Ananya Pathak

As the fascination with things Indian grows...

... what does it mean for lifestyle brands with roots overseas.

What does 'Being Indian' really mean? Does it mean dressing up like one or favouring brands with roots in the country or does it hold equal value if one may look Western and still be Indian at heart? A group of four panelists discuss this and where the Indian-ness trend is going – uphill or downhill – at the Great Lifestyle Brands event organised by afaqs!

The panel comprised Amit Kekre, national strategy head, DDB Mudra Group; Konia Khanna, head of marketing, Swarovski; Minoo Phakey, head- strategic marketing and investments, Dabur; and Vani Gupta Dandia, independent business consultant, CherryPeachPlum. The session was moderated by co-founder and director, afaqs!, Sreekant Khandekar.

The panel (left to right): Sreekant Khandekar, Amit Kekre, Konia Khanna, Minoo Phakey, Vani Gupta Dandia
The panel (left to right): Sreekant Khandekar, Amit Kekre, Konia Khanna, Minoo Phakey, Vani Gupta Dandia

“Is Indian-ness unique to India?”, Khandekar threw an open-ended question to start the discussion. The panelists unanimously agreed that it is.

Kekre said that while we may think that it is a new trend or is just starting to emerge, it has always been part of the fabric that makes up India. “The pride in being Indian has always been there. What has changed is perhaps not the intensity of it but probably the nature of it.”

Khanna of Swarovski agreed, saying the idea of it might vary across generations but in the larger picture, the national pride has always stayed.

Phakey averred, “The Indian-ness is more certainly a global phenomenon. And this is the same across categories. And, what I think has led to this is - endorsement by spiritual leaders like Ramdev (Patanjali) and the inclination towards health and wellness. There is an inherent belief amongst consumers that natural Indian products work well within personal care. Even in the food segment, the trend towards organic has dialled up in the recent past.” She recalled reading about the fact that the gross revenue of Haldiram's is more than the combined revenue of McDonald's and Maggi.

Dandia said there are some legacy themes in India that continue to be about what we as a country are. “There are some themes that continue to endure like Ayurveda, Yoga, Bhangra and Indian spices, while there are also new ones being added - which is the Digital India.” She opined that India is a mixed bag – the potential of which the world has realised. Companies from across the globe therefore want to have their footprint here.

From Dandia's mention of the growth of digital, Khandekar continued the discussion and put forth the next question - How does the growing force of the digital impact the phenomena of Indian-ness?

Kekre pointed out that Indians are seen for Indian values but western ways. “Particularly when you look at fashion, we are Indian at heart but can pull off dressing in the western way. With almost 40 per cent digital penetration in the country, technology has democratised access.”

In response, Khandekar shared his opinion that Indian dresses have now become 'dresses of festivities' and are somehow limited to occasional wear. "What does it say?," he asked.

Dandia disagreed, saying that there is a resurgence of the saree. She said the saree is now touted as a style statement and is not restricted to special occasions. “There is growing recognition of the fact that it doesn't matter what sort of figure you have, you can look elegant in a saree.”

Khanna mentioned the recent launch of Uniqlo in India – The Japanese brand came up with an 'Indian-ness' them for the country launch – by launching a range of Indian ethnic wear. She saidSarees may be difficult to wear, but there is a unique recognition for it. While we (Indian women) may want to experience wearing a business suit, dress or any other western dresses, the love for Indian wear is always there.”

Phakey, speaking for the FMCG sector and the growth of Indian-ness, said this trend of Indian-ness is only going to increase. “Interestingly, it is becoming hyper-local in nature. States have their own local brands, for example,. Tamil Nadu has Kisso. There is Rolo in Madhurai. These brands are popular in these specific geographical locations and national brands including Pepsi and Coca Cola feel the heat from these local competitors and the are launching products to tackle these.”

She went on to explain that is not about being Indian but being able to customise and adapt to the taste and preferences of local consumers. Citing the example of Dabur, she revealed that the brand is trying to launch variants that essentially leverage on the ingredients popular within the regional areas for its fruit juice product – Real, in order to resonate well with the audience.

Is Paper Boat a reflection of this hyper-localisation of products? Dandia said it is more about nostalgia and not so much about being hyper-local or being Indian. She felt that Indian products were getting lost but are making a comeback. “We are re-recognising the value of Indian goods. Traditional garments are making a comeback. This is even true of the cosmetic segment. There is a sense of pride in what was considered to be the gold standard and we are coming to terms again with the richness of Indian products and ingredients.”

Talking about how this trend is affecting Swarovski, Khanna shared that the brand has always had a very global approach in whichever country it operates in. “When we came to India in 2001, we started collaborating with local designers to work with the country's ethos. In 2016, we even started a new jewellery collective – Confluence, for which, we are working with 18 leading designers of India.”

Commenting on how this affects brands from the West, Kekre said brands in different categories react to it differently. He slots these brands into two different categories: 1) brands that 'make' for India like Uniqlo and Muji and 2) brands that 'mould' for India like Puma 'Suede'. The product range for these doesn't change but its placement in the Indian market does.

Adding to it, Phakey shared, “MNCs are taking note of this and are adapting to the Indian way in some way or the other. Unilever's launched Clinic Plus hair oil years ago, which did not really do well. Hair oil is a traditional segment. They later acquired the Kerala based - 'Indulekha', and that's done well for them. They relaunched 'Aayush' as well.” Indian-ness is pre-dominant in some categories, she opined.

“In the toothpaste category - which is synonymous to Colgate,” she said, “Dabur's Red did well because of the Indian ingredients and so has Patanjali's Dant Kanti. Colgate lost share in the category and tried a comeback with Swarna Vedshakti, a Neem variant, and Active Salt. Some brands are successful, some may not be, but all of them are are banking on Indian-ness.”

Speaking of the entertainment segment, Kekre cited the examples of Netflix and Amazon Prime. He stated that Netflix nurtured the ideology to serve global content for a long time, but it later started making content specifically for India. “These stories are Indian in cast, but the themes are global. That's working well for it.”

Taking Phakey's point ahead on how western brands are being affected by this rise in the Indian trend, Dandia pointed out that brands are making sure to serve the Indian market in a way that it would like to be served, given the growth potential in this market. “Brands are coming to India. Equally, brands from India are setting footprints in the western markets - like Titan, Forest Essentials, Sabyasachi and Royal Enfield - which are defining India to the world outside.” She said that it is on the back of this perception that brands from India are creating that the international market is inclined towards spending in the Indian market.

Khanna opined that brands are diversifying into products - like Hermes' launch of the saari, Louis Vitton collaborating with Sabyasachi to make shoes - to maintain relevance in the market.

Explaining the concept of 'glocalisation', Phakey said that brands today think global but act local. “Most brands are adapting this ideology today,” she said.

Concluding the session, Khendekar asked how this trend could affect a brand like Ikea – the furniture retail company. Dandia, who loved what the brand did for its launch – bringing the three wheeler experience, said, “Brands are recognising the importance of resonating with the Indian audience and that stands out.”

Adding a concluding remark, Kekre pointed out, “In its communication across the globe, Ikea follows its own templates and ideology – the idea of space and minimalism. However, in India, its communication is suited to the limited space in the flat. These are just little cues that brands use to adapt it to the Indian template.”