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How Kama Ayurveda made Ayurvedic luxury skincare glow

Vivek Sahni, the brand co-founder, on pivoting to the online space during the pandemic and the changing beauty customer of India 

Vivek Sahni, the co-founder of the Ayurveda-inspired skincare brand that turns 20 next year.
Vivek Sahni, the co-founder of the Ayurveda-inspired skincare brand that turns 20 next year. (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

Kama Ayurveda is everywhere. On the front page of newspapers, on billboards, on social media. “… you must be seeing our ads (on social media) because you must have Googled us,” smiles Vivek Sahni, the co-founder of the Ayurveda-inspired skincare brand that turns 20 next year. “There’s no running away from them.”

The countrywide visibility of the brand, which once sat quietly in a small central Delhi store and found more customers in foreign tourists happy to spend an extra few hundred rupees to take home a part of India, is a well-considered marketing move. When the pandemic struck last year, leading to a nationwide lockdown and the temporary closure of their 40-plus stores around the country, Sahni and the other co-founders—Dave Chang, Rajshree Pathy and Vikram Goyal—were quick to realise their weak online presence would hurt sales. Till then, 75% of sales had been from physical stores; the rest, through the e-commerce platform Nykaa.

“We were basically a brick-and-mortar brand. A lot of other brands, which grew quickly, were already online, so they were able to turn things around. We were just so busy ensuring our products were exactly what they claim to be that we never followed trends as such. We had to go back and relook at everything from scratch, else we were staring at a huge loss,” says Sahni.

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Much of 2020 was spent redesigning their website to make it more user-friendly. Home deliveries were speeded up and online beauty consultations introduced. Their social media accounts became more interactive, with influencers and celebrities like Mira Kapoor being roped in for brand promotion. Earlier this year, they decided to go all-out in print in an effort to build visibility. “People were slowly going back to newspapers this year,” reasons Sahni. “We wanted to reach those whose (social media) feeds weren’t necessarily showing our ads.”

The digital transformation seems to have worked. Eighty per cent of their sales now are online—and there has been a 300-400% jump overall since late 2020, making up for the losses from April-August last year. “Even at stores we are almost back to pre-pandemic levels. But the online response has been overwhelming. The pandemic has really shot up the interest in personal skincare. People now understand well why it is important to invest in it,” says Sahni.

He isn’t keen, however, to share revenue numbers—or his age.

Keeping it traditional 

The $11 billion-plus (around 800 billion) Indian beauty and cosmetics industry is flooded with players offering everything from vegan to gold-dusted products. Four decades ago, when Shahnaz Husain first opened her herbal clinic in 1979, the beauty market didn’t have any major domestic player. In the 1990s, Biotique and Lotus launched, offering the magic of botanicals at more affordable price points. Post-liberalisation, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission decided to rebrand its skincare offerings.

This is what brought Sahni into the sector. This Parsons School of Design, US, alumnus and co-owner of a graphic design company was asked to help with the rebranding project that culminated in the launch of the flagship Khadi store in central Delhi in 2000. “I had started Vivek Sahni Design (in 1993) with Dave (Chang). We used to design logos, packaging, coffee-table books…those kind of stuff. I had no interest in cosmetics, beauty then, but when the (Khadi) project came our way, we were like, why not?”

Their task was to create gift packaging for the new-age Khadi products that Sahni remembers as “strange-looking”. “I went to them and said, ‘See, I can make a good-looking gift box but the inside (the products) looks the same as before—and who’s testing them? What if the dignitary buying the product gets a rash? I thought they would get angry; instead, they asked us to make it more cohesive.”

With a new brief, Sahni began holding meetings across India with manufacturers and cooperatives. Over almost two years, Sahni travelled to remote villages of north India, collaborating with other stakeholders and ensuring the producer wasn’t adding artificial colours and flavours to the creams, lotions and soaps. The products were then taken to government labs to test for efficacy and purity.

How did a man with no background or interest in beauty manage to get so involved? “I like to get really deep whenever I am working on any project. Why are things the way they are? That’s just my nature. And I just don’t like waste. I mean, I can make a fancy label with five colours and charge extra but I would rather use the local product. Whatever you do needs to reflect what you stand for.”

