Smita Tripathi, Business Today
17 November 2023
“I don’t care about being No. 1 or No. 2. I don’t care about how much money I’ve made today, or how much money I’m going to make tomorrow. I think you are successful as a business if you last. Because when you’re trying to create a business, what is important is longevity,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, arguably the leading fashion designer in the country.
It is a sultry September morning in Kolkata as we interact with a relaxed Mukherjee—dressed in his signature white kurta-pyjamas and self-designed black sleeveless jacket (he made a guest appearance recently on Season 2 of Amazon Prime Video’s Made in Heaven with the same look)—at his beautiful home in Alipore, a tony locality in the City of Joy. The interiors, which ooze his signature baroque style, are an extension of his personality, which is also reflected in every Sabyasachi store. Mukherjee has tastefully decorated his abode with beautiful curios from around the world. Just like in his stores, the interiors of his home exude class and grandeur.
Mukherjee reveals that a few years ago, he was going through the anniversary issue from the 1930s of a leading fashion magazine. “I saw a small ad that said we are now open for business on Bond Street. It was for Tiffany’s. There were other larger ads for bigger brands from that time. But I don’t remember them. I remember Tiffany & Co. because it lasted and the rest of them just evaporated. And I said to myself that I’ll try my best that doesn’t happen to mine,” says the 49-year-old, who has come a long way since setting up his eponymous label in 1999 with a workforce of three, having borrowed Rs 20,000 from his family.
Over the past two decades, Mukherjee (or Sabya, as he is popularly called) has dressed Bollywood royalty (read Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt), heiresses (Isha Ambani), models, and hundreds of brides across the world. Being a ‘Sabyasachi Bride’ has become a cultural phenomenon that has established the brand as a leading design house.
But Mukherjee doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels. It is the next 20 years that he is planning for. “I want to be India’s first global luxury brand.” And he is working towards it slowly and steadily.
Over the past few years, he has launched his jewellery line as well as accessories. The brand now offers ready-to-wear western wear and he recently entered into a collaboration with US luxury eyewear brand Morgenthal Frederics to launch his range of sunglasses. On the cards is a beauty and wellness line that should launch in a few months. Last year, he opened a store in New York; he had a window display of his jewellery at the Bergdorf Goodman store in Manhattan; and his clothes and accessories will be available at top luxury departmental stores like Selfridges and Browns in another couple of years. In March, he opened his largest flagship store, at 25,000 sq. ft, in Mumbai. “I have spent the last five years growing the brand and making it visible. If this country cannot occupy a position of power in the luxury industry, then shame on all of us. Luxury has been a part of our ecosystem,” he says.
Keeping in mind Mukherjee’s two goals—longevity and global growth for the brand—he sold a 51 per cent stake to Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL) in 2021, reportedly for Rs 398 crore. “Nobody in my family is interested in my business, I don’t have children, and often a mistake that many entrepreneurs make is that they don’t let go of control at a time when they should, so that they can build tomorrow,” says Mukherjee. “But what I want to do—while I’m still in my prime and I still have full control over my company—is to use the next 20 years to [plan for] tomorrow. I want to create my second-in-command; I want to create a succession plan. So that [brand] Sabyasachi does not go down with me; it deserves a much longer shelf life,” says the designer who broke the rules by signing out of fashion weeks in India and launching his collection directly on Instagram in 2016. It’s a practice the brand continues with the latest Autumn-Winter 2023 collection having dropped on Instagram in mid-September. “Why bother with front row politics, when the world can be your front row,” he says.
As he continues to grow, Mukherjee has not forgotten his middle-class roots. His father was the son of a refugee, raised by a single mother. He was a chemical engineer who worked in a jute/wool mill that shut down and he lost his job. “My father gave maths tuitions, my mother taught art and I taught English as a teenager to make ends meet,” he says, adding there was a time when he didn’t want to go to school because he was traumatised with the privilege that his friends enjoyed. “I once saw my father crying while standing next to the kitchen sink. And I realised that’s what money does to you. It brings you to your knees and strips you of your pride. I felt the same helplessness during Covid-19. I was responsible for all these people,” says Mukherjee. However, after a conversation with his CFO, the designer was relieved to know that they could survive for three years and as a result, no one was let go.
Mukherjee says he had been in talks with billionaire Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, for a few years before Covid-19 and it was his decision to sell the majority stake to ABFRL. He says he wanted to work with Birla for the way he has treated his children. “I think it takes a very wise parent to be able to allow his children to be what they want to be. I told him I wanted to partner with you because I think that you have a lot of wisdom. And for me, that’s a great value.”
The designer believes it is this wisdom that makes working with the group easy. “They’re silently trying to build an ecosystem for me without interference, because they know that I do the job the best because I know the domain the best. And they let me lead naturally… When I work with them, I don’t have to be mindfully conscious of the fact that they’re a $57-billion empire. They treat me as an equal partner.”
Harminder Sahni, Founder & MD of consulting firm Wazir Advisors, says that the only way forward for brands like Sabyasachi is to either sell to a corporate or to corporatise. “For growth, you need the backing of a corporate house. Especially if you want to go global as it’s an expensive foray and it is uncharted territory.” As far as expansion into various categories is concerned, Sahni says there is no playbook. While some may expand into larger small-ticket categories to make the brand available to a larger demography, others may stick to their core.
“For any brand to scale globally, it needs to be relevant to consumer audiences that are outside its home market,” says Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive of consultancy Third Eyesight. For any brand whose products draw heavily from the roots in terms of silhouettes and embellishment techniques, adding products that fit with the ethos and needs of the targeted global markets becomes a must, he adds.
