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Personal care is in the eye of the beholder

Sandeep Murthy , Atharva Purandare
1st June 2021

Of the $18BN BPC market, the top 10 FMCG companies comprise over 30% of the market. The 8 major brands are owned by 3 FMCG giants- Unilever, P&G, and L’Oreal. These 3 companies have a combined age of 388 years. Take a moment to think about these seemingly contradictory facts- in a sector where companies have 4 centuries of experience, how have 80+ brands come up in the last 5 years? Why can’t the legacy brands keep up? We try to answer these

What is your skincare routine? How many steps does it have- 357? If your answer is 0, don’t worry, a lot of us are right there with you. Personal Care brands have taken India by a storm not just because of their products, but also thanks to the stories and values they have embedded within their brand. This increasing popularity of ‘Skinfluencers’ and personal care regimes in mainstream pop culture is all thanks to the rapid rise of these new-age, ‘Internet-first’, D2C brands. Let’s break that down: ‘Internet-first’ owing to their digital distribution channels and ‘Direct-to-Consumer’ due to the lack of distributors, wholesalers, and retailers in the supply chain. 



Building brands: Traditional v/s D2C 

 

We’re not kidding when we say rapid- in the last 4-5 years, 80+ brands have been built in the Beauty and Personal Care (BPC) space in India. We believe the D2C BPC market is probably the most crowded space for Venture Capital money to flow into. More competition leads to newer products, leading to a more pressing need for differentiation. In any case, the Indian consumer is winning. Gone are the days where Shampoos only meant Head&Shoulders, Pantene, ClinicPlus, the only soaps available were Pears, Lux, Lifebuoy, and face washes were limited to Dove and Garnier (If we’re being honest, Coconut Oil still remains largely synonymous with Parachute’s blue bottle). All of these are household names. You see, personal care products are largely ubiquitous in India and command a significant mindshare. 
 

They are also extremely consolidated. Of the $18BN BPC market, the top 10 FMCG companies comprise over 30% of the market. All the 8 brands mentioned in the last passage are owned by 3 FMCG giants- Unilever, P&G, and L’Oreal. These 3 companies have a combined age of 388 years. Take a moment to think about these seemingly contradictory facts- in a sector where companies have 4 centuries of experience, how have 80+ brands come up in the last 5 years? Why can’t the legacy brands keep up? Within those new D2C brands, how many can scale? What are their niches? And the golden question(s)- what is the differentiation, how do we spot it, and where is the whitespace? We tried to answer some of those questions here. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any solid answers to the best skincare routine. 

 

The Rise of D2C

This entire piece could be summed up succinctly in one single quote
 

“Never has it been easier to launch a brand, and never has it been harder to scale it”


The launch: Never has it been easier to manufacture (Zetwerk), advertise (Instagram, Google Ads), setup payments (RazorPay), distribute (Amazon, Flipkart), and deliver (Delhivery, ShipRocket) your product. The total D2C addressable market in India is estimated to be worth $100BN by 2025. 600+ D2C brands have been launched between 2016 and 2020 in India. 

 

The scale: Out of these 600+ brands, only 45 (7%) have crossed the Rs 100Cr+ ARR mark. Out of these 45, only 5 are in the BPC space. Further, only 16 (3%) of these have reached the Rs 400Cr+ ARR milestone. Only 3 within these are in the BPC space
 

Indian D2C brands market map


Nonetheless, there are no two ways about it- the D2C market is flourishing in India. The Indian growth story and shift in consumer behavior makes it an exciting time to be an 'Internet-first’ brand in India. We believe this meteoric rise of D2C in the last 5 years can be understood through 3 lenses: Market, Consumers, and Incumbents. 

 

The Beauty and Personal Care space is massive. It is made up of Skin Care, Hair Care, Men’s Grooming, Cosmetics, Perfumes, and Nutraceuticals. For this discussion, we wanted to focus primarily on brands in the Personal Care (Skin Care + Hair Care + Grooming) space.

