The Insights that Led to SUGAR
In 2012, Kaushik Mukherjee and Vineeta Singh founded FAB BAG, a beauty subscription business. For Rs. 599 a month they would send subscribers a ‘surprise’ beauty box with a mix of five products across makeup, skincare, bath and body, haircare and fragrances. Sourced globally, these products were mostly new and unknown brands.
A few months into the business, the founders noticed an interesting trend: Each time their 18-25 year old customers received a box with a makeup product, positive reviews would soar. People would also write in asking if they could buy the makeup product separately.
India’s beauty industry is estimated to cross US$8 billion by 2021. There are a large number of brands, both established and new, that address the skin and hair care segments. The colour cosmetics industry, in contrast, was relatively stagnant in 2015. On one end of the price spectrum were high-volume, mass players like Lakme and Maybelline and on the other, luxurious, high-ticket brands like Mac and Estee Lauder. As a reference point, lipsticks from Lakme and Maybelline are priced at Rs. 250-Rs. 350, while Mac lipsticks start at Rs.1000.
“If you wanted to upgrade from the mass brands, but didn’t have the pockets for the luxury brands,” says Mukherjee, “there was very little choice in the market.”
Meanwhile, FAB BAG had reached fifteen thousand subscribers by 2015, but was slowing down. It was clear that the beauty subscription was not going to scale the way the founders had hoped. Mukherjee and Singh decided to take the plunge and launch SUGAR Cosmetics, a makeup brand aimed at 18-25 year olds, an audience they felt was underserved by existing players.
What SUGAR Got Right
Fast-forward five years, one of which witnessed a pandemic, and SUGAR is hoping to close FY21 with a top line of almost Rs. 150 crores. Their journey has several interesting lessons for anyone launching a consumer brand in India.
1. Product-Persona Fit
The FAB BAG experience gave the team the time, opportunity and data to understand who their customer was. Beyond demographics, SUGAR’s target customer was vocal, opinionated, well-informed and in search of instant gratification. These young women identified neither with the celebrity-driven advertising of the mass brands, nor with the often intimidating messaging of the luxury behemoths. SUGAR has kept this customer persona at the centre of their strategy and this is probably one of the most fundamental reasons for their success so far.
Given that the company’s growth lay in getting mass customers to upgrade or luxury customers to try something less expensive, SUGAR needed to establish that it was a premium brand.
2. Bold Product Bets
Despite a shoestring budget, the team sourced their launch products – a kajal and an eyeliner – from a reputed manufacturer in Germany. The ‘Made in Germany’ label proved to be a source of reassurance for customers and helped SUGAR get its initial footing.
The market then was dominated by glossy eyeliners, but SUGAR chose to launch a matte one, convinced that their customers would be happier with a product they could use daily. The eyeliner, which went on to become a bestseller, was the first of many product bets that SUGAR would make.
3. Thumb-Stopping Packaging
Like many new brands, SUGAR launched with an all-digital approach. The brief to design partners Opposite, was to create ‘thumb-stopping packaging.’
Aware that the challenger brand needed to look and feel distinctly different from the prevailing minimal and predominantly black aesthetic, Opposite designed a bold, graphic route that employs low-poly illustrations. (Low-poly, derived from ‘low polygon,’ is a graphic route where simple geometric shapes are used to create angular compositions).
“Rather than equivocate with existing players, we decided to embrace the new dynamic – the screen was more important than the shelf, the packaging was more important than the logo.”Abhisek Sarda, Founder, Opposite
4. Riding the Influencer Wave
The role of Instagram influencers in the marketing of beauty brands is well-documented. SUGAR too rode the wave of ‘unboxing videos’ and ‘before and after’ transformations to create awareness.
The brand’s influencer strategy on Instagram is carefully nuanced. Their most popular videos include one with acid attack survivor, Anmol Rodrigues. You can spot influencers with large follower bases like Shubhangi Anand, but videos with micro-influencers are equally popular.
Today, the brand boasts 1 million followers on Instagram, much ahead of competitors like Colorbar.
4. Slaying the Distribution Dragon
SUGAR launched with a store-front on Shopify in 2015, which it still maintains. In November 2019, the company also launched an app, which has crossed 800,000 downloads and received a 4.6 stars rating across Android and iOS.
SUGAR’s website and app gets more than 2 million unique visits every month, making it one of the largest digital-first brands in India. The app and site are fairly functional, without too many bells and whistles, but ~50% of SUGAR’s online revenue is derived from both these channels together.
The online acquisition strategy still continues to be largely focused on social ads. In 2016, SUGAR listed on Nykaa, the beauty marketplace, which at the time had considerably fewer brands than it does today. By 2017, nearly 80% of the brand’s revenue was coming from Nykaa and the team confesses they didn’t know whether to “be happy or worried.” Either way it was clearly time to scale distribution.
From Nykaa, it was a relatively easy path to other online marketplaces like Amazon and Flipkart. The real challenge, admits Mukherjee, was cracking offline.
The Real Test: Scaling Offline
In the hoopla about ‘D2C,’ young brands often forget that offline channels are critical for scale in India. Unlike the internet, gaining entry to offline department stores demands personal networks and feet-on-street. SUGAR was able to crack their first offline entry into department store Lifestyle, because they set up a team with the relevant connections and experience. Interestingly, their extensive social following and database, proved to be an important marketing tool for their first shop-in-shop at Lifestyle, Hyderabad.
SUGAR ran a focused campaign to reach out to Hyderabad addresses in their database, inviting them to the opening. On the first day, there was a sizeable throng of young customers around the SUGAR kiosk, creating that all-important buzz and piquing curiosity amongst shoppers and other brands alike.
In February 2019, SUGAR opened its first owned store in Forum Mall, Kolkata, in a space flanked by M.A.C and Forest Essentials. While the pandemic has disrupted further offline expansion, by February 2020, 60% of SUGAR’s revenues were from offline channels.
“Any successful challenger consumer brand must undertake a three step journey and SUGAR is currently on Step Two.Kaushik Mukherjee, Co-founder & COO, SUGAR Cosmetics
1. Develop a great product and get early adopters through a focused approach
2. Embrace omnichannel and distribute across online and offline platforms
3. Go all out and build brand awareness through mass campaigns”
What SUGAR Would Do Differently
When asked this question, Mukherjee points to team structure, saying they didn’t have a nuanced understanding of how the team should be structured to drive different objectives across business units for the brand and company. He also admits that things he wished they had done earlier, include getting a better understanding of the conversion funnel and tuning the ERP for real-time revenue and inventory visibility. “But that’s the beauty of it,” he puns, “you have to jump into the deep end and learn to swim along the way.”
Will SUGAR be able to take on the legacy brands with their massive clout and convince customers to switch? That will depend on many factors beyond product, design and branding. However, it definitely goes to battle with a big brand advantage – a sharply defined, digital-first, identity that has been embraced by legions of savvy, young customers.