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How men's grooming got a wellness makeover

Skin and hair care brands believe the conversation around beauty needs to be tweaked according to male and female consumer behaviour

You could get better results with gender-specific products for men believe skin experts. (Unsplash)
You could get better results with gender-specific products for men believe skin experts. (Unsplash)

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The global boom in the skincare and beauty industry has been forcing companies to get rid of stereotypical boundaries of colour and gender. They have realised that bigger the market, the better it is for sales. Even in India, indie wellness and beauty startups adopted new-age, but necessary guidelines that had so far been ignored here. These brands have been pitching in to make the burgeoning industry (which has made international brands take notice too) more exciting. What’s interesting is most are men’s-only skincare and wellness brands who feel though men aren’t very vocal about grooming and vanity, the social-media conditioned generation does want to look and feel good, regardless of their gender. We might still be far away from mass-scale skincare and beauty ads on TV that feature men (and not just a male blogger partnership). But brands agree that today's men aren’t only interested in beard grooming and shaving products, but are also asking for serums and facial kits for their skin type. Here’s why companies have decided that it’s high time that brands target the well-read male buyer, who is already probably sneaking in creams and hair potions from their partner’s cabinet.      

Do men need a different serum?

Skin is skin, so do men really need a different niacinamide or hyaluronic serum compared to women? If you visit the men’s section on any skincare or beauty site in India, you will see a mix of products that have always been popular in general (such as Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost gel or a brand like Minimalist which has gender-neutral packaging) and products by men’s-only brands which are designed and packed for men. You could get better results with gender-specific products for men believe skin experts. “Men sometimes need a different product because the skin make is different than women. They have more sebaceous glands and hair follicles on the face, so serums and creams need to be of higher potency. Even though the component might be the same, the percentage may vary,” says Dr Soma Sarkar, medical director at Dr Soma’s Dermatology and Aesthetic Clinic. The skin is reactive to hormones too, and men and women have different calibrations, for example, the reason for acne in women is often PCOS. “We need stronger creams when treating conditions like hyperpigmentation or acne in men as the response rate is a little more delayed,” says Dr Sarkar. So if a company is already selling skincare and wellness for women, it makes business sense to launch a separate men’s category too as you are anyway halfway there with the production set-up.

The most important ingredient to launch any brand, says Shankar Prasad, founder and CEO, PHY, is consumer understanding – the male mind and heart function very differently when it comes to personal care he believes. “Getting a good understanding of habits, attitudes and preferences are critical to crafting the right product and marketing mix. The rest of the "how-tos” are largely commoditized in India; be it manufacturing, web front-end, digital marketing or fulfilment,” he says. And it’s not just the formula that benefits from being different, the conversation around the brand needs to be dictated according to male and female consumer behaviour. Revant Bhate, co-founder and CEO, of Mosaic Wellness, which owns Man Matters and Bodywise (for women), seconds that the male buyer is far more impatient, and women are more patient with purchases and outcomes. “Women take care of themselves and others a lot more. Their stickiness or ability to continue on a regime is higher, whereas men need added impetus to continue,” says Bhate.

Gender bender

One of the first few men’s-only brands that started in India before the skincare boom have been brands like Ustraa and Beardo. Both these companies started with shaving and beard necessities such as beard oils, shaving creams and beard washes. Their packaging and brand name were typically male-centric. But today, these brands have diversified into skincare and hair care, and sell products like night creams, de-tan kits, vitamin C serums and anti-acne gels. Unlike Bombay Shaving Company, which started with men's grooming needs and now also sells skin products with formulations that can be used by both men and women. Products for hair loss and hair health remain the biggest category in men’s wellness which is why most men’s wellness platforms sell hair regrowth products and supplements. Man Matters too launched with hair products and it remains their highest selling category till today. However, the company followed an innovative approach of first creating a platform for men to discuss their health concerns without any of their own products. The founders of Man Matters didn’t have to look far to conceptualize this approach for the company. Bhate says that smart and educated buyers such as him have money to buy products but aren’t armed with information to make their choice. And there weren’t any platforms where men could open up about their grooming and wellness concerns, without being judged based on their gender. All available products were targeted toward women with their ads or packaging.