 

  1. Market: India’s retail industry is projected to grow from $900BN currently to $1.7TN in 2025. On the back of cheap mobile data and budget smartphones, e-commerce is projected to grow from $40BN (4% of retail) to $200BN (11% of retail) in 5 years. As internet becomes more accessible, a newer generation of online shoppers discover e-commerce every year- by 2025, 200MM+ online shoppers are projected to be online along with 500MM social media users. It’s hard not to be bullish about India’s online commerce growth story. This story is the launchpad for D2C brands and it's a very convincing one at that.

    Look at the overall Indian BPC market- it is projected to grow from an 
    $18BN to a $28BN by 2025. Even in 2021, India remains a largely ‘touch and feel’ market- 94% of BPC consumers still shop offline. Internet-first brands are trying to capture the remaining 6% pie (~$1.1BN). The 6% online-first market with 25MM customers is expected to grow to 16% with 110MM customers by 2025. Online-first, D2C brands are targeting this 6% pie. While small in number, there is a tremendous opportunity to build and grow here. But it’s also clear from the numbers that to become a truly large brand, going omnichannel is inevitable.

     
  2. Consumers: Modern consumers don’t need bigger malls to shop in or more products to buy, instead they want to buy products that work well for them and adhere to their values. These consumers are more open to experimentation with not just new brands but also with niche categories. They have been under served for years and now have evolved needs- an increase in awareness, education, disposable income, and a willingness to pay a premium for brands which are the right ‘fit’, both in product and values. Legacy players simply aren’t able to provide the latter- there is no personal connection with the brand, except perhaps, nostalgia. 

 


New age D2C brands have a strong set of values at the core of their brands


Although the single biggest factor, especially in BPC, has been the rise of women shoppers. In 2020, women constituted 44% of online shoppers, up from 10% in 2016.
 

  1. Incumbents: In the past few years, legacy brands have simply been unable to keep up with the digitally native brands. A supply-demand mismatch with the modern age consumer striving for aspirational products was the final nail in the coffin, creating a growing whitespace for D2C brands to emerge. As we mentioned earlier, legacy players have existed for centuries together- why can’t they keep up?
     
  1. Lack of a Brand- The BPC giants have been selling products for centuries, not brands. Hardly any of them have any intangible assets with which a consumer can resonate and develop a connection with. Since their brands, or rather lack of one, has been a work in progress for decades, it is extremely tough to organically break away from these values and claims. Hence, new trends are simply absorbed into the existing brands. Moreover, it is especially a huge task for them to start a new brand owing to rigid internal processes and hierarchy. 
     

 


New brands launched by legacy FMCG companies in the last 5 years
 

  1. Lack of Agility- Even from a product and manufacturing perspective, these companies cannot be agile. Unlike contract and third-party manufacturing, owning your manufacturing requires higher Minimum Order Quantities (MOQs) and hence, lesser trial and error. This inturn leads to lesser iteration, increases the product launch timelines (>12 months), and disrupts product-market fit. In a trend-driven industry, longer turnaround times can be fatal. 
     
  2. Lack of Digital Marketing- Even now, legacy brands spend only 20% of their marketing budgets on digital marketing. Traditional media like TV and Newspaper remain the primary channels for advertising which are quite inefficient. ‘Internet-first’ brands are not just digital-first in distribution but also in customer acquisition and marketing.

 

An increasingly online BPC market, a highly aware and value-driven consumer, and legacy players struggling to innovate to keep up with this new demand creates the perfect storm for the rise of D2C players in the Personal Care space. 

Launching (and differentiating) a D2C Personal Care brand

Now that we have established what D2C brands are and the sudden interest in them, let’s actually look at what makes one a winner. We have observed some common characteristics across all Personal Care brands: 
 

  1. Innovative products compared to incumbents 
  2. Playing in a previously unexplored niche
  3. Unique brand positioning and packaging 
  4. Social media and influencers as the new channels of engagement 
  5. Agile product innovation and manufacturing 
  6. Digital channels of distribution 

 

Entering the Market
Thanks to rich customer data being available directly, D2C brands have a sharper understanding of their customers. The initial differentiation from the incumbents is stark in the first step itself- product innovation and go-to-market strategy. To stand out in this crowded space, they have a two-pronged approach while identifying product white space. This picture might help: 

 

Product Whitespace in the Indian BPC market: Mass Premium segment + nicher offerings
 

Vertically, from an ASP perspective, products across categories can be segmented into mass, mass-premium, and premium. Incumbents are comfortably placed in the extremes. They have played largely in the mass (Rs 150-350) category, especially in India, and it is an extremely crowded space with little price difference and innovation. Due to their house of brands approach, they also have the luxury to have companies that operate in the other extreme: luxurious, premium products (Rs 1,500+). What they fail to realise is that the new age customer, the millennials, are super aspirational. They want to elevate themselves from the mass-y products, but can’t afford spending Rs 1500+ on a shampoo. Where do they go?