ABFRL and Mukherjee complement each other as the company brings its expertise in understanding consumers at a larger base while the designer is more aware of consumers at the top of the pyramid. “They have a very acute understanding of a consumer that is not mine today but will be mine tomorrow. And I have a very acute understanding of the consumer that they don’t have yet but might get tomorrow.” Mukherjee says he did not take private equity funding earlier because he was not ready. “I’m not here to make money. I’m here to create value. And there’s a huge difference. Value creates money eventually. But money never creates value. With ABFRL, we are very clear about what we want to do.” As for financials, in FY22, Sabyasachi Calcutta (what the company is called post the acquisition) posted a turnover of Rs 229.42 crore, which rose to Rs 343.86 crore in FY23, per ABFRL’s annual report. But profit after tax fell from Rs 27.72 crore in FY22 to Rs 7.96 crore in FY23.
He feels luxury is becoming more abstract and it is about finding value. Moreover, consumers are buying less but better stuff. “People are flirting, but they’re not consuming. It’s like they are channel surfing. What is going to happen is that consumers are going to buy less, but they’re going to buy better. And I’m preparing my brand for that.”
With ABFRL’s backing, the designer is busy strengthening the brand. “We are going to use our core—which is wedding couture—for storytelling, to be able to create different-tiered products at different prices to be able to engage our customers who will slowly and steadily find a ladder to climb up to the core.” However, he plans to make wedding couture very limited and very exclusive. He has already started creating guardrails. Bollywood partnerships have reduced significantly and he is no longer giving his creations for the red carpet. In today’s age of social media, Mukherjee says that everyone believes that they are a celebrity. “For us, our customers are our celebrities. And we are trying to create something that is unique for them. And that’s something that’s not made very visible. But what we are going to make democratically visible are our entry-level products; once we get into beauty that is going to be the most widely distributed. And then it’s going to be accessories.”
Mukherjee says that Indian clothing, which is the heart and soul of the brand, will become more and more exclusive. In clothing, the focus will be on western ready-to-wear. However, that too will be of the best quality. For instance, ready-to-wear starts at Rs 35,000 for a silk shirt with an original artwork, digitally printed. “We are very mindful that we will never dilute the core.” he says.
While currently it is wedding couture that contributes the maximum to revenues, he expects jewellery to surpass that over the next few years. Mukherjee launched his jewellery collection in 2017 and while it was a natural fit, he had an interesting reason for doing so. “When I started looking at people’s selfies, I realised that we occupy the smallest real estate. You see a little bit of the blouse in a wedding picture, you see the garland, the make-up and the jewellery. Where are the clothes? Nowhere. And if the bride decides to wear a bikini blouse, then God save us,” he laughs. “So that’s when I realised that I want more real estate in that picture. And, for me, it was a logical move to start getting into beauty which we’ll eventually get into, and to get into jewellery.”
Accessories is another category he is focussing on as that allows more people to own the brand. Mukherjee is one of the most copied designers in the country. “Today, all top jewellers in the country are copying my jewellery. It happened with my clothes, it’s now happening with my jewellery, so I know we are on the right track,” he says. The same is the case for his accessories. “You go into a copy market and you see LV, Calvin Klein, Gucci and Sabyasachi. I am flattered because that means we have done something right,” he chuckles.
Over the years he has entered into some remarkable collaborations, establishing his brand further. In 2015, he announced his first global one with Christian Louboutin with a collection of limited-edition shoes and handbags, showcasing Sabyasachi’s hallmark embroidery and craft, with Louboutin’s iconic red sole. He also launched the Sabyasachi for Nilaya collection in collaboration with Asian Paints. Other collaborations have included Pottery Barn, H&M, L’Oréal, Strabucks, Thomas Goode, etc. He says he is open to more collaborations but only with brands that are the best in their field and those that allow him to “tell the Indian story without apology”. “I would never do a collaboration, irrespective of how much money was being offered to me, if I was not able to tell the story of who I am and where I come from. I can make more money by selling on my Instagram,” says the designer who went off all social media three years ago to get away from the clutter and the noise. His brand, though, is very active on social media.
Mukherjee can be credited with revolutionising luxury retail in the country. Walk into any Sabyasachi store and you are transported to a world of opulence and luxury rarely seen anywhere else. For instance, at the Mumbai store, over 100 chandeliers, 275 carpets, 3,000 books, and 150 works of art created by the Sabyasachi Art Foundation—which he runs to promote art—are layered among antique Tanjore paintings, vintage photography, rare lithographs, and historical trinkets, some from his own collection.
“When I saw the Ralph Lauren flagship store for the first time, it made me realise how important the soft power of a retail store is to be able to influence a customer because it’s an immersive journey, which tells the length and the breadth of the brand’s story,” says Mukherjee, adding that today it is not just about the product but also the experience of selling the product.
With the opening of the Mumbai flagship store, the total number of Sabyasachi stores in India stands at four, the others being in Kolkata and Delhi, and a jewellery store in Hyderabad. In addition, there is the New York store and an exclusive Sabyasachi Jewellery boutique in Dubai.
Will he look at more expansion? Not immediately, he says. “We are going to build our flagship stores one geography at a time. I first want to expand brand literacy by building our flagship so that the story of what the brand is all about and who we are does not get diluted. We will take our time to understand the geography and then expand later,” he says. However, a part of the business is going to be opened to wholesale again. “Which means that in a couple of years, we are going to start speaking to departmental stores such as Selfridges, Browns, etc.,” These are stores where Mukherjee used to retail at the beginning of his career in 2004-05.
