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#Retrace2021: Influencer-led purchases played a big role in driving growth: SUGAR CEO Vineeta Singh

Singh talks about the growth of the D2C brand and plans for 2022 in an exclusive chat.

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An established name in the Indian beauty & personal care market, SUGAR Cosmetics was among the early movers into the D2C (direct-to-consumer) space as a digital-first cosmetic brand. Nurtured by Vineeta Singh, an IIT & IIM graduate who co-founded the beauty startup in the year 2015 along with her husband, the brand today boasts over two million app downloads on iOS and Android and 1.8 million-plus Instagram followers. Not only this, it has established retail touchpoints in over 35,000 outlets across 130+ cities and has raised $21 million in series C funding in early 2021.

The persistent entrepreneur was third-time lucky after her first two start-ups did not take off. However, the second startup, Fab Bag, a subscription business that offered women an assortment of beauty products every month for a small fee- gave her enough data and insights to kickstart her third one. Singh realized that the makeup brands that were available—foreign or local—didn’t cater to Indian skin tones or the Indian way of life, and poured her academic learning and freshly-learned consumer insights into SUGAR. Unlike most digital-first brands, SUGAR was early to develop an omnichannel presence. The gamble paid off and today the seven-year-old startup has hit an annual run rate of Rs 500 crore as of November 2021, having closed FY21 at approximately Rs 130 crore revenue.

The massive push to the digital economy that the pandemic offered also proved to be a boon and gave the brand a huge opportunity to connect directly with its consumers.  The multi-faceted serial entrepreneur who describes herself as “CEO @ SUGAR Cosmetics. Mom. Running, cycling, swimming person - in that order” believes that “women make the best all-rounders.”

IndianTelevision’s Anupama Sajeet, caught up with Vineeta Singh- CEO & cofounder of SUGAR Cosmetics- for an exclusive chat on the key innovations the Beauty brand brought into its portfolio in the past year and its expansion plans in 2022. She also shares her thoughts on trends witnessed by the beauty industry last year while also delving upon the learnings that she carries into the new year.

Edited excerpts:

On key changes/innovations brought in 2021 by the brand

Despite the difficulties that all brands faced during the second wave of the pandemic in 2021, SUGAR Cosmetics launched 30+ new products. Keeping the market scenarios in mind, we also extended our skincare category with the launch of a coffee and citrus-based skincare range. SUGAR Cosmetics also built conversational & educative content using strong videos and infographics, exploring experiential retail marketing tactics and deploying stronger content even on the brand-owned app.

As we continued to grow stronger on building powerful content, we also ensured that we strengthened our content distribution channels from digital and OOH to TV. Our SUGAR x Taapsee campaign TV Commercial aired on prime TV channels in eight languages witnessed over 50 Million views.

On the brand’s association with the non-fiction show ‘Shark Tank India’ on Sony

I am very grateful to have been invited to ‘Shark Tank’ as one of the Sharks. As this wasn’t a kind of brand collaboration, my acceptance of this offer by ‘Shark Tank India’ was purely a personal interest to nurture the entrepreneurship boom in the country. It’s a sheer pleasure being a part of this iconic show that has helped create several multi-million-dollar companies across geographies, over the years, along with a unique viewing experience to the audience not only educating them but entertaining them at the same time.

On leveraging influencer marketing to connect with consumers

For SUGAR, influencer marketing has played a big part in creating online and offline popularity for the brand. Not only in the sense of getting our engagement levels high, but also the direct response from consumers through the sales conversions has seen a spike when we have engaged in influencer marketing strategies. In the near future, we plan to take our association to the next level, by creating an exclusive community of these mini brand ambassadors and rolling out an exclusive program for them.

On expanding the brand’s current consumer demographic

As a brand, we continue to stay laser-focused and loyal to the 18-to-25-year-old target group. However, with retail rapidly blitz-scaling to become a significant part of our business over the last three years, the brand has also attracted a slightly older target group of 25-to-34-year-olds. What's common though in both audience sets is that they're digital-savvy, more peer and influencer-led than celebrity-led and know what a good lipstick looks like. We are definitely foraying into Tier 2 – 3 cities and are already available in more than 500+ cities through just our retail channels.

On major trends witnessed in the Beauty & Cosmetic industry in 2021 

We are seeing a dominance of peer/influencer-review led purchases over celebrity-promoted ones. Traditional retail, of course, continues to dominate the lion's share of colour cosmetics and beauty sales in India but with the democratisation of data and access to low-cost internet, there's a massive Tier 2/Tier 3 city audience that's waiting to consume beauty brands like never before. In terms of new product trends, apart from transfer-proof lipsticks and mask-proof makeup, hybrid products are a new rage. Such products have gained a surge in sales for SUGAR through our illuminating moisturizers, lip primers, lip balms, hydrating primers, and more.

On key trends that might dominate the industry in 2022

2022 will see further integration of tech in beauty. I definitely see a lot more experimentation happening on these lines as consumers and brands explore the blurred boundaries between the digital and real world. Also as the growing GenZs community joins in as early adopters of makeup – I see a lot of influence of their buying behavior skewed on brands that focus on sustainability, and who explore themes around realistic beauty and inclusivity. Adoption of an omnichannel approach and focus on conversational commerce will also gain popularity among a lot of brands.

On brand USP amid tough competition from rising players in the D2C cosmetics space

The three main USPs of the brand - highly coveted colours, the right pigments that compliment all skin tones, and makeup made with formulations that last long, has helped the brand to build a cult following in a short span of time. Our products are just more value for the price tag we command - it will be hard to find products that are more pigmented, longer-lasting, and more suited to the Indian skin tone.

SUGAR, as a brand has always been more creator-led, than celebrity-led in a cluttered market, where brands spend more time talking about discounts than the power or beauty and cosmetics. Ensuring all SUGAR Cosmetics products are manufactured in regions across the globe that excel in providing high quality for that specific product – has also been a major contributor to maintaining quality. With a clutter-breaking persona, signature low-poly packaging and chart-topping products –SUGAR will continue to keep providing more value and better quality than any other competitor in our price range. We will also continue to be a squarely millennial-focused brand.

On looking ahead: Goals & plans for 2022

We will further strengthen our core pillars – distribution, product, content, and community. We aim to be in over one lakh stores in 2022 and make SUGAR one of India’s top three brands in the overall colour cosmetics category with a company turnover of more than Rs 500 crores. We currently employ more than 2000 women and we also aim to raise that number to 3000 so that the brand is truly built by women for women.

On the personal learnings that she will take into the new year

Covid-19 has changed the way the world behaves. For SUGAR, we came out stronger with so much gratitude in our hearts. Firstly, towards our customers who continued to support endlessly, secondly towards our retail, warehouse, and HQ employees who were nothing less than frontline workers. Another learning has been that no matter what challenge is thrown at us, agility matters. We realised that growth is not about how fast you get to it, but how well you sustain it once you have arrived. And, lastly, we learnt to not stop making bold and brave decisions, like we always did!

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