Enter D2C brands: they came in and created a new, aspirational category in the Mass-Premium (Rs 350-1,000) segment. Perfect price segment + relatable marketing + aesthetic labels truly resonated with these consumers.

 

D2C brands have filled up the product whitespace incredibly well 

Horizontally, they have created a new market using new niches, ingredients, and trends that the incumbents simply don’t have. No legacy brand in India is currently selling Vitamin C Serums, Beard Oil, Niacinamide Serums, Retinol Creams, or Apple Cider Vinegar, Onion, and Tea-Tree Oil face washes. 
It’s easy to figure out product and brand differences between incumbents and D2C brands. But what about within D2C brands? That is where things get tricky.

 

Differentiation within D2C: Products and Brand Positioning 
It is quite counter intuitive, but we have observed that in an industry where you’re known for your product, the product itself becomes highly commoditized within D2C BPC brands. Due to contract and third-party manufacturing being the go-to options, a lot of the top brands often have the same manufacturer for the same product. To add to this, since none of the new-age brands talk about or mention efficacy, the buying decision becomes further qualitative. 

Same product, different story- what is your pick?

 

Thus, this decision is often driven by the intangible assets of the brand. We believe that comprises of:
 

  1. The niche you operate in and go-to-market strategy
  2. Brand story, values, and positioning 
  3. Hero Ingredient and Celebrity association 
  4. Aesthetic

 

 

Intangible assets of D2C brands: Niche, Brand story, Hero ingredient, Product aesthetic 
 

This makes it harder to gauge the scalability and success of a brand because qualitative decisions are largely subjective. We feel this also makes investing in these brands difficult, especially in a later, Series A+ stage. What resonates with us in a niche and aesthetic product, might not appeal to the larger crowd. 

 

After talking to some customers, we realised that Customer Repeat and Retention, are the two north star metrics in this sector and are often driven purely by efficacy. While there is an entire gamut of hero ingredients, brand stories, niches, and aesthetic labels, there is no real talk of efficacy. Instead, claims of the brand being organic, natural, ayurvedic, and herbal are incorrectly taken as a proxy for the product having efficacy. We saw these claims across a whole host of brands- but are they really binding? Who enforces them? The answer was disappointing. While the domestic and international certifications are definitely a solace, other claims are simply that- claims. There is nothing binding about them and no one seemingly cares. 

 

 

Claims of the brand being organic, natural, ayurvedic, and herbal are largely not binding

Thus, the real differentiator in this space are all intangible assets of a brand: their niche, brand stories, values, hero ingredients used, and their aesthetic. 

 

Leveraging Digital Marketing

For D2C brands, the cycle from acquisition to retention is starkly different when compared to legacy brands. 'Internet first' brands are socially active and recruit customers online. They realise the significance of trust in the buying decision and user generated content by influencers is a great proxy for trust in the brand. This translates into having a separate budget for influencers and online channels and striving to have an online community across platforms. We actually did a deep dive into the social commerce space here. Direct to consumer also leads to prompt responses to queries- this increased responsiveness also leads to a better connect, and hopefully, higher customer retention.

Check out these 30 second ads from 
Fiama (an ITC brand)Mama Earth, and The Minimalist to understand how each brand takes a different approach to talk about its products and emphasizes on different aspects of their brand in the same time frame. 

 

Agile Product Innovation and Manufacturing 
Simply put, we have observed that these brands move incredibly fast and have very little downside while doing so. Let’s break that down: 

 

  1. Higher number of SKUs, faster trial and error- Owing to contract and third-party manufacturing, low MOQs are needed, leading to a faster go-to market speed. This keeps the flywheel moving, leading to a quicker product-market fit. 
     