“Right now, I’m charting my own growth, one brick at a time, so that I last those 100 years,” he signs off.
(Published in Business Today)
Raghavendra Kamath, Financial Express
June 29, 2023
Zara, touted as “Fast Fashion Queen”, has achieved a unique feat in India. The Spanish brand has been growing its revenues without opening any new stores.
The fashion brand, run by a joint venture between Tata-owned Trent and Spain’s retail group Inditex, posted a 40.7% growth in its revenues to Rs 2553.8 crore in FY23. The catch is that while many retailers/brands garner sales from opening new stores, Zara did not open any store but closed one during FY23.
In FY21 and FY22, its store count remained constant at 21 but its revenue grew 61.2% in FY22. Zara’s revenues grew at a 15.5 % CAGR in the last five years.
“Zara did not foray into any new city and closed one store. That said, it saw an exceptional performance on store productivity (83% higher than FY19). The increase in revenues lead to highest ever Ebitda margins at 16.3%,” said Nuvama Institutional Equities in a recent report.
The contribution in productivity includes contribution from online and also increase in store sizes, the brokerage said.
A mail sent to Inditex did not elicit any response. Trent executives could not be contacted.
Experts attribute Zara’s success to increase in customer spends and improved offerings by the brand.
“The customer base they are targeting has grown and their merchandise mix has become sharper,” said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive officer at Third Eyesight, a retail consultant.
Dutta said when a retailer opens stores, it would immediately boost sales, but to maintain sales momentum, one has to have “right merchandise at right price and have stores at right locations”.
Zara is known to churn its designs and styles very fast, and target young customers. In its Indian venture also, its parent Inditex controls merchandise mix and so on.
“The said entities (Zara and Massimo Dutti) are obliged to source merchandise only from the Inditex Group. Also, the choice of product & related specifications are at the latter’s discretion. Further, the entities are dependent on Inditex for permissions to use the said brands in India subject to its terms & specifications,” Trent said in its FY23 annual report.
Zara is also focusing on opening in select locations, a reason it could not open more stores in the country, experts said.
“The incremental store openings for Zara continue to be calibrated with focus on presence only in very high-quality retail spaces,” Trent said.
Susil Dungarwal, founder at Beyond Squarefeet, a mall management firm, said that propensity to spend has gone up among Indian shoppers after the pandemic and Zara being a renowned global brand with its stylish merchandise seems to be have been the beneficiary of the trend.
“They understand customers very well and brought products which are liked by Indian shoppers in terms of looks, styles and so on,” Dungarwal said.
Zara is a case study for Indian brands as to how to run a retail business successfully, he said.
(Published in Financial Express)
Chloe Cornish in Mumbai and Eleanor Olcott in Hong Kong, Financial Times
May 26 2023
India’s biggest company Reliance Industries is seeking to dominate the country’s $10bn online domestic fashion market, striking a deal with Shein that will allow the rapidly growing Chinese retailer to return to the world’s most populous nation.
The retail unit of billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s petrol-to-telecoms conglomerate will tie up with Shein three years after India banned the online retailer’s app in its attempt to freeze Chinese companies out of the local market in retaliation for border clashes that had left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead.
“We can confirm Shein’s partnership with Reliance Retail and have no additional comment at this time,” said Shein, declining to answer questions about the structure of the deal. Reliance did not respond to queries about the partnership, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The addition of a low-priced offering gives India’s biggest listed company by market capitalisation an important boost in its battle to dominate the country’s growing online fashion retail market, which was worth $10bn in 2022, according to analyst estimates.
As part of the licence agreement, which was recently approved by the government, Shein will receive a percentage of profits generated from its fast fashion sales in India, people familiar with the deal said, while Reliance will help Shein build a supply chain with India’s garment industry for global exports.
The move into Indian sourcing comes as Shein diversifies its supply chain outside the coastal province of Guangdong in southern China, where it has 8,000 suppliers, mostly located in the garment hub of Panyu. Pandemic-era supply chain bottlenecks, rising labour costs in China and geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington have propelled multinational companies, including Apple and clothing retailer Mango, to migrate parts of their supply chains out of the country.
Shein, which does not sell in China, has been seeking to distance itself from its home country. Last year, it made its Singapore arm the de facto holding company, rapidly expanding its workforce there and shifting some of its operations from its China headquarters in Nanjing.
Shein will seek to minimise delivery times by having more manufacturing centres around the world. India, meanwhile, hopes to benefit from multinationals’ “China plus one” movement, a strategy that seeks to avoid investing only in China and aims to diversify supply chains to other countries.
Reliance has signed agreements with international luxury brands ranging from Balenciaga to Burberry, catering to India’s small but growing demographic of super-rich consumers. In addition, it has nearly 13,000 bricks-and-mortar stores across the country selling affordable apparel.
“Reliance’s other international brand partnerships are more premium, being luxury or designer brands,” said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of consultant Third Eyesight. “India is still a relatively low per capita income economy. The bigger opportunity is in brands which are euphemistically called value brands, and that’s where Shein is positioned.”
For Shein, access to the Indian market will allow the company to boost sales as the pace of its expansion in Europe and the US begins to lose steam, according to people briefed on its growth figures.
The Financial Times reported that in a recent presentation to investors, Shein forecast that gross merchandise value — the total value of merchandise sold on its platform — will almost triple by 2025 to $80.6bn compared with the figure last year.
The lofty revenue projections come ahead of a much anticipated initial public offering, which promises to be one of the largest listings of a Chinese-founded company in years.
