The first product that Nykaa.com sold on its website was a Maybelline lipstick. Since that first transaction in 2012, the Indian beauty e-tailer's revenues have reached hundreds of millions of dollars, reached a valuation of $750 million, built 35 brick-and-mortar stores and earned the moniker "India's Sephora."
Nykaa's stratospheric growth exemplifies the surge in both demand and consumption of beauty and wellness in India. The Indian beauty market, which was valued at $6.5 billion in 2017, is expected to exceed $20 billion by 2025.
The nation's beauty boom can be attributed to two contributing factors, according to Vineeta Singh, CEO of homegrown Indian beauty brand Sugar Cosmetics. The first is that the country's improved economy in recent years has led to a spike in spending power and disposable income. The direct result of this is that more women are indulging in makeup. The second reason for this spike, she says, is "the audience's exposure and connectivity through the internet."
Mukesh Ambani (India's richest man, the billionaire who flew Beyoncé to India to perform at his daughter's wedding) disrupted India's telecommunications sector in late 2016 by introducing Jio, a mobile carrier service that provided free calls and unlimited data for less than $2 a month. Since then, India's internet penetration has increased at an exponential rate. More Indian women are online than ever before and the curiosity and aspiration for beauty, especially in Tier II and III cities and smaller towns, is at an all-time high. "There has been a rapid increase in the culture of sharing daily Look-of-the-Day (#LOTD) posts, tagging beauty brands and searching for beauty hacks and reviews online," says Singh. She believes that the burgeoning community of Indian beauty influencers has spurred the rapid increase in both brand discovery and sales of makeup in the country.
"Eighty percent of our customers are millennials," says Hitesh Malhotra, Chief Marketing Officer at Nykaa.com. "They're exploring social media, they're aware of global trends, how a product has been reviewed...they are very well informed."
The global trend that has had the greatest bearing, perhaps, on the Indian beauty industry is the growing call for inclusivity and representation. India has had a historical obsession with fair skin, which has been equated to the ultimate feminine beauty. Growing up, many millennial women in the culture have been subjected to the message that only fair complexions are desirable and that dark skin must be "treated" or "corrected." As calls for more inclusive definitions of beauty have become more common in the United States and around the world, those conversations have extended to India, where beauty consumers have also become more vocal about what they want when they communicate with brands.
It's not uncommon to see brutally honest comments about the need for Fenty-style shade diversity every time a homegrown brand reveals a new range of foundation products on their Instagram. Darker-complected models are actively cheered for ("So happy to see actual Indian girls👏👏") and requests for swatching and tutorial videos featuring women in darker skin tones are also a frequent feature.
Legacy Indian beauty brands have been notoriously poor with creating products for darker skin tones — Lakmé, one of India’s oldest beauty brands, has rarely had more than three variants in its foundation products. Magali Vaz, a lifestyle and beauty blogger from Mumbai who often does videos about products that suit darker skin tones, says that many readers reached out to her on DM after she reviewed a few lip products from Lakmé. "I was really surprised that people were telling me that they’ve boycotted the brand because they aren't inclusive," she says.
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Although Lakmé is one of the most ubiquitous brands in the country, it has come under fire for being blasé about its customers' needs. It's no surprise, then, that internet-first brands like Sugar and Nykaa are catching up with brands like Lakmé in terms of popularity and market share. They are actively listening to their consumers and creating products for all Indian skin tones while incorporating the message of inclusivity in their advertising. Nykaa's new foundation, for example, comes in 16 shades and Sugar Cosmetics' forthcoming foundation stick will offer 22 shades.
Although the market today holds great promise, international beauty brands continue to tread cautiously when it comes to expanding their businesses into India. Sephora entered the market to great fanfare in 2015, but it has not quite been able to capture the imagination of the Indian consumer, primarily because of the limited catalog of products available in its stores. Huda Beauty and Smashbox have launched to limited retailers, but brands that retail across the world, like Urban Decay, Tarte, TooFaced, Charlotte Tilbury and Fenty Beauty, have yet to start making inroads. "The Indian market can be a tough nut to crack," says Singh. She goes on to point out how every region in the country has its own set of sub-trends and product demands. Indian consumers are known to be notoriously price-sensitive and demanding. If international brands are to succeed, says Singh, they "must understand this diversity."