  2. Data-driven processes- Direct access to rich customer data from their websites and marketplaces and product innovation driven by a product whitespace analysis leads to a better understanding of both supply and demand. 
     
  3. Lower cost of failure- These brands can afford to ‘move fast and break things’ due to the inherent nature of the sector too. BPC enjoys extremely high Gross Margins ranging from 65-80%. Due to the nature of outsourced manufacturing, it is an asset light, Capex light business, allowing them to experiment more. 

    These reasons allow the Inventory Days to drop from 
    ~110 days for legacy brands to ~60 days for D2C brands and product launch timelines drop from >12 months to barely 3 months for these newer brands. 

 

Finally, to answer the original question of differentiation, it still remains quite elusive. But there’s a lot to learn from how different brands created their small nuanced differences as they grew. We summed up our learnings here:

How to find the elusive differentiation? 

Scalability of a D2C Personal Care brand

When we looked at various companies building in this space, another pressing question often asked was around scalability. While setting up and launching a brand is relatively easy in BPC, meaningfully scaling it is tough. Will it grow from 10Cr  100Cr  500Cr? How much capital would it require and how do growth strategies adapt to your scale? 

 

For BPC brands, revenue is the perfect yardstick in understanding the scale of a company and assessing the company’s subsequent growth strategy. We divided the companies’ journey into 3 major stages: Early stage, Growth stage, Expansion stage and tried to create our own playbook around checklists at each stage. Of course, this is by no means a definitive or an exhaustive list. 

 

 

Different stages of growth for D2C brands
 

1) Early Stage

  1. Rs 0Rs 10CR: The brand is just starting out and needs to establish the niche it wants to operate in and its initial brand positioning. With immense competition, it is joked about how startups now actually need to find niches within niches to provide some sort of differentiation. It launches on marketplaces and rapidly gains product market fit while also keeping a keen eye on CAC to ensure it is under control. Since it’s a trend driven industry, there is a need to keep tracking keywords to launch new products in. 
     
  2. Rs 10Rs 100CR: Grows own website to educate the customer about their brand story and values and to control the shopping experience. Establishing a hero ingredient to hook the customers and drive retention. Introduce more SKUs while keeping the same brand propositioning. Reviews and ratings on marketplaces become incredibly important- actively engage with customers. The brand positioning and values become less malleable at this stage. 

 

2) Growth Stage

  1. Rs 100Rs 600CR: Funnily, all digital brands are trying to go offline to expand further and all offline-first, legacy brands are trying to adapt to the digital world. Going Omnichannel is inevitable in India. This is also the stage where brands try expanding beyond their target audience ?and at this point the brand is pretty much a generalist. Brand positioning and values have been solidified at this point in the journey. 

 

3) Expansion Stage

  1. Rs 600Rs 1,000CR+: The handful of Indian brands who have reached this stage have explored myriad interesting strategies of expanding and scaling to become a Rs1,000Cr+ brand. Most commonly, the expansion to a new international geography, acquire/start a handful of smaller brands to appeal to various audiences, become a generalist, or have a house of brands approach to begin with. 

Different expansion stage strategies for D2C brands

Headwinds

While yes, it has never been easier to launch a D2C brand, it has also never been harder to launch a differentiated one. Evident by the several ‘me too’ brands, as time goes by, it is harder to find a subset in the personal care space that hasn’t been explored before. We believe in 2021, the biggest headwind remains this: upstart brands in BPC need to find a niche within a niche to have a differentiated proposition at launch. Here are some of our other observations: 
 

  1. Revenue Stagnation: Out of 600+ companies, only 7% have crossed Rs100CR ARR and only 3% have crossed Rs 500CR ARR. Brands witness a plateau post euphoric growth and thus identifying the levers which help a brand succeed (product differentiation, niche, brand positioning) is essential (and unfortunately, not an objective decision).
     
  2. Growth in Tier 2+ cities is still hard to achieve: This is further exacerbated by the fact that the discovery (Instagram) and distribution channels (Amazon, Flipkart) used remain metro-centric. Newer discovery + distribution platforms (Meesho, Trell, TakaTak, Josh, Shop 101, Foxy etc) largely cater to Tier 2+ audiences and their true potential hasn’t been realised yet.
     