In fashion ecommerce, Reliance lags behind Myntra, one of India’s oldest ecommerce players, which merged with Walmart-backed Flipkart in 2014. Myntra accounts for around half of the online fashion market in India, according to Satish Meena, an independent ecommerce analyst based in Gurgaon.
“Myntra is the nucleus” for online fashion, said Ankur Bisen, senior partner at retail consultancy Technopak Advisors, adding that its “cohort” of shoppers is primarily young and urban. “With the Reliance and Shein partnership, they would like to get into this cohort and break the monopoly of Myntra,” Bisen said.
Meena estimates that Reliance’s ecommerce fashion business Ajio has about 4 per cent of market share, while Bisen put Ajio among the “long tail” of ecommerce fashion ventures behind Myntra. Reliance’s JioMart online shop also sells clothes, alongside groceries and electronics.
“If you look at Reliance as a company, it’s about dominance and it’s about long term,” Dutta said.
(Published in the Financial Times)
By Tarang Gautam Saxena & Devangshu Dutta
Since the onset of reopening of India’s economy in the late 1980s, fashion is one consumer sector that has drawn the largest number of global brands and retailers. Notwithstanding the country’s own rich heritage in textiles the market has looked up to the West for inspiration. This may be partly attributable to colonial linkages from earlier times, as well as to the pre-liberalisation years when it was fashionable to have friends and relatives overseas bring back desirable international brands when there were no equivalent Indian counterparts. Even today international fashion brands, particularly those from the USA, Europe or another Western economy, are perceived to be superior in terms of design, product quality and variety.
International brands that have been drawn to India by its large “willing and able to spend” consumer base and the rapidly growing economy have benefitted in attaining quick acceptance in the Indian market and given their high desirability meter, most international brands have positioned themselves at the premium-end of the market, even if that is not the case in the home markets. In addition, Indian companies – manufacturers or retailers – have been more than ready to act as platforms for launching these brands in the market and today there are over 200 international fashion brands in the Indian market for clothing, footwear and accessories alone, and their numbers are still growing.
Global Fashion Brands – Destination India
Europe’s luxury brands have had a long history with India’s princely past, but modern India tickled the interest of international fashion brands in the 1980s when it set on the path of liberalisation. The pioneering companies during this stage were Coats Viyella, Benetton and VF Corporation. At the time the Indian apparel market was still fragmented, with multiple local and regional labels and very few national brands. Ready-to-wear apparel was prevalent primarily for the menswear segment and was the logical target for many international fashion brands (such as Louis Philippe, Arrow, Allen Solly, Lacoste, Adidas and Nike). (Addendum: The rights to Louis Philippe, Van Heusen and Allen Solly in India and a few other markets were sold after several years to the Indian conglomerate, Aditya Birla Group, as part of the Madura Garments business.)
The rapidly growing media sector also helped the international brands in gaining visibility and establishing brand equity in the Indian market more quickly. However, this period did not see a huge rush of international brands into India. West Asia and East Asia (countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even Thailand) were seen as more attractive due to higher incomes and better infrastructure. In the mid-1990s there was a brief upward bump in international fashion brands entering the Indian market, but by and large it was a slow and steady upward trend.
The late-1990s marked a significant milestone in the growth of modern retail in India. Higher disposable incomes and the availability of credit significantly enhanced the consumers’ buying power. Growth in good-quality retail real estate and large format department stores also allowed companies to create a more complete brand experience through exclusive brand stores in shopping centres and shop-in-shops in department stores.
By the mid-2000s, however, a very distinct shift became visible. By this time India had demonstrated itself to be an economy that showed a very large, long-term potential and, at least for some brands, the short to mid-term prospects had also begun to look good.
While India was a promising market to many international brands, it was not completely immune to the global economic flu. More than its primary impact on the economy, it sobered the mood in the consumer market. Even the core target group for international brands tightened the purse strings and either down-traded or postponed their purchases.
In 2008, in the midst of economic downturn, scepticism and uncertainty, international fashion brands continued to enter India at nearly the same momentum as the previous year. Many international brands such as Cartier, Giorgio Armani, Kenzo and Prada entered India in 2008, targeting the luxury or premium segment. However, given the high import duties and high real estate costs, the products ended up being priced significantly higher than in other markets. Many brands ended up discounting the goods heavily to promote sales, while a few gave up and closed shop.
The year 2009 saw the true impact of the slowdown as fewer international brands were launched during the year. The brands that launched in 2009 included Beverly Hills Polo Club, Fruit of the Loom, Izod, Polo U.S., Mustang, Tie Rack, Donna Karan/DKNY and Timberland amongst others. Some of these had already been in the pipeline for quite some time and had invested considerable time and effort in understanding the dynamics of the Indian retail market, scouting for appropriate partners, building distribution relationships and tying up for retail space, setting up the supply chain and, most importantly, getting their operational team in place.
2010 was better in comparison: although initially slow, the growth of new international brands entering the Indian market in 2010 bounced back later during the year, and some brands that had exited the Indian market earlier also made a comeback. Amongst the new launches, a highlight of the year was the launch of the most awaited and discussed-about Spanish brand Zara. The first store was launched in Delhi to an absolutely phenomenal response, followed by a store in Mumbai, and a third again in Delhi. The Italian value fashion brand, OVS Industry, was launched in 2010 by Oviesse through a joint-venture with Brandhouse Retail from the SKNL group. While in its first year products were imported from Italy, the company had mentioned that it intended to bring in the merchandise directly from the supply source for speed and cost effectiveness, to achieve aggressive growth over the following five years.
2010 indicated a fresh round of optimism as the pace of new brands entering the market picked up, and those already present in the market showing signs that they were adapting their strategies to grow their India business, including lowering prices and entering new segments.
