankar, who founded direct-to-consumer label The Label Life back in 2015, with celebrities Malaika Arora, Bipasha Basu and Sussanne Khan as ‘style editors’ for its various verticals.

“The associations need to run deeper, and brands need to think beyond lazy marketing,” added Sukhtankar, who exited the company in 2022 when Goat Brand Labs bought a 90 percent stake.

Brands must also ensure that new launches do not lag behind those in other markets. H&M, for example, releases collections in India aligned with their global calendar, and this includes designer collaborations such as those with Rabanne, Giambattista Valli and Simone Rocha. “The Indian customer doesn’t want to go like, ‘Oh I saw this during my vacation in Paris a few months ago and it’s only come to Indian stores now’,” conceded H&M’s Kothari.

Pricing is a key consideration for the local mass market. Levato says that Indian fast fashion consumers are “typically more price-sensitive compared to other nationalities.”

Aparna Rajagopalan, design research director at Bengaluru-based consultancy Icarus Design, agrees. “In most cases, consumers are likely to go for the cheaper option, but one that still suits their style.”

Sukhtankar likens it to the mindset showcased in Amazon’s previous ‘Aur Dikhao’ (meaning ‘show me more’ in Hindi) campaign. “The consumer, especially the younger ones, can just keep going, and going, and flirt with every brand, until they find the best thing for the best price.”

Naidoo thinks that the consumer psychology is more nuanced, though. He labels Indian consumers, no matter the income group they belong to, as value seekers. “So yes, they are very price sensitive, but brands don’t need to throw it in their face by having a big board saying ‘now 399 rupees’. Let them be inspired by the garment, and then wowed by the price too.”

“At Westside, if something doesn’t work, we take it off the shop floor, but don’t discount it. The first price is always the right price for us,” Naidoo added.

And then there is the case of the ‘non-metro’ consumers, which is a very important market to tap. Myntra says 65 percent of its new customers came from these smaller cities last year. One of H&M’s most recent store openings was in tier-two city Siliguri, and stores are available in many others including Dehradun, Aurangabad, Bhopal and Mangaluru. Of Westside’s 233 stores across 86 cities, 78 are in tier-two and tier-three cities.

Even so, Sukhtankar feels there is a large gap in communication with this segment. “You can divide the consumer into India and Bharat — urban and non-urban — but brands are only speaking to the former.” Most brands, whether Indian or international, are stuck in the loop of speaking to the limited cohort living in posh districts of Mumbai and Delhi, not actively thinking of shoppers in cities like Hyderabad or Indore, despite their spending power, suggests Sukhtankar.

Challenged by the ‘India only’ wardrobe

Unlike other global markets, traditional wear is still an integral part of business in India, with numerous domestic brands dedicated to selling kurtas, churidars and saris for daily wear.

“The so-called ‘staples’ many brands are trying to sell in India are all wrong. They are often chosen by looking at what’s happening abroad. Take a white shirt, for example. It’s not as relevant in India as it is in western markets,” said Sukhtankar. “Because the truth is most of India is still shopping for co-ord sets and Lucknowi kurtas,” she adds.

This is the sweet spot where brands like Zudio, Style Union and Westside manage to find success, suggests Sukhtankar, as they offer both categories, and at attractive prices. Other brands have found their niche in uniquely Indian womenswear staples — like GoColors’s focus on coloured leggings and churidars.

To compete against smaller local players, deep-pocketed international brands have the option of scaling their offering to provide variety but in a market like India localisation is key.

A campaign image for the Jodi Life for Nykd by Nykaa collaboration.
A campaign image for the Jodi Life for Nykd by Nykaa collaboration. (Nykaa)

International brands do try to localise their offerings around key festivities, especially Diwali and the wedding season but in most cases these are curations from within existing collections. H&M’s collaboration with Sabyasachi in 2021 iss a rare example of a customised collection that featured a sari and kurta sets.

To further contextualise their collections for a local audience, mass market brands can work with guest curators such as tastemakers, celebrities or even local designers. Indian companies have pursued such pairings for some time but recent examples include Dhruv Kapoor for Ajio Luxe, and more recently, Jodi Life for Nykd by Nykaa.

In India, sizing is another pain point in mass produced collections from international brands which follow standardised metrics more suited to European and American body types. This is where the hack-loving Indian consumer uses easy and cost-effective access to neighbourhood tailors to their benefit. Either they alter mass market pieces that don’t fit well or have the designs replicated at a cheaper price.

“They also get innovative to tweak styles they’ve already purchased to fit within the framework of socio-cultural restrictions and their definitions of modesty,” said Rajagopalan, adding that they may “add sleeves to a strappy outfit, take a plunging neckline higher or lower a slit when the styles are considered inappropriate or too revealing.”

Another segment of the mass market where international brands struggle to compete is the ‘Indo-western’ or ‘fusion’ aesthetic. Brands like Fabindia and Anokhi are emblematic of this style intersection. “It’s very unique to our culture where you could have western silhouettes with Indian fabrics, style a crop top with a sari or wear a western outfit with Indian jewellery. And this kind of mashup is not going anywhere,” said Rajagopalan.

“[Western] fast fashion brands don’t have deep enough insights into Indian culture and can benefit from a more nuanced understanding of the diversity of this market,” she added.

Indian department store chain sells inhouse high-street fashion brands across its nationwide store network.
Indian department store chain Westside sells inhouse high-street fashion brands across its nationwide store network. (Courtesy)

Local brands like Zudio, however, serve this segment naturally, suggests Naidoo. “We’re saying: listen, you want to wear a kurta with jeans? I have it for you. You want to wear a flippy dress or wide-leg jeans? I have that too for you. There is a certain elasticity in the offering.”

To cater to a country like India — which has “many Indias within India,” as industry insiders often like to say — there is no one-size-fits-all formula to success. But deeper penetration is possible for international brands through India-exclusive collections, collaborations with local designers, targeted strategies for different regions, and a greater understanding of local retail culture.



Praachi Raniwala, DMT.NEWS, DMT BeautySpot,

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