The Khadi experience made Sahni realise the need for a traditional beauty brand rooted in science. The idea of Kama Ayurveda was born when he was discussing this one evening with friends Chang, Pathy and Goyal. A few days later, they visited the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy in Tamil Nadu, a century-old hospital known for using unadulterated formulations and natural ingredients from local gardens.

They ended up collaborating with the pharmacy for resources and final products, a relationship that continues till today. “(Initially) we smelt some of their stuff and let me tell you, it wasn’t nice,” laughs Sahni. “But they eventually grow on you…we are so exposed to these Western fragrances that it takes time to orient yourself with the real thing.”

Next on the to-do list was zeroing in on the products Kama Ayurveda would offer. Chang suggested looking at the most common skin and hair problems. Two years later, in 2002, the brand launched with nine products, all tested to ensure they were free of artificial colours, fragrances, parabens or petrochemicals—a practice that is still followed.

“We reached out to everyone possible (for marketing). We asked our friends in the hotel business to keep our products. I shoved some in a friend’s beauty parlour. We kept some at Good Earth (the apparel-home décor store in Delhi’s Khan Market),” recalls Sahni. By 2005, they were getting orders for toiletries from five-star hotels like The Oberoi and The Park.

Sahni, who was still managing the design firm along with Chang, felt he wasn’t able to give his 100% to Kama Ayurveda. He told his business partners they needed to go all out or forget about it. And he began to focus full-time on Kama.

The first Kama Ayurveda store was launched in Khan Market, in 2012. It looks about the same today as it did 10 years ago: a clean old-fashioned store with a ceiling that exposes drainage pipes, reflecting the brand’s understated look. After an undisclosed amount of funding from private equity firm Lighthouse Funds in 2014, they started opening stores in other cities.

“We didn’t have an ad budget or even a growth plan as such then. We grew organically because our products were good and we remained fully focused on them,” Sahni explains. Their product line-up has grown from nine to over 15, with a hair cleanser inspired by their best-seller, Bringadi Intensive Hair Treatment Oil, being the latest offering. They started with 22 employees. Today, they have over 300.

It did, however, take a while to hook the Indian consumer. Having grown up on grandma’s desi beauty hacks, people weren’t sure why they should pay for these. “Our pricing made us niche (too). We had to use fresh ingredients and that shot up our cost. An ingredient wasn’t available because of high tide so we had to wait for four months. The oil (Bringadi) was about 400, while in the market you could get others for 40-50. Convincing people wasn’t easy,” says Sahni, without going into the pricing details.

So they started offering free miniature bottles and tubes. It helped. A few months ago, they began selling smaller product sizes. For instance, a 3ml bottle of Kumkumadi Miraculous Beauty Fluid Ayurvedic Night Serum—another best-seller—costs 845; a 12ml bottle, 2,995.

The rise to fame of yoga guru and businessman Baba Ramdev in recent years may have helped too. “Ramdev made Ayurveda popular. That’s perhaps one reason for the increase in demand. Plus our products really do work, which is why you see our newspaper ads showcasing our (third-party) test results.”

The journey hasn’t always been smooth, though. Sahni shares one instance, a “nightmare of a time” in 2014 with the Kama almond oil. He says they use only wild almonds from Kashmir, so when floods that year choked supply, they had just two options: Use a regular almond oil or not sell till the next harvest, a year later. They made the more difficult choice.

“We didn’t sell for almost a year. And it was a huge loss because it was one of our best-sellers. Everybody said to me, ‘You are being stupid, let’s just get the best quality almond oil from wherever people buy it from and sell it. It won’t make a difference.’ I refused because we had made a commitment. And that’s what I became more resolute about during the pandemic. What are you if you don’t stick to what you believe in?” asks Sahni.

A big factor in Kama Ayurveda’s current success, he says, is the “transformational change in the consumer”. “People who were not comfortable with online shopping earlier are now only doing that. We are getting orders from cities like Mizoram, which were not on our radar. Video calls have made the smallest pores bigger. Covid-19 has heightened the concept of beauty. Men are shopping on our website; women, however, remain the biggest customers. Beauty is getting bigger.”

Sahni is reticent about future plans beyond “some new product launches”. Is Kama contemplating a make-up line? Sahni replies: “I don’t know. Many people are asking me this. What do you think?” I counter with a question: Is it possible to have “natural make-up”? He responds, “That’s exactly what I thought. I guess it’s a no then.”

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