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Anil Chopra: Good girls wear make-up too

Anil Chopra, who was with Lakm from 1974-2012, talks about the brand's early years as a myth-buster in the cosmetics industry

Anil Chopra at StudioWest, the Westside make-up brand that Chopra’s consultancy has built from scratch. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
Anil Chopra at StudioWest, the Westside make-up brand that Chopra’s consultancy has built from scratch. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

Beauty is big business, with an estimated market size of about $4.5 billion (around Rs3,000 crore) in India. The market is growing at 20-25% a year, and Indian women now have an array of brands to pick from, including Revlon, L’Oréal Paris, Estée Lauder, Maybelline and MAC. There was, however, a time when women who applied make-up were frowned upon—if you wore lipstick and blush, you were considered “racy" (though kajal or kohl were considered okay). The government actively discouraged the use of cosmetics in the 1980s, banning imports and imposing 100% excise duty on items made in India.

Anil Chopra joined Lakmé as a sales manager in Delhi in 1974, when the company’s turnover was less than Rs10 crore, in an industry that was minuscule. Chopra would go on to help create a shift in perception—from persuading female MPs that high taxes on cosmetics discriminated against women, to devising innovative advertising campaigns to counter negative perceptions—and build the domestic beauty business. He was appointed chief executive officer in 2006.

At Lakmé, he worked alongside his mentor and boss Simone Tata to combat the myths and taboos that surrounded cosmetics. In 1983, Lakmé coined catchy tag lines like Is It Bad To Look Good? and Do Men Look Down On Make-up? He not only pioneered new product categories but also made the brand Lakmé synonymous with fashion in India. Starting 2000, it sponsored the Lakmé Fashion Week at a time when there were no fashion events in the country. For the past five years, Chopra, who left Lakmé in 2012, has been running his own consultancy firm, Anil Chopra Advisory. It has helped build StudioWest, Tata’s Westside’s retail response to international cosmetics brands like Sephora. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How has the beauty industry changed since you joined Lakmé?

When I started at Lakmé in the 1970s, the industry was minuscule, built largely around skincare, with a basic portfolio of moisturizers, cleansers and toners. Make-up was primarily lipsticks and a few foundations. This was when the Indian government had decided that they didn’t want multinational corporations in the country. The cosmetics business was confined to one brand—Lakmé. There was Pond’s, which focused on talcum powder, cold cream and nail polish, but didn’t have make-up in its product portfolio. People of a certain generation will recall how, for decades, the generic name for nail polish was Cutex (by Pond’s). Foreign brands like Max Factor packed up and left due to the tough economic conditions. Back then, the country had a plethora of small, home-grown, cheap cosmetics.

There was also a prevailing mindset that it wasn’t right for a young girl to use, because if she did, she was seen as beautifying herself to attract the opposite sex. There were strong negative overtones, perpetuated by the sociocultural context of the day. I clearly remember that in the 1980 budget speech, it was stated that cosmetics are undesirable products for Indian women. I recall that Mrs Simone Tata and I went to the finance ministry and said that these high excise duties were not justified; there was just no response from them.

Photo: iStockphoto.

How did make-up brands operate in such an environment?

Mrs Tata had a vision. She decided that we would not communicate what is not socially appropriate. But we recognized that there were people who wanted very good-quality cosmetics. So Lakmé invested a huge amount of time, effort and money to actually start learning cosmetics technology, and in teaching people in the chemicals industry how to make certain raw materials, including packaging and formulation. The materials we used were safe and of good quality. That is what helped Lakmé keep prices competitive. Our idea was to make affordable cosmetics, so that more people could buy them.

Also, we introduced new products and trends. In the late 1970s, Mrs Tata said that we should get into a colour product, and launch nail polish. There were no social taboos around it—nail polish was applied by every girl. What went on one’s face was visible to other people, whether it was mascara, eyeliner or lipstick, but nail polish was not immediately visible. As a result, the nail-polish market was huge. At that time, it was Cutex that dominated the market. Mrs Tata’s vision was to make our product a fashion statement, with different colours and textures based on seasonality. It was amazing. Within five years, Pond’s closed the Cutex brand—they couldn’t compete with us. Lakmé’s nail polish was the first that set trends, based on local fashion. It collaborated with designers like Wendell Rodricks and Narendra Kumar to invent these trends.

