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Celebrity sells: Stars build their brands

Although India has been obsessed with stars for a while, celebrity-led brands are only now creating a new category

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Dec 14, 2018 11:55:32 AM IST
Updated: Dec 31, 2018 10:34:29 AM IST

Celebrity sells: Stars build their brandsHrithik Roshan launched HRX with Exceed Entertainment in 2013
In late November, actor Hrithik Roshan posted an emotional video on social media. “Wow, I can’t believe we’ve been doing this for five years already,” he said, dressed in a stylish hoodie, casual gym tee and a sporty black cap. “We sat right here, with the team, and it seemed like we were building castles in the air. But it’s happened. It’s flying now. It’s manifested… But you guys don’t know what I’m talking about.”

It’s been five years since the launch of HRX—Roshan’s fitness brand that comprises apparel, accessories, a fitness tracker, workout regime and healthy meal plans. And he’s right. It is flying.

Back in November 2013, though, it was the first of its kind—a celebrity-owned brand that was looking to create a full-fledged business, inspired by but separated from the celebrity’s own persona, and, on a punt, sold entirely online. Today, HRX estimates a ₹300-crore turnover for the current financial year, up from ₹140 crore last year, a growth of 114 percent.

In the West, stars such as Jessica Alba, Victoria Beckham, Rihanna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker and the Kardashians have all minted money by launching brands of their own. While India has had a long-standing culture of celebrity endorsements, this trend is only just catching on. Fuelled by ecommerce and social media, in the past few years, the celebrity brand roster has grown to include Deepika Padukone (All About You), Anushka Sharma (Nush), Virat Kohli (Wrogn), Tiger Shroff (Prowl), Sonam K Ahuja and Rhea Kapoor (Rheson), Sachin Tendulkar (True Blue) and most recently, Saif Ali Khan (House of Pataudi).

“While we have been celebrity-obsessed as a country, as a marketplace, the intersection of demand and supply has not been in place till recently. And that’s what has changed rapidly in the past few years,” says Jiggy George, founding partner and managing director of Mojostar, a 10-month-old company dedicated to creating such celebrity brands. “We are a high-growth economy with a young population that has spending power. We are digitally connected, and retail and ecommerce are growing. This has built an environment for celebrity brands to flourish.”

George is also the founder of Dream Theatre, a brand management and licensing agency that represents merchandise for Angry Birds, Pokémon, Real Madrid, FIFA 2018 and Hello Kitty in India.  

Mojostar has in its portfolio two celebrity brands thus far, both in the fitness and fashion spaces. Tiger Shroff’s Prowl is an active lifestyle brand which, like HRX, focuses on a holistic, fit lifestyle; and Just F with Jacqueline Fernandez retails ‘fun’ fitness wear. Mojostar envisions creating three or four such celebrity brands over the next five years, worth upwards of $100 million in each category, retailing them through an omnichannel approach.

“Mojostar is a house of brands built not around the celebrity, but what they stand for,” adds George. “So we are not in the business of creating Jacqueline Fernandez and Tiger Shroff merchandise, but are tapping into what they embody and building brand, content and engagement around it.”

The HRX Story
The HRX journey began in 2010, at a time when Roshan and Exceed Entertainment, a talent and entertainment management company, had already been working together for a few years. “The discussion was about what we could do to build something on the business side that’s long-term and becomes a sustainable model even in the future,” says Kamal Punwani, director and chief finance officer, Exceed Entertainment. “From Hrithik’s end, there was a desire to give back what he had gained in his journey. Before his career began, doctors had told him that he wouldn’t be able to dance or act because of his back. But he proved them wrong, and fitness is key to accomplishing all of his goals. He wanted to break the myth that he overcame his obstacles because he is Hrithik, who looks the way he does and dances the way he does.”

“HRX is a platform to give back to people who have given me so much love and helped me discover myself in many ways, helping me learn valuable lessons,” Roshan wrote in an email to Forbes India. “It is a way of reminding people that no one is born perfect. With sustained effort and