Ananya Pathak
Points of View

Can the face mask be more than a commodity?

Van Heusen, Allen Solly, Wildcraft, Peter England, US Polo Association, Louis Philippe, Tommy Hilfiger, etc., are playing the branding game. Who'll succeed?

When the Coronavirus pandemic first broke out, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared face masks, alcohol-based hand rubs (sanitisers), and soaps and handwashes as ‘essentials’ to prevent the spread of the virus. While the then market in India had a handful of known players pocketing the customers who were aggressively buying off the last available personal protection equipment, mainly from the shelves of medical stores, there was very little information about the best-known face mask brands. “Give me a Dettol handwash, a Lifebuoy sanitiser and, umm, any available face mask…”.

The best and cheapest face mask available then was the disposable surgical one, which was mainly used in the hospitals by surgeons and other staff in the pre-COVID era. The multi-layered, non-woven mask cost anywhere between Re 1 and Rs 20.

Disposable surgical face mask
Disposable surgical face mask

Today, almost six months into the pandemic, if you simply scroll through any e-commerce platform, you’d come across a plethora of branded face mask options.

While, given the hike in demand and availability of raw materials in the apparel category to stitch cotton face masks makes the entry of Van Heusen, Allen Solly, Wildcraft, Peter England, US Polo Association, Louis Philippe, Tommy Hilfiger, ONLY, Flying Machine, Adidas, etc. obvious, the market has also registered entry of unrelated categories like that of tyre manufacturer - CEAT.

Although these face masks, made of cloth/cotton, are less effective than medical grade ones, many health authorities recommend that the general public use them.

Branded cotton face masks
Branded cotton face masks

While a pack of ‘six layer reusable mask’ (three pieces) from Wildcraft is available on Myntra at Rs 450 after a 25 per cent discount, a five-piece Allen Solly pack of ‘three layer reusable mask’ can be bought for Rs 600. Apart from major e-commerce platforms, one can also buy these branded masks from offline stores of the respective brands.

Many brands are also selling these protective gear as an added accessory to clothing sets.

Kurta sets available on Mytra with face masks
Kurta sets available on Mytra with face masks

Additionally, with the festive season around the corner, such ‘essentials’ are also being positioned as the best gifting options online.

Myntra's gifting option range includes face masks
Myntra's gifting option range includes face masks

Filtering facepiece respirators (FFR), such as N95 masks, have also seen a surge in demand in the last couple of months. Available at most medical stores and online, too, the respirators help filter at least 95 per cent of airborne particles.

FFR face mask
FFR face mask

As per a February 2020 Livemint report, some industry estimates put the combined market size of these personal protection equipment products from Rs 2,500 crore to Rs 3,500 crore. However, there is no data on how many of the 1.3 billion-plus Indians use alternatives of these ‘essentials’. One noticeable example of this is handkerchiefs being used as a replacement for layered masks.

It looks like the face mask market, which recorded a steep growth after the outbreak of the pandemic, is clearly more than just an accessory in the ‘new normal’. We wonder if it (a face mask) will become more than a commodity.

If the demand is sustained, which brands could excel at it? Could it be an apparel brand because it already has the raw material? Or could it be an extension of a brand like Dettol or Lifebuoy because of the medicinal credibility they command? Or could it be a brand that has already solved the distribution piece of the puzzle?

Here’s what industry experts think.

Edited excerpts.

Rajesh Srivastava, former CEO, JK Helene Curtis, and author of ‘The New Rules of Business’

Face mask will become the new craze – and assume cult status. It will do for ‘face fashion’ what bikini did for swimwear.

Rajesh Srivastava
Rajesh Srivastava

· Branding: Rename it from ‘mask’ to ‘face fashion’.

· Functional features: It should provide the following tangible benefits:

o Keep bacteria and virus away.

o Easy and comfortable to wear.

o Available in variety of designs, colours and styles.

o Can be coordinated with handbags and makeup.

o Biodegradable/easy to get rid of.

o During winter, it should be marketed as ‘face shield’.

· Customisation: By providing space for customisation for placement of ‘emojis’, ‘symbols’, and ‘texts’.

Marketing: Face fashion should be promoted through influencers and celebrities.

For men, it should be marketed as a ‘face shield’, and should be embellished with the ‘functional’ features mentioned for women.

Vani Gupta Dandia, founder, CherryPeachPlum Growth Partners, former category director – Indian snacks, foods, PepsiCo, and former regional marketing manager, hair, South Asia Unilever

Vani Gupta Dandia
Vani Gupta Dandia

Masks as the new fashion statement: It's on the face. Even the makeup goes backstage. So, how can it not be a fashion statement? It's an expression of ones individuality. How many understand N95 versus ordinary cloth mask? So, if I am going to wear a piece of cloth covering more than half my face, I might as well try looking pretty in it!

I’m sure we'll now hurtle towards a very proliferated market - embroidered, designer, clima cool, tribal art, floral, folk, modern… you name it, it should be available.

Uber-cool and ultra-luxe masks costing a small fortune that say ‘I’m a rich bitch’, to ultra-basic and functional that say "I care!"

Masks as a new code of trust: When one wears a mask, it's not just to protect oneself. But also to protect the others in front of, or around, you. It's a way to show respect for others.

Masks that only keep the germs out: But, let the smiles shine! As the market evolves, we will innovate to make masks that don't hide the smile. After all, facial expressions are half the communication! In these times, when relationship building over technology is hard enough as it is, we could do with some ‘smiley’ help!

Masks as an extension of the brands I wear: I went with my father to Van Heusen today to buy a shirt. And, we found Van Heusen branded masks at the cash counter! In time, we'll be matching our mask brands and colours to the brands we sport in apparel and fashion otherwise.

Chandradeep (CD) Mitra, founder CEO, PipalMajik, a boutique consulting, coaching and training organization, and co-founder, Meta4Sight

Face mask, as a category, is currently being sold and used mostly as a functional commodity, as it's yet in an early stage of evolution. However, there is definitely scope for creating strong brands in this category, and some work seems to be already underway, with fashion brands and designers jumping on the ‘brandwagon’.

Chandradeep (CD) Mitra
Chandradeep (CD) Mitra

There are probably multiple opportunities for brands to position, differentiate and associate themselves with relevant consumer benefits, like better protection, convenience, wash-ability, re-usability, durability, superior design, fashion, etc.

Masks will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future as necessary protective clothing, but they're also well on their way to becoming lifestyle products, fashion accessories and personality statements. All of these are what brands provide to consumers, so I do expect a 'sea change' in the branded 'face value' of masks!

Sanjeev Agrawal, a retail professional, and former marketer at Future Group India, Skechers South Asia, and Home Shop18

Yes, branding is very much possible in the category, like any other market segment. It is a question of how brands will differentiate their products and make it more exciting and interesting. However, since the product will be worn on the face, loud branding may not be possible.

Sanjeev Agrawal
Sanjeev Agrawal

About who can succeed, today we see brands from all over the place tapping on the opportunity. I don’t see why Wildcraft can excel at it, and VIP can’t. This should depend entirely on who’ll understand the consumers’ needs best, and create a different product for them – both design wise and in terms of utility features.