  3. Expansion to Offline retail: While going omnichannel remains a pivotal part of the expansion plan and is necessary to grow, not all brands are built to be on the shelves of General and Modern Trade. Especially the former. Products which are slightly more mass premium will find it difficult to break into offline retail. 
     
  4. Consumer awareness increasing: Consumers are losing trust over baseless claims of organic, herbal, natural etc. Like we mentioned, none of the products talk explicitly about efficacy. Being Natural/Herbal does not equate to being effective.
     
  5. Retention problem: Brands are having a problem in being able to retain customers on their own website. In a steady state, the majority of revenue comes from marketplaces. Marketplaces don’t sell the brand ‘experience’ and hence consumers are moving from brand to product loyalty.

Where is the whitespace?

Despite how crowded the market looks right now, there are a lot of unexplored, underpenetrated opportunities we’re keenly tracking. When looked at through a global lens, it seems about time some of these trends show up in India, considering how nascent the D2C BPC market is here. Here’s what we’re excited about: 
 

  1. Community Driven brands: We’re big believers in community-led brands. They will be huge. In the entire online buying process, there is a lot of trust deficit. Especially when you’re starting a new brand + selling it on your website. Since products are largely undifferentiated, trust is at the core of your decision making. How do you quantify trust? What is a good proxy for it? Enabling authenticity by building a trusted community around your brand might be the answer. We agree with what Hadas Drutman, head of retail for Glossier had to say- “What we consume defines our identities and 2020 has changed a lot for us as consumers. We buy into a brand's greater mission and not just their products”. Eg- Glossier, Birchbox
     
  2. Scientific and Clinically Driven brands: As general education regarding skin care rises, consumers are gravitating towards products with specific active ingredients. These brands address the huge efficacy whitespace by being a lot more ‘active ingredient’ and ‘benefit’ led. Example- Dot&Key, Earth Rhythm, The Ordinary.
     
  3. Celeb-led brands: Tons of successful brands have already come up in the D2C Fashion space- HRX, Being Human, WROGN, Imara etc. There is a dearth of celebrity-led cosmetic and personal care brands in India. Celebrity led brands make acquisition easier but there still remains a huge trust deficit- not as simple as buying a T-shirt endorsed by a celeb. Katrina Kaif’s Kay Beauty is probably the only popular celeb-led beauty brand in India. Even globally, only a few large outcomes have been seen in the celeb-led personal care space (Goop, The Honest Co). It’d be interesting to see what the Indian pioneer in this space looks like. 

 

  1. D2C Brands catering to Tier 2+ audiences: So far, all the personal care brands we have seen have largely been built for Urban audiences. This gap is further widened with the channels used for marketing and distribution- they’re all metro-first. We’re looking forward to seeing a brand that is building for Bharat in this space. Eg- Purplle.com 
     
  2. House of Brands: Brands like Mosaic Wellness (Man Matters + Be Bodywise) and Pureplay Skin Sciences (Plum Cosmetics + Phy Men) have a fantastic approach to the BPC space. Both of them acknowledge the scalability challenges in the Consumer Brands space and tackle it by actively adopting a House of Brands approach from the get-go, as opposed to using it only in the Expansion stage. 

 

As ConsumerTech VCs, we have always been excited by everything Consumer and have been keenly tracking Personal Care space’s growth in the country. We believe this new DNA of brands emerging in the form of Direct-to-Consumer is the future of consumption and commerce in India. We already have a handful of them in our portfolio: Rebel Foods, Nua, Bombay Shirt Company, Melorra, and Flinto. 

 

If you’re a founder building something fascinating in this sector, especially in any of the above whitespaces, or just someone who wants to chat about the space and the companies, we’d love to talk. Drop us an email at research@lightbox.vc


Exits

Simply put, 2021 has been an incredible year for D2C BPC companies in the country. Q12021 recorded $109MM raised in funding, already surpassing all of 2020’s funding which stood at $104MM. Interestingly, when you go deeper into this data, the funding is skewed in the favor of Cosmetic brands compared to Personal Care ones. Across all rounds Nykaa, Purplle, and Sugar have collectively raised $280MM when compared to the $48MM raised by MamaEarth, Plum, and Juicy Chemistry. We believe Personal Care is just getting started. The coming few years will be marked by the Personal Care brands scaling up and becoming giants in the space. Companies in the BPC space also command a multiple of 5-7x, higher than other D2C categories. 