Though the number of new brands entering the Indian shores in 2011 and 2012 may not have matched the numbers in the peak years, both years have been healthy and the list of new brands ready to enter in 2013 already seems promising.
Amongst others, 2011 saw the entry of Australian brands such as Roxy and Quiksilver having tied up with Reliance Brands for distribution. The largest British football club and lifestyle brand Manchester United, signed up with Indus-League Clothing Ltd. to bring the fashion products to India, after having launched café bars in India in 2010 through a franchisee.
2012 brought in luxury brands such as Christian Louboutin, Roberto Cavalli and Thomas Pink, womenswear brands such as Elle, Monsoon and fashion accessories brands such as Claire’s.
Routes to Market – The Evolution
The choice for entry strategy for the fashion brands has evolved over the years. During the initial years licensing was the preferable route for international brands that were testing the market. This shifted to franchising as import duties dropped and brands looked at exerting more control on the product and the supply chain. More recently, brands seem to be opting for some degree of ownership, as they begin to take a long-term view of the market.
In the 1980s and the early 1990s, licensing was a popular entry strategy amongst the global fashion brands, with minimal involvement in the Indian business.
In the mid-1990s a few companies such as Levi Strauss set up wholly owned subsidiaries while others such as Adidas and Reebok entered into majority-owned joint ventures. This helped them to gain a greater control over their Indian operations, sourcing and supply chain, and brand. In the subsequent years import duties for fashion products successively came down making imports a less expensive sourcing option and the realty boom brought in many investors in retail real estate who became franchisees for the international brands. By 2003, franchising became the preferred launch vehicle for an increasing number of international companies, while only a few chose to enter through licensing.
In 2006 the Government of India reopened retail to foreign investment (allowing up to 51 per cent foreign direct investment in single-brand retail). Using this route, many brands have entered India by setting up majority-owned joint ventures, or moving their existing franchise relationships into a joint venture structure. By the end of 2008, more than 40 per cent of the international brands were present through a franchise or distribution relationship, while more than 25 per cent had either a wholly-owned or majority-owned subsidiary. All these structures allowed the brands to have greater control of operations, particularly of the product.
Amongst the international brands that entered the Indian market, a few were on their second or even third attempt at the market. For instance, Diesel BV initially signed a joint venture agreement in 2007 with Arvind Mills. However, by the middle of 2008, the relationship ended with mutual consent, as Arvind reduced its emphasis at the time on retailing international brands within the country. Within a few months of ending this relationship, Diesel signed a joint venture with Reliance Brands as the iconic denim brand wanted to take on the Indian market full throttle and the Indian counterpart had indicated that it wanted to rapidly build its portfolio of Indian and foreign brands in the premium to luxury segments across apparel, footwear and lifestyle segments.
Similarly, Miss Sixty entered India in 2007 through a franchisee agreement with Indus Clothing. It switched to a joint venture with Reliance Brands in the same year but the partnership was called off in 2008. Miss Sixty finally entered India through a franchisee agreement with a manufacturer of women’s footwear and accessories.
During the turbulence of 2008 and 2009, a few brands also moved out of the market. Some of them were possibly due to misplaced expectations initially about the size of the market or about the pace of change in consumer buying habits. Others were due to a failure either on the part of the brand or its Indian partners (or both), to fully understand what needed to be done to be successful in the Indian market. Whatever the reason, the principals or their partners in the country decided that the business was under-performing against expectations for the amount of effort and money being invested, and that it was better to pull the plug. Amongst the brands that exited the market during 2008 and 2009 were Gas, Springfield and VNC (Vincci).
In the last few years as the foreign direct investment rules are being softened in particular with regard to the more flexibility in the 30% domestic sourcing and clarification on brand ownership norm there is an increasing preference for international companies to enter the India market with some form of ownership while those that are already in the market are looking to increase their stakes in the business.
Several brands have taken the plunge into investing in the Indian operations and moved more aggressively into the market. Since the year 2009, international brands increasingly opted for joint-ventures as the choice for entry into the market. Even the brands already present started looking to modify the nature of their presence in India in order to exert more control over the retail operations, products, supply chain and marketing. Brands that changed their operating structures and, in some cases partners, include VF (Wrangler, Lee etc.), Lee Cooper, Lee, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry amongst others. Mothercare, the baby product retailer, which was initially present through a franchise agreement with Shoppers Stop, formed a joint venture with DLF Brands Ltd to enable the expansion through stand-alone stores.
During 2011, Promod changed its franchise arrangement with Major Brands into a joint-venture that is majority-owned by Promod. From its launch in 2005, the brand has opened 9 stores so far. However with the new joint venture in place, the international brand is reported to be looking at opening 40 stores in the next four years with the hope of increasing the contribution of India business to its global revenue to the extent of 15-20% from a mere 3% at present.
After its partnership with Raymond fell through in 2007 and all of its standalone stores were shut down, Gas (Grotto SpA) scouted around for an appropriate partner for India business. Eventually, the brand set up a wholly owned subsidiary in 2010 for wholesale operation while retail stores were franchised. In 2012 the company formed an equal joint venture partnership with Reliance Brands with plans to ramp up India retail presence.
2012 was a defining year marking the government’s decision to allow 100% foreign direct investment in single brand retail business and permitting multi-brand retail in India. Not only has this encouraged new brands to consider the Indian market but many existing brands have started reviewing their existing operating structures and alliances, and have initiated moves towards greater ownership and a stronger foothold in the Indian market. Some of the brands have taken the decision to step into an ownership position in India as they felt that India was too strategic a market to be “delegated” entirely to a partner (whether licensee or franchisee), or that an Indian partner alone might not be able to do justice to the brand in terms of management effort and financial capital.
