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The Big Brand Squeeze

Unlearn everything you knew about how brands were built

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BigBasket.com is the largest food e-grocer in India. With over $300 million in venture funding, it operates in nearly two dozen Indian cities. Head over to the vegetables and fruits section on its site and you’ll find that the most popular brand, judging by the products that appear right at the top, seems to be “Fresho”. Switch to foodgrains and the most popular brand seems to be “Royal”. Baked goods? Fresho. Eggs and meats? Fresho. Organic foods? Royal and Fresho.

Who owns these superstar, cross-category brands that the likes of Unilever, P&G and Nestle would kill for? BigBasket does.

Switch to Amazon India. Let’s head over to the mobile cases section. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 in the top 90,000 results are cases made by Solimo. How about data cables for smartphones? Two out of the top four are by AmazonBasics. Backpacks and luggage? AmazonBasics. Bluetooth headsets? AmazonBasics. There are even AmazonBasics dinner sets and office chairs.

They’re all Amazon-owned brands. Globally, it has 76 of its own brands according to a Recode article from April 2018.

Brands that extend from office chairs and dinner sets to smartphone cables and wireless headsets aren’t supposed to exist in the real world. Because conventional brand theory holds that unrelated brand extensions end up diluting brands and weakening them.

Perhaps Amazon didn’t get the memo.

The Adlergics… are going dark

Millennials are one of the most sought-after customer audiences by marketers and brands. But how do you reach them, given that two-thirds (eMarketer) have installed an ad-blocker on their PCs or smartphones? But they’re not alone. Nearly 30% of the world’s Internet users are expected to use ad-blockers by the end of 2018. In 2016, India alone was estimated to have over 122 million users who blocked ads. The Chinese are even further ahead, with 159 million blocking ads on their devices.

Deloitte calls this new generation of ad-blocking users “adlergics”

The Adlergics

66% +

Millenials worldwide using adblockers

30% +

Overall adblocker usage expected by 2018

122 million

Users in India using adblockers

159 million

Users in China using adblockers

Ad-blocking must be seen together with the rise of “cord-cutting”, as younger users turn away from cable and satellite TV by switching to ad-free streaming options like Netflix or Amazon Prime. 

Just 39% of Indians meanwhile read newspapers. Younger readers and professionals have and are progressively migrating to getting their news online.

How, then, do brands advertise to ad-hating, cord-cutting, newspaper-eschewing users?

Beyond Staples

There’s a reason why Amazon’s most successful private label brand is called “AmazonBasics”. Or why BigBasket’s private labels rule in categories like flour, pulses, bread and vegetables.

Because when it comes to staples, people have been buying brands all these years because they were the best proxy for quality. The more money an FMCG company spends on advertising and brand building, the more it loosely translates into consumer trust in product quality.

That is why it’s easiest to dislodge consumer brand preferences for staple product categories.

But there’s Myntra. India’s largest online fashion retailer, owned by Flipkart (in turn owned by Walmart), is where Indians buy fashion. Together with subsidiary brand Jabong, it generated sales of over $1.2 billion last year. Its home page is cluttered with global fashion brands like Guess, Calvin Klein, Marks & Spencer, Tommy Hilfiger and Desigual. And Roadster, Kook N Keech, Mast & Harbour, Dressberry, Anouk, Invictus and Ether.

The second lot are all owned by Myntra.

Fashion apparel is one of the most brand-conscious categories that exist. They’re as far from staples as can be. And yet, close to 25% of Myntra’s revenue comes from its own private brands. Just one of its brands, Roadster, generates over $100 million in annual sales.

Crouching Platform, Hidden Brands

We’re living in the era of all-powerful platforms. From Facebook to Amazon to Alibaba to Flipkart. Their scale, capital and ambition have never been seen before. Technology and the Internet supercharge those even further, by adding in network effects.

When it comes to brands, the power that resides in platforms comes from two factors—aggregation and data.

Modern e-commerce platforms aggregate millions of products and brands. Amazon alone was estimated to list 562 million distinct products as of January 2018. And close to 700,000 distinct brands in 2016. No store on earth has the potential to aggregate at this scale. This aggregation, combined with hundreds of millions of users searching, clicking, filtering, buying and reviewing leads to the real source of the platform’s power—data.

By observing what products, price points, feature selections and brands consumers search for and buy, platforms are uniquely poised to figure out the mythical “sweet spot” where a new brand can be introduced. One that’s cheaper than premium brands but offers more features than cheaper ones. And most importantly, one where there’s guaranteed to be sufficient demand. A recent NYT article estimated that nearly 70% of Amazon searches are for generic goods, not brands.

By collecting and weaponising the long tail “dust” generated by users, BigBasket, Amazon, Myntra and Flipkart can keep eating away at the market share and premium enjoyed by long-established brands. And thanks to their deep profiling and targeting capabilities, every new private label brand is guaranteed to be thrust in front of potential customers at just the right time. And there’s very little they can do about it.

BigBasket, for instance, is about to extend its private labels to cosmetics and fresh meats. Myntra wants to increase its private labels from 13 to 30 within a year, and increase their share of revenue from 25% to 35-40%.