 

Category

Stage

Investors

Revenue FY20

(Current ARR)

Valuation (INR Cr)

Mamaearth

Personal Care

Series B

Fireside, Sequoia, Stellaris

112 Crore

(750 Crore)

730

Plum

Personal Care

Series B

Faering Capital, Unilever Ventures

53 Crore

510

Juicy Chemistry

Personal Care

Series A

Verlivest

6 crore

(40 Crore)

195

MCaffeine

Personal Care

Series A

Amicus Capital and RPSG Ventures

40 crore

N/A

Mosaic Wellness

Personal Care

Series A

Matrix Partners, Sequoia and Elevation Capital

N/A

N/A

Nykaa

Beauty

Pre-IPO

Steadview, TPG and Fidelity

1860 crore

(2,600 crore)

9,000

Sugar

Beauty

Series C

A91, India Quotient, Elevation

105 crore

(195 crore)

750

Purplle

Beauty

Series C

Goldman Sachs, Verlinvest, Sequoia

94 crore

2,250

 


VC Investments in the Indian BPC space 

 

Exits in this space primarily happen through 2 ways: you either get acquired by a legacy brand like an HUL (i.e M&A) or you become large enough to become a digital HUL and eventually go public (IPO). Interestingly, in the US 60% of all brands in the $80-$100MM range have been acquired by legacy brands. There hasn’t been much activity happening in the M&A space in India but we expect a lot more consolidation to happen in the next 2-3 years. If not a complete acquisition, like Marico acquiring Beardo for $46MM, sometimes larger brands passively invest in possible acquisitions. Examples- Colgate invested (24% stake) in the Bombay Shaving company and Emami invested (30% stake) in The Man Company. 

 

Exits in this space come through M&As or IPOs


Summary (tl;dr)

  • In the last 5-7 years, there has been a new DNA of brands emerging. These ’Internet first brands’ are completely different from the incumbent ‘offline-first brands’ in the way they acquire, educate, and retain customers.
  • BPC in India is an $18BN market that continues to expand rapidly. It has been traditionally offline (93%) and in the next 5 years online is projected to increase to 16%, thanks to rapid digital adoption due to COVID.
     
  • 80+ D2C brands have come up in the BPC space due to 3 major factors: 
    • Incumbents- Not agile, averse to digital marketing, no compelling brand value proposition
    • Consumers- The modern-day consumer is always looking for something aspirational that resonates with her and is willing to experiment
    • Market- D2C is creating niche markets + creating a new segment of innovative, mass-premium products within pre-existing ones
       
  • If you look within the D2C brands themselves, Product quickly becomes a commodity. The real differentiating factor is the niche you operate in, your brand positioning, values, and aesthetic.
  • Influencers (especially Instagram) are key to this entire ecosystem. They are your channel to reach customers, help them discover your brand and appeal to them with your unique approach, story, and values. Discovery and education happens through influencers.
     
  • The BPC industry is extremely trends driven and thus, it is important to have a hero ingredient as a hook for the consumers. Hard to predict the trends- quite sporadic and ever-changing.
     
  • Revenue milestones (0 -> 10 -> 100 -> 1000Cr) are great yardsticks for understanding and analysing the strategy of a growing company and work well across BPC.
     
  • Identifying a niche, previously unexplored space remains a pivotal starting point for PC. Some unexplored/under penetrated niches are: dearth of Celeb-led brands, KBeauty brands, brands with a scientific/clinical approach, brands building for Tier 2+ audience, and community led brands.
     
  • Community-led brands will be huge. There is a lot of trust deficit, especially when starting a new brand + selling it online. Since products are largely undifferentiated, trust is at the core of your decision making. How do you quantify trust? What is a good proxy for it? Enabling authenticity by building a community driven brand might be the answer.
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