D2C brands in India are coming into their own but not without their share of growing pains. The stumbling toddler steps have been transformed into a more firm footed stride with a deeper understanding of the mass premium consumer, the pitfalls of product development, the impact of distribution and the nuances of pricing strategies. The trial and error has resulted in unequivocal success stories like Mamaearth and Nykaa, giving D2C founders a jolt of validation and motivation to stay in the fray despite funding dry ups and an increased focus on profitability. From chips and tonic water to sanitary pads and makeup, ambitious founders have rushed to reinvent FMCG offerings resulting in a plethora of innovative options for the consumer.
But like an awkward teenager who, underneath the bravado of pink hair and tattoos is looking for social acceptance, Indian D2C founders are risk averse when it comes to brand building. From wellness supplements to skincare brands to gourmet food and beverages, lingerie, fashion and even fintech products, you will spot the remarkable uniformity in aesthetics, heavily influenced by the millennial love for sans serif fonts, pastel colour palettes, bold layouts, photography that reminds one of summer vacation, Brooklyn-esque brand names and a general “cute and fun” vibe. Speaking of vibe, the word itself is ubiquitous in D2C brand communications, pointing to another aspect of brand building that is also lacking in imagination - brand voice.
Brand owners and more importantly the brand building fraternity that enables them, have forfeited the immense differentiation advantage of unique branding in favour of blending in with peers in their category and appealing to as many people as possible. But as the number of players increases, consolidations will be inevitable and many me-too brands will fall to the wayside. The familiarity in identity, design, packaging and communication approaches may have been a source of comfort to consumers so far, but it is poised to become a liability for continued growth because consumers cannot tell your brand apart from your competitors. Take for instance the newest category to see a lot of action these days, plant based food. Nearly every brand offering ready-to-eat veggie burgers, plant based “chicken” nuggets and vegan “hotdogs” sports a dark green packaging design with motifs of leaves and fauna in general. While the logic of this approach is easily understood, colour theory, mental shortcuts and common sense, it is obvious and generic. It may have been a smart choice for a first mover brand but as more players enter the space, the uniformity in brand identity undoes any product innovations you may be launching.
The same can be said for tea brands - both supermarket brands and luxury brands. While grocery brands by and large stick to green packaging and tea cup photography, luxury brands opt consistently for brass tins with labels featuring English chintz motifs. There is nothing wrong with either of these. It’s just that, for consumers faced with dozens of brands sitting next to each other on store shelves or on their Instagram feeds, it results in a paradox of choice because no real difference can be discerned. This is a bigger problem when you talk about commodity products like olive oil, organic flour, pasta and so on because the differentiation is significantly dependent on branding along with price. Most brands opt for a wholesome, earthy, brown card paper approach with stories about farmers. This made sense when Indians only had Aashirwad and Pillsbury to choose from but in 2022, the farmer story seems somewhat stale.
Personal care for both men and women also tends to follow a set template so much so that positioning and messaging is practically indistinguishable with words like clean, pure and organic becoming par for the course. Sometimes when targeted with an ad on Instagram, it’s hard to know whether the product is a mouthwash or a vitamin C gummy or a facial oil because the identity design is so similar.
With consumers becoming ever more immune to and discerning of brand messaging and a wave of new Gen Z and Gen Alpha consumers entering the marketplace, brands would do well to understand that aesthetics like products, need to evolve in order to be relevant. Gen Z for instance, has an aesthetic that is a dramatic departure from millennial approaches with a love for bright neon colours, imperfection, playfulness and uniqueness. Many international brands have realised this and started the transition. And it’s not enough to evolve into sameness again but rather to be able to use personality, design and communication to add value to your brand and to your customer either by creating an emotional resonance or grabbing attention. The toolkit of a marketer and the canvas of the designer has no shortage of emotions to play on. Why not use humour, surprise, sassiness, idealism, and other attributes to create a brand that is distinct? Why not take a mindful risk, an intentional departure, a true innovation in brand instead of simply toeing the line?
Brand strategy is a key component that can help transform design and communication decisions and elevate them from being functional and safe to evocative and memorable. Entrepreneurship is at its core, an endeavour in having a bold vision, an appetite for risk, and the courage to make an impact. It’s time founders include brand building and customer delight in this exciting journey.
Radhika Butala is the founder of strategic brand consultancy The Better Collective. Views expressed are personal.