You think all of those sales are going to come by expanding the overall pie?

A Problem of Trust

We know that customers increasingly block, ignore or despise online ads. Millennials more so. This upends the way brands have traditionally been built. Because it’s not just that modern customers don’t want to see ads, it’s also that they don’t value ads or connote them with product quality.

According to a 2017 study by Ipsos, 69% of Britons distrusted advertising and fully 42% distrust brands in general. Another study found that 84% of millennials don’t trust advertising.

Because the Internet has made everyone much more informed, aware and connected. The 24×7 informational feedback loops have ensured that consumers are constantly in search-and-research mode, taking in various cues such as reviews, feedback ratings and social media coverage about the brands and products they are interested in.

This once again places e-commerce platforms at an advantage, as they can offer reviews and feedback ratings as part of the same package. A 2016 survey of US shoppers found that 55% of them started their online shopping trips on Amazon, lured in large parts due to its wealth of reviews.

How do other brands reach customers then? Through stories, celebrities and influencers and social media narratives.

Modern customers, especially the elusive millennials, have developed a heightened wariness of slick, corporate branding attempts. Instead, they harness the connectivity of social networks to monitor what products and brands are used by their peers and idols.

A survey found 72% of US millennials having bought fashion apparel after seeing an Instagram post featuring it. 84% of them say social media posts from utter strangers have influenced their purchase decisions.

New age brands have thus evolved aesthetics that are stark, minimalist and matter of fact. Product packages emphasise ingredients and values. Communication is simple and bi-directional. In many ways, these are almost “anti-big brand”, if we view them as relative to how brands were traditionally built.

Celebcommerce

And “influencers”—from the nearest social media celeb to sports star or movie actor—are becoming the fulcrum for brand communications. Though not all influencers are created equal.

An early McKinsey study from 2014 found that the top 5% of influencers can generate nearly 45% of social influence. Nearly 80% of fashion retailer Nordstrom’s mobile traffic was generated by influencers.

Last year, HRX, an apparel brand promoted by Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan, generated Rs 300 crore ($43.7 million) worth of sales on Myntra, the platform that owns a majority stake in it. It took it just four years to hit that mark.

Since then, HRX has partnered with Cure.Fit, a meta-platform combining gyms, food delivery and wellness centres, to offer co-branded workouts. Another HRX extension is with the Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi to offer co-branded fitness bands.

Wrogn, a celeb brand was co-created by India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli and is co-owned by arguably India’s most famous cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar. Since starting out in 2014, it has expanded to multiple e-commerce platforms, offline retailers and even numerous fully-owned brand outlets of its own. Its revenue target for 2020 was Rs 1000 crore ($146 million).

Yet another celeb brand, Being Human by Bollywood actor Salman Khan, sells through a network of over 600 stores across the world and had sales of Rs 220 crore ($32 million) last year.

While these are examples of how fickle consumer preferences are changing the way brands are positioned, what happens when brands cease to matter at all?

The dawn of the Celebfluencers

Rs 300 cr in 4 years

By Hrithik Roshan promoted apparel brand, HRX

Rs 1000 crore by 2020

Revenue target of Virat Kohli co-created brand, WROGN

Rs 220 crore in 2017

By Salman Khan owned Being Human, over 600+ stores

The Future is Brandless

One of the fastest growing e-commerce platforms among young, urban Indians is one where brands are almost meaningless—Aliexpress. An e-commerce platform owned by China’s Alibaba Group, it offers almost an infinite choice of products from virtually any category you can think of, sans recognisable brands.

Playing on China’s advantage as the manufacturing nerve centre of the world, sellers on Aliexpress offer products that offer nearly the same design and features offered by recognisable international brands, but at a fraction of the price.

Working Apple Watch replicas. Smart speakers. Knock-off Dyson-like vacuum cleaners. Coffee machines. Designer lamps. Apparel. The products are endless, so long as you don’t care about brands.

And anecdotal evidence would suggest a large percentage of consumers don’t.

Internationally, Wish.com is an app that offers cheap and utilitarian products like sunglasses, sweaters, toys and watches for prices mostly ranging from “free” (customers only pay for shipping) to single digit dollars. The products are all sourced from China, like Aliexpress, and bear no recognisable brand. Wish.com was last valued at $8.5 billion, more than the combined total of established retailers like Macy’s, JC Penney and Sears.

Both Aliexpress and Wish.com (and many others like them) are taking advantage of the inexorable rise in cross-border e-commerce as global supply chains get more efficient, cheaper and faster. A recent study of over 12,000 consumers across eight countries found that over 70% of them had made at least one cross-border purchase. In countries like Singapore and Malaysia, cross-border e-commerce is higher than domestic e-commerce.

There is, ironically, a brand that takes brandlessness to its logical conclusion by doing away with it altogether. It’s called, wait for it, “Brandless”. It sells everyday products at a flat price of $3 by selling directly to customers and eschewing the cost of building and running a conventional CPG brand.

Update: This story was edited to correct the fact that fashion brand Wrogn was only co-created by cricketer Virat Kohli, and isn’t co-owned by him.

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