S. Oliver restructured its India operations in 2012 by exiting its prior relationship with the apparel exporter Orient Craft and tied up with a new partner through a majority joint venture. To gain a larger share in the Indian market the company has repositioning the brand, changed its sourcing strategy, reduced the entry-level prices by 40% while reducing the store size (from 5,000 sq. ft. to 1,200-2,400 sq. ft.). It has also put in place an aggressive expansion strategy for tier II towns. The change in FDI norms towards the end of last year may cause it to review its position further.
Canali has entered into a majority-owned joint-venture with its existing partner Genesis Luxury. The brand had entered in India in 2004 through a distribution agreement. Through this change the international brand plans to grow its presence in India multi-fold by opening 10-15 stores over the next three-four years.
Pavers England is the first international brand to have applied for and been granted the permission to own and operate its retail business in India through a 100 per cent subsidiary owned by a UK based company. Newcomers such as H&M and Loro Piana are reportedly considering the joint venture route.
As we have already mentioned in one of our earlier papers (“Tapping into the India Gold Rush”) we do not expect a dramatic short-term growth in the number of international brands following the retail FDI relaxation in September 2012. However, at that time we did foresee some changes in the operating structures for the single brand ventures already active in the market, as well as entry of new brands that have been holding back so far as they wanted greater control in their India retail business and this seems to be happening already.
In the luxury sector, 51 percent FDI and distribution relationships are likely to continue to be a norm, since it is virtually impossible for most luxury companies to meet the 30 percent domestic sourcing requirement in its true spirit. In many cases, the local partner in a joint venture is a mere placeholder until FDI rules are liberalised further and, unless the business grows significantly, most brands will be content to keep the existing structures in place.
In the other segments some more relationships could be reconstituted during 2013, taking the international brand at least a step closer to gaining greater control, even if their partners remain the same.
Franchising is still the more common form of route to market for most single brand retail companies although for many international companies an eventual ownership in India business may be desirable. However, licensing should not be excluded from the choice set, especially for companies that are multi-brand retail concepts such as Sephora or those that manage to find a suitable Indian partner that can provide end-to-end support from product sourcing to distribution and retail (for example, the relationship between Elle and Arvind).
Today two thirds of the international fashion brands come from three countries the U.S.A., Italy and the U.K. with nearly 30 per cent originating from the U.S.A. alone.
Is This A Lucky 13?
The theme for the year 2013 is positive for most brands, although still cautious.
Amongst the international brands that one can look forward to shopping in 2013 are “Uniqlo” of Fast Retailing, Japan’s largest apparel retailer, Sweden’s H&M, Emilio Pucci and Billabong. But India is not merely a destination anymore for the international brands to grow their business. The country is also increasingly becoming the innovation-platform or testing ground for new concepts and trends. World Co. a Japanese retailer with more than 3,000 stores in Japan and 200 stores in other parts of Asia is also test-marketing women’s apparel and accessories brands such as Couture Brooch, Opaque.clip, zoc, Tk Mixpie and Hot Beat to gain insights into consumers’ psyche. Italian brand United Colors of Benetton has recently introduced a global retail interior design concept which is present in major European cities but is the first-of-its-kind store in Asia and may well set the trend for the rest of Asia.
Gucci recently opened its largest store in India recently Delhi-NCR after two failed joint ventures. All of its five stores are now run directly by the company and the Indian business also reported to have turned profitable this year.
Brands such as Mango who have chosen the franchise route are tying up with additional partners (e.g. DLF) in the hope of making the Indian business contribute significantly to the overall revenue of the company.
UK-based apparel chain Marks & Spencer is accelerating its expansion in India with plans to add ten stores in the next six to eight months in the country. The company has identified India as one of the key markets to become the world’s most sustainable retailer by 2015. It plans to increase the number of stores in India from 24 currently to over 30 through the 51:49 joint venture with Reliance Retail.
Puma SE, the global sports lifestyle company for athletic shoes, footwear, and other sports-wear aggressively set out to gain 30 per cent of the Indian organised retail sportswear market within a year, from a share of 18-20 per cent in the top four branded sportswear segments in 2011. To this end the company targeted opening nearly 100 more stores during 2012. While the actual numbers are reportedly short of target, the brand has been opening amongst the largest stores during the year.
The confidence in the India opportunity is rising again, with existing global brands expecting the contribution from India business to grow multi-fold in a few years. However, the approach is of careful consideration and brands realise that India is a unique market, different not only from the West but also from other Asian economies such as China. Rather than adopting a “cut-and-paste” approach one needs to seriously consider the appropriate business model for India. Many of the global players have had to create a different positioning from their home markets. Some have significantly corrected pricing and fine-tuned the product offering since they first launched; these include The Body Shop and Marks & Spencer. Others are unearthing new segments to grow into; for instance, Puma and Lacoste are now seriously targeting womenswear as a growth market.
It is not only international brands that are more optimistic. Indian partners are also reviewing their approach. For instance, the Arvind Group that had looked at reducing its emphasis on international fashion brands in 2007-08 has recently acquired the business operations of Planet Retail which operated the franchises of British fashion retailers Debenhams and Next, and American lifestyle brand Nautica in India. The company termed Debenhams’ franchise as a significant acquisition as it provided an entry into the department store segment. Arvind plans to increase the India presence of Debenhams from 2 stores to 8 over the next three years. It also plants to grow the network of Next, the large-format speciality stores, from 3 to 12 in the same period.