Post liberalization, the government rolled back duties. I led a team on behalf of the industry to create a campaign that conveyed the message that make-up was not bad. Our marketing messages were educative. Foreign brands began entering the market. Today, the landscape is transformed.

What made you stay the course in the beauty business, given how tough it was? Why didn’t you move to another sector?

I had no reason to look elsewhere professionally. Lakmé was so small that I was 29 when I became sales manager for all of the company. Mrs Tata handled marketing, and she would ask me to attend marketing meetings. So I learnt a lot quickly. I felt great satisfaction that our numbers and brand grew even at the toughest times. Consumers relating to Lakmé—that was personally fulfilling.

Did you ever feel at a disadvantage as a man in the beauty business?

I never felt at a disadvantage because of my gender. I may have felt a bit squeamish initially, but got over it fast. With women—they are end-users—their own biases come in. I don’t have that. When I first joined Lakmé—it had just launched the nail polish—we had to find out what kind of clothes girls were wearing, and what their colour preferences were. I asked myself how I could research this, but Mrs Tata had a simple solution. She said, “Go, park yourself outside a girl’s college and observe the girls!" So I went and hung around outside the gates of girls’ colleges like one of the many chauffeurs!

For product evaluation, Mrs Tata said, “I don’t expect you to try the products but you should know how they feel, so roll up your sleeves and apply them on your arm." It has become part of my DNA now. Whenever I go out, I look at girls and see what they are wearing. In 30 seconds flat, I can tell if someone is wearing her make-up wrong.

My wife Sabina jokes that whenever someone asks, “Where’s Anil?"she replies, “Wherever there is one guy with five girls!"

Tell us about the Indian beauty consumer, in comparison to her counterpart around the world.

The Indian woman is proud of her ethos. She loves her festivals. She may pick up influences from around the world but her identity is Indian. Anti-ageing products, brow care and mascara are big everywhere but do they work in India? Caucasian women need to fill their brows, but look at the Indian woman…she has the reverse concern. In that case, what are the products that will work for her? Mascara is huge internationally, but an Indian woman hardly needs it. At the most she may need to separate her lashes. Indian skin is oily. We perspire so our skin is naturally hydrated. It doesn’t age like other skin.

We pay a lot more for premium foreign beauty brands. Are they really so much better than their Indian counterparts?

I think a lot of people are needlessly spending money on foreign brands, because they think those are better. In a cosmetic, the product cost is usually about 30% of the total cost. The rest of the cost is packaging. When something looks really premium, it’s because a lot of money has gone in designing and producing the packaging. The product may be slightly different, to be sure, but if you buy something that is twice the cost, are you really getting a product that is also twice as superior?

Tell us a trade secret.

Did you know that some of the best cosmetics manufacturers in the world started out making pens and pencils? Schwan-Stabilo and Faber-Castell are two such companies that started out making writing instruments. Seventy per cent of all cosmetic pencils are manufactured by Schwan. Indian law requires that the manufacturer’s name has to be put on the product, so if one observes closely, one will find that all the Indian brands have Schwan-Stabilo or Faber-Castell etched on them.

Which are the fastest growing categories ?

Face wash, since Indian skin is oily—by and large—and the Indian climate requires one to wash one’s face several times a day. Fragrances are another area. Eighty per cent of the market is imported but it has huge potential for domestic manufacturing. There’s a trend to use natural ingredients and products that fight pollution.

What keeps you busy now?

I run my own advisory business, but unlike most consultants, I take a project from beginning to end, from conceptualizing to execution. StudioWest within Westside is my baby. We did everything from the strategy to the branding to the packaging of the cosmetics studio. I also do early-stage investing and have invested in, a website focused on fashion, beauty and food.

What is your big learning from the decades you have been in the industry?

Perhaps the fact that the face is only a part of a woman’s total appearance. The total appearance describes who you are. I learnt that through the Lakmé Fashion Week.

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