Going Global

Way back in 1971, she established the concept of herbal care & cure, pioneering the herbal beauty movement and redefining beauty care in India. She become a Harvard University case study on brand creation and a part of the business history curriculum on emerging markets. Shahnaz Husain, founder, chairperson & managing director of Shahnaz Husain Group shares her journey and plans to take brand India to many more foreign shores, in conversation with Sudeshna Banerjee. Excerpts:

Q. You created a beauty brand in India when the country was hardly conscious of ayurveda beauty products. Please take us through the journey.

Over four decades ago, when I started my career, I rejected the existing concept of beauty and adopted my own. At that time superficial beauty treatments and hairstyling were “treats” women went in for. No heed was paid to the health of the skin and hair and the potential dangers of chemical treatments. The “back to nature” trend had not yet begun. Herbal beauty care, as we know it today, did not exist. There were no herbal products and no salon treatments, based on herbal or Ayurvedic remedies.

During my training in London, I witnessed the damage caused by chemical treatments and was determined to find a natural alternative. My study of Ayurveda convinced me that India’s heritage of herbal healing had the answers to beauty care. I started my own herbal salon in a small way in my home and established customised beauty care, based on the principle of “natural care and cure.” This concept was my own innovation. I devised my own treatments for specific skin and hair problems, based on Ayurveda. I also started formulating my own products, based on Ayurveda. These have become breakthroughs in beauty care. I also used innovative and totally unique marketing strategies. Even at a time, when the demand for the product is sustained through commercial advertising, I did not rely on it. In fact, I was invited by Harvard Business School to speak on how I established my brand without advertising. I became a Harvard Case Study on Brand Creation and now I am a Subject at Harvard and part of the Business History curriculum on “Emerging Markets.”

I started an integrated system of salon treatments and products that rely on each other. I also extended my salons through a franchise system in 1979. I started by training ordinary hous wives and giving them the Shahnaz Herbal franchise to open their own salons and follow my specialised treatments. I also allowed a margin of profit to sell my products. I only entered the retail market in 1990. My products were only available at my salons and franchise salons. They were prescriptives. Today, the Shahnaz Husain franchise system has become a highly successful business model. Today, we have a global presence, in terms of franchise salons, retail outlets and training academies. Our products have stormed international markets and sold at leading international stores. In fact, Shahnaz products touched record breaking sales, where a single customer bought products worth ₤4,334 in a single transaction, breaking previous sales records at Lloyds Pharmacy at Selfridges. Product innovation is also very much a part of my enterprise. That is why the Shahnaz Husain brand has developed so strongly.

Q.When you were about 24, you set up a small factory in Okhla and “employed ayurvaids. They retailed out of Sahib Singh Chemists in Connaught Place, in little white bottles with green caps and handwritten labels. Take us through those days.

I have obtained training in cosmetology and cosmetic therapy, which also included product formulation. There was a time when I made the products myself. We had hand-written labels, which I also wrote myself. That is how I started. I thought I would try my hand at retailing my products. By then we had set up my first factory in Okhla. People had come to know about my salon treatments and products. My products actually grew out of client feedback.

Sahib Singh wanted to keep my products. But, my main outlet was my own salon. Once I started franchising, my franchise salons also became outlets.

By then I had stopped retailing. I only entered the main retail market in 1990.

Q.Recently your brand was relaunched, with a new store in Delhi. The new branding seems rather mixed, with large pictures of flowers all over the frontage, while your face is still on some of the packaging, not retro-styled, but much like how it would have been during the ’90s. Please talk about your new strategy.

The Shahnaz Husain brand was never a faceless brand name. It has been an imaged based brand, more so because I am, myself, trained in herbal beauty care and product formulation. My face has been the logo and the mere mention of the name evokes my image and persona. My name became the brand. I wanted a change moving ahead. I wanted to adopt something fresh and new, choosing a different logo design that carried enough visual appeal and the strength of an iconic brand, with the potential to also command an immediate visual recall of the brand, as being the pioneer of herbal beauty care. Some of the products still have the previous logo of my face, as my face has become so much a part of the brand image. I wanted to convey the image of flowers and herbs, as they are so much a part of the ingredients of our products. In fact, we have recently introduced our organic Flower Botanic Range. We are also using our new logo, which symbolises the brand identity. The new logo also takes us go back into time, mentioning the year 1971, when I established the concept of herbal care & cure, pioneering the herbal beauty movement and redefining beauty care.

Q.What has been your marketing strategy in reaching out to the masses?

When I started my salon, I had to increase awareness of the healing powers of herbs and the dangers of chemical and synthetic ingredients. I did this by contributing articles in leading newspapers and magazines. Very early in my career, I also made it a point to reply personally to letters seeking solutions for skin and hair problems. Four decades later, I still maintain this practice, this personal touch. My regular columns come out in regional languages too. This has made Shahnaz Husain a household name. In my regular columns, I provide home remedies as solutions for beauty problems. In the minds of the readers, this reinforces my philosophy that “nature is the best cosmetologist.”

My philosophy and faith in nature have not only influenced markets and minds, but have become an integral part of the brand image. In one year, we opened 80 franchise salons in India. They have even extended to small towns in India, in Tier 2 and Tier 3 sectors. We have also introduced products for the middle segment and mass market. As far as marketing is concerned, salons are also outlets for our products. We have 45,000 salon outlets (this comprises of our own salons, franchise salons and other salons). We also have about 75,000 other points of sale. We have appointed more super stockists and distributors in our nation-wide and international distribution networks.

Our focus has also increased in terms of e-commerce and our online store.

Our online portal has become a very popular destination for online shoppers. We have set our sights on using Artificial Intelligence to personalise products for customers. My experience has been in Ayurvedic beauty care. Today, we can combine Ayurvedic inheritance with Artificial Intelligence. With the help of Artificial Intelligence, the customer finds a personal skin or hair profile online and can buy a personalised product online.

Q.What kind of turnover are you aiming at?

Expecting to close the current year with a turnover of Rs 850 crore on the back of a large retail expansion that took her franchises to nearly 100 small towns across the country.

Q.Please talk about your expansion plans

Our future plans include continued international branding, strengthening and widening our global chain of franchise ventures and appointing distributors in unrepresented new markets. We will be taking Ayurveda and Brand India to more countries within the next year. We plan to expand in UK, USA, Canada, Europe, UAE and other Middle East countries, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, South East Asia, New Zealand and Russia. Product innovation has helped our organization to remain a dynamic one. Our investment focus will continue to be on R&D, product development and manufacturing. So, we will continue to launch advanced products in Ayurvedic beauty care in the international markets. My effort has always been to promote our Indian herbal heritage. My dream is to see Ayurveda lead the international cosmetic market within the next decade. So, we will continue to expand our footprints across the globe, taking Ayurveda and brand India to more and more countries.