As customer footfall and conversions pick up, international brands are also shoring up their foundations for future expansion in terms of better processes and systems, closer understanding of the market, and nurturing talent within their team. Third Eyesight’s study of the market highlights international brands’ concerns with ensuring a consistent brand message, improved organisational capabilities right down to front-line staff, and focussing on unit productivity (per store and per employee).
India shows signs of a healthier business outlook for International brands but the game has just begun and with competition getting tougher, we can expect interesting times ahead.
The entertainment business suggests that nostalgia is a very powerful driver of profit.
It is quite clear that retro is “in”. The movie business worldwide is full of sequels, prequels, re-releases and remakes. The music business is ringing up the cash registers with remixes and jukebox compilations. Star Wars and Sholay still have a fan following. ABBA has leaped across three decades, Hindi film songs from 30-60 years ago have been given a skin-uplift by American hip-hop artists, while Pink Floyd is hot with Indian teens along with Akon and Rihanna.
As copyright restrictions are removed from the works of authors long-gone, the market gets flooded with several reprints of their most popular writings. Of course, we know that classic literature survives not just a few years but even thousands of years. Examples include the still widely-read 2,500-year-old Indian epic Ramayana by Valmiki, the Greek philosophers’ works that continue to be popular after two millennia and the Norse legends that have been told and re-told for over a thousand years. Spiritual and religious leaders’ writings are also recycled into the guaranteed market of their followers and possible converts for a long time after their passing away.
On the other hand, the basic premise of today’s fashion and lifestyle businesses is that silhouettes, colours and design-cues will become (or be made) obsolete within a few weeks or a few months, and will be replaced with new ones. This principle is true not just of clothing and footwear, but is applied to home furnishings, furniture, white goods, electronics, mobile phones and even cars. In fact, the fashion business (as it exists) would find it impossible to survive if customers around the world chose only classics which could be used for as long as the product lasted in usable form.
What Fashionability Means for Brands
Other than individual styles or products falling out of favour, as fashions move and as the market changes, it is evident that some brands also become less acceptable, are seen as “outdated” and may also die out as they lose their customer base.
Of course, that some brands become classics is quite apparent, especially in the luxury segment where brands such as Bulgari have survived several generations of consumers, and continue to thrive.
However, the past is of relevance to the fashion sector because, other than planned or forced obsolescence, the fashion business has also long worked on another principle – that trends are cyclical.
Skirts go up and down, ties change their width, and the colour palette moves through evolution across the years. A style formula that was popular in the summer of a year in the 1970s might be just right in another summer in the first decade of the 21st century.
So, the question that comes up is whether the same logic that is applicable to individual products, styles and trends, could also be applied to brands.
The answer to whether apparently weak, dead or dying brands could be brought back to life is provided by brands such as Burberry’s, Lee Cooper and Hush Puppies. Sometimes innovative consumers create the opportunity – as with Hush Puppies in the 1980s – while in other cases (such as Burberry’s, Volkswagen’s Beetle, or Harley Davidson), vision, concerted effort and resources can make the brand attractive again.
The question then is not whether brands can be relaunched – they can. The more important question for brand owners is: should a brand be relaunched. And using the logic of the fashion business, rather than being left to linger and then dying a painful death, could brands be consciously phased-out and later brought back into the market as the trends change?
The Brand Portfolio – Diversifying Opportunities and Risks
These questions are particularly important for large companies, or in times when market growth rates are slow, or when the market is fragmented. Organic growth can be difficult in all these scenarios, and companies begin to look at developing “portfolios” by acquiring other businesses and brands, or by launching multiple brands of their own.
The car industry worldwide has lived with brand portfolio management for long. Even as companies have merged with and acquired each other, the various marques have been retained and sometimes even dead ones have been revived. The companies generally focus the brands in their portfolio on distinct customer segments and needs (such as Ford’s ownership of “Ford”, “Volvo” and “Jaguar”, or General Motors with its multiple brands), and then further play with models and product variants within those. When things go right portfolio strategies can be quite profitable, but the mistakes are especially expensive. Sensible and sensitive management of the portfolio is absolutely critical.
In the fashion and lifestyle sector, the players who already follow a portfolio strategy are as diverse as the luxury group LVMH, mainstream fashion groups like Liz Claiborne (with brands in its portfolio including Liz Claiborne, Mexx, Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans) and LimitedBrands (Limited, Victoria’s Secret, La Senza etc.), retailers such as Marks & Spencer (with its original St. Michael’s brand having given way to “Your M&S”, and also Per Una) and Chico’s (Chico’s, White House | Black Market, and Soma Intimates) who wish to capture new customer segments or re-capture lost customers. Some of these companies have launched new brands, some have relaunched their own brands, and some have even acquired competing brands.
The issue is also relevant to the Indian market, whether we consider Reliance’s revival of Vimal, the new brand ambassador for Mayur Suitings, or the PE-funded take over of Weekender. As the market begins evolving into significantly large differentiated segments, branding opportunities grow, and so will activity related to existing or old brands being resurrected and refreshed. An additional twist is provided by Indian corporate groups such as Reliance, Future (Pantaloons) and Arvind that are looking to partner international and Indian brands, or grow private labels to gain additional sales and margin.
The issue also concerns those companies whose management is attached to one or more brands owned by them which may not have been performing well in the recent past, but due to historical or sentimental reasons the management may not like to close down or sell them.
It is equally critical for potential buyers who would like to take over and turn brands around into sustainable profits. This is a real possibility in this era of private-equity funds and leveraged buyouts, where a company or a financial investor might find it cheaper and more profitable to take over an existing brand and turn it around, rather than building a new brand. This is already happening in the Indian market. More interestingly, Indian companies have also already acquired businesses in the USA and Europe, and the potential revival or relaunch of brands is certainly relevant for these companies as well.
