Shankar Prasad launched the Indian vegan beauty brand Plum Goodness in 2014. Specialising in skin, hair and make-up products, the brand is sold in thousands of retail outlets across India as well as through the company’s own online store. In October 2021, Plum opened its first offline store in Mumbai.
When Prasad launched Plum, he was the only employee. Now there are 150. The company has plans to open 50 more offline stores by 2023. “The outlook for the premium market in India ranges from good to very good,” Prasad says. “People are optimistic about the future. I tell my team that you should feel fortunate to work in a market like this where demand is almost a given. The premium segment is growing faster than the overall market. There is no question about that.”
Prasad began his career as a chemical engineer with Unilever in 1997. After working for a management consultancy he then joined a private equity fund. “We invested in small consumer businesses, which is really where my passion is,” he says. “And that is what brought me to entrepreneurship. I learned the marketing side, the distribution side, the commercial side. And then, aged 38, I started looking for something new and exciting to do. That is when Plum Goodness was born.”
Creating a vegan beauty brand was straightforward he says: “It is fairly easy to make cosmetics and skin care that are vegan, it is not a technical challenge. So I thought in that case, why not make it all vegan.” More challenging however was Prasad’s desire to build a business that was premium, or as he puts it, exemplary.
“Traditionally, consumers are not that loyal to cosmetics brands,” he explains. “But from a business point of view, one must build something where there is some relationship with the customer. And as I dove deeper, I realised that I didn’t want to build a business just for the sake of creating transactions. I love creating things that ring a bell in people’s minds or that occupy some place in their heart. It could be through a product, a jingle or packaging, or a fragrance. But somewhere they have to relate to the brand, to the concept, to the persona of what we are creating.
“I also wanted to run an experiment,” Prasad continues. “To create a business that is in some way exemplary. That sets an example by doing good things. By being good. This is where the logo “Be good,” came from. It also invites the consumer to be good, by, for example, choosing vegan products. This experiment is still underway. But we are going in the right direction.”
”As a market in general, particularly in beauty and personal care and in urban areas, India is premiumising”
Prasad says that there is no better time to be a premium brand than in India today. “As a market in general, particularly in beauty and personal care and in urban areas, India is premiumising,” he says. “People are seeking more premium experiences, a more premium standard of living and social status. They are saying that today I have reached that point in life where I am pampering myself, not with something that is a necessity but with something that I feel good about, whether it is through travel, food or beauty.
“So beauty products form a very important part of that,” he continues. “Both at the point of consumption and how people feel after consumption, when they tell others that they are using Plum or any other premium brand. That’s that what I call brag value, which is very important in our market.”
The reasons for this premiumisation, Prasad believes, is because of higher disposable incomes and exposure, partly due to the proliferation of good internet and hand held devices, to more premium offerings, from within India and outside. Sustainability however, is not part of the premium agenda in India.
“Sustainability does not appeal to the consumer in India yet,” Prasad says. “We are very far from it. There are pockets of increased awareness. But it is a very tiny sliver of urban consumers that even think sustainably, let alone act sustainably. It is a very what’s in it for me market. At Plum, we are passionate about this. And we have tried all kinds of things, and we continue to try all kinds of things. But at the moment we are going against the grain, both from a consumer point of view, and with suppliers, who are not ready to support us in this situation - they don’t have the technical resources yet.”
To meet the emerging demands of consumers in India when it comes to premium, Prasad says brands need to think about the sensory experiences they give. “Product attributes like minimalism, solidity, depth and longevity are all important,” he explains. “And packaging features, such as the right kind of a matt effect, emboss, texture, foil stamp, design, thickness of board, are also very important, some of which are unfortunately not aligned with sustainability.”
The kind of things that the brand associates with are also important to conveying a sense of premium, Prasad adds. “So the right kind of celebrity, the right kind of events that the brand is part of, or the right kind of platform that the brand is seen or not seen in, these things matter.”
”We need to judge how much we react to noise and how much to fundamental changes. What do we believe is correct. That is always a challenge.”
But, Prasad points out, consumer behaviour does change fast. “About four years ago people used to love our products because they were beautifully fragranced,” he explains. “But about 18 months ago we started receiving lots of strong feedback complaining about the use of fragrance. A view had developed that there is no place in skin care for fragrances. And the change happened so fast it caught us off guard. We had to scramble to make most of the products fragrance free. Now, we understand that we need to have our ears to the ground all the time and be better at listening to what people are saying and to not dismiss any trends. I am hoping the same thing happens with sustainability. That people suddenly start demanding it.”
A lot of the consumer discourse and behaviour, Prasad believes, is influenced by what is happening on social media. “And some of this is very transient and noise driven, rather than fundamental,” he adds. “So as a brand, we need to judge how much we react to noise and how much to fundamental changes. What do we believe is correct. That is always a challenge.”
Prasad believes that the premiumisation of India has been happening for around a decade. But given how big the market is, he thinks it will take at least another 10 years, if not more, for this transformation to play out. He also doesn’t see any new trends emerging in this period. “We are all in the same place, with a very long journey ahead,” he says. “And it is a very exciting journey. I just hope at some point we will reach a tipping point where the broader market really starts understanding and caring about sustainability too.”