 “Men have problems to discuss and there are 25 million searches on health and wellness by men every year. But ask any man for a product recommendation (in skincare or wellness) or advice on sexual health, they probably don’t know what to do themselves and the conditioning is such that they don’t open up and do not even acknowledge it.  Men get anxious about their image too, it’s just that they are labelled weak and judged. So we wanted to create a platform and a community where men would feel welcome to discuss matters of men (and not just sports) that are not being spoken and get empathy,” says Bhate. The team first launched on social media and via their app in 2020, where men could get free medical advice from professionals and not leave decision making to conflicting Quora or Reddit threads. They follow a full-stack approach of education around health, and the community aspect on their app. People can get consultations and access to information via text and video, and also speak to and learn from others who have had similar experiences. They continued engaging with people via their app and social media posts, and after five months of learning about the male consumer’s issues, they developed and launched their own products. GHC is another Indian company with distinct brand names for men and women— Mars (for men) and Saturn, both sites offer consultations and are presented as digital health and wellness platforms.  

Prasad had eight years of consumer experience with their flagship brand Plum, one of the first vegan, PETA-certified clean beauty brands in India. It was only in 2019 that Shankar launched PHY, a grooming brand targeted toward men (or guys, as they got rid of the men tag in their branding last year). “Gaps always exist [in the industry] and new ones keep appearing, simply because the consumer context is not static. The key ones currently are about getting the sensory mix right and talking to men in a language that's uncomplicated, relatable and yet non-patronizing. Meeting these needs is our simple, everyday pursuit at PHY,” says Shankar. The key challenge, he says, is in getting under the skin (pun not intended) and understanding how men think about this category. The secret is that men don't think about the nuances in the products as much as women. Or at least aren't as articulate about it as women. Since their launch in 2019, the company has tried a variety of products and approaches (including the subtle rebranding last year). Their learnings says Shankar is that you can’t go wrong with the basics in terms of hassle-free formulations, clean designs and a good sensory experience, which he considers most important for a product. “Complicate it beyond a point, and you lose them. Of course, this is a broad generalization; some men have an extremely nuanced approach to this as well,” explains Shankar. 

PHY sells body hydrators and scrubs, face serums and active-based sunscreens, face masks, and hair products too. Post the initial lull of the pandemic, PHY witnessed growth after they launched the new look and packaging late last year. Male and female buyers are from different planets says Shankar. “The route to the consumer's heart (and mind) is quite different. With Plum, from a product perspective, it's about ingredients, sensory delight, efficacy and tailoring the right regime, so to speak. With PHY, products have to fit around the man's routine in an uncomplicated, there-but-not-there sort of way. Hence, our route to market is weighted in terms of micro-level consumer research, content and very rapid innovation when it comes to Plum. With PHY, it's about telling the male consumer that here's a no-nonsense, dependable partner for every part of your day, giving you just the experience you need and nothing more or less,” says Shankar.

It might be confusing to understand the male consumer’s psyche, but questionnaires and Machine Learning algorithms are beneficial. At Man Matters, because the customers have to first fill an assessment form on the app, and because of their consultations (which can go up to a lakh a month), they get constant consumer feedback to improve products and launch better formulations. Bhate says that a consumer needs to enjoy the experience when it comes to health and wellness, but most often it’s a chore. So they keep our content light but educative, and additionally train their doctors on the art of empathy and online patient interaction to make it convenient and easy for the consumer. They recommend a personalised regime and not something you buy on a whim. All that Bhate hopes is that your first purchase will ideally be from their platform. Though they are available on platforms like Amazon and wellness store chains (thus making the Indian affordable drugstore skincare segment stronger), the secondary platforms are more for the repeat customers. They aim for a buyer to first get a consultation and choose a tailor-made product. This is also why they don’t advertise or do discounts on other platforms as they want their consumer to make an informed purchase (consumer data being an incentive for them). The brand communication also shows in the packaging, which unlike most other men’s brands in India isn’t black or very typically masculine. 

Bhate says that they consider themselves a health and wellness platform for men and not just bracket into skincare. And the pandemic has made the consumer and the doctor more open to online consultations. “Today, everybody is realising that the market which has so far been for women, will grow. This is also why we have separate brands for men and women, as it reduces chaos on the app and helps address gender-specific issues. The women’s vertical, Bodywise also has products related to hair loss, weight management and acne, but these are designed based on women’s hormonal issues and their physiology.”

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