When to Recycle and Reuse
Relaunch or acquisition of an existing active or dormant brand can be an attractive option when building a portfolio, or when a company is getting into a new market.
For the company, acquiring an existing brand is often a lower cost way to reach the customers, and also faster to roll-out the business. The company may assess that the brand already has an existing share of positive customer awareness that is active or dormant, and that the effort and resources (including money) needed to build a business from that awareness will be much less than that to create a new brand.
The risk of failure may also be lower for a relaunched brand than for a new brand.
This is because the softer aspects, the hidden psychological and emotional hooks, are already pre-designed. This provides a ready platform from which to re-launch and grow the brand.
From the customer’s point of view, there is the confidence from previous experience and usage, and possibly also nostalgia and comfort of the ‘known’.
‘Age’ or vintage is respectable and trustworthy. This is especially powerful during volatile times or in rapidly changing environments when there is uncertainty about what lies in the future, and makes an existing brand a powerful vehicle for sustaining and growing the business.
On the Downside
However, when handling brands it is also wise to keep in mind the cautionary note that mutual funds issue: “past performance is no indicator of the future”.
In re-launching active or dormant brands, there is also a downside risk. While the brand may have been strong and relevant in its last avatar, it may be totally out of place in the current market scenario. The competitive landscape would have shifted, consumers would have changed – new consumers entering the market, old consumers evolving or moving out – and the economic scenario itself may now be unfriendly to the brand.
Also, the “awareness” or “share of mind” may only be a perception in the mind of the person who is looking to re-launch the brand, and the consumer may actually not care about the brand at all. There are instances where the management of the company has been so caught up in their own perception of the brand that they have not bothered to carry out first-hand research with the target segment to check whether there is actually an unaided recall, or at worst, aided-recall of the brand. They are imagining potential strengths, when the brand has none.
It is also possible that, during its last stint in the market, the brand may have gathered negative connotations – consumers may remember it for poor products or wrong pricing, the trade may remember it for late deliveries, vendors may remember it for delayed payments…the list goes on. In such a scenario, it may be a relaunch may be a disaster.
So how does one know whether to resurrect a brand, or to reincarnate it in another form, and when to just let it die? The answers to that lie in answering the question: what is a brand? And then, what is this brand?
A Critical Question: What is a Brand?
Even in these enlightened marketing times, many people believe that the brand is the name. They believe that once you advertise a name widely and loudly enough, a brand can be created. Nothing could be further from the truth. High-decibel advertising only informs customers of the name, it cannot create a brand.
If we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes, a brand is an image, comprising of a bundle of promises on the company’s part and expectations on the customer’s part, which have been met. When promises are delivered, when expectations are met, the brand develops an attribute that it is defined by.
The promise may be of edgy design (think Apple), and the customer expects that – when the brand delivers on the promise and meets the expectation the brand image gets re-affirmed and strengthened. However, these attributes are not always necessarily all “positive” in the traditional sense. For instance, a company’s promise may be to be low-cost and low-service (think Ikea, or “low-cost airlines”), and the customer may expect that and be happy with that when the company delivers on that promise. The promise may be products with a conscience (think The Body Shop), which may strike a chord with the consumer.
What that brand actually stands for can only be created experientially. Creating this image, creation of the brand, is a complex and step-by-step process that takes place over time and over many transactions. Repetition of the same kind of experience strengthens the brand.
The brand touches everything that defines the customer’s experience – the product design and packaging, the retail store it is sold in, the service it is sold with, the after-sales interaction – all have a role to play in the creation of the brand.
For instance, to some it may sound silly that market research or how supply chain practices can help define a brand, but that is exactly how the state of affairs is for Zara. Changeovers and new fashions being quickly available are what that brand is about, and it would be impossible for Zara to deliver on that promise without leading edge supply chains, or a wide variety of trend research.
Similarly, it may sound clichéd that your salesperson defines the brand to the consumer, but even with the best products, extensive advertising, and swanky stores, for service-oriented retailers everything would fall apart if the salesperson is not up to the mark. This is indeed a sad reality faced by so many of the so-called premium and luxury brands.
Of course, brand images can be changed or updated, but the new image also needs to be reinforced through repeated action, a process just like the first time the brand was created.
Reviving a Brand: the New-Old Seesaw
Given that a brand is created over multiple interactions and repetitive delivery of certain attributes, it is only natural that the older the brand, the more potential advantage it would have over a new brand. Just the sheer time it would have spent in the market would give an old brand an edge.
An old brand can appear to be proven, experienced and secure, while a new brand could be seen as untested, raw and risky. An old brand may have had a positive relationship with the consumer, but may have been dormant due to strategic or operational reasons. In this case, reviving the brand is clearly a good idea. There is already an existing awareness of an older brand, which can act as a ready platform for launching the same or a new set of products or services. Often, there may be a connection with the consumer’s past positive experience of the brand.
On the other hand, a new brand may appear to be fresh, more up-to-date and relevant, and vigorous, compared to an old one that may be seen as outdated and tired. Certainly, if nostalgia had been all that brands needed to thrive, then old brands would never die and it would be difficult to create new brands.
Clearly, there is no single answer to whether it is a good idea to re-launch an existing or old brand. If you are considering whether it would be a good idea to revive an old brand, or to acquire and turn an existing brand around, ask yourself this:
If the answer is “No” to any of these questions, then one needs to think again. However, if the answers are all “Yes”, then a resuscitation is just what the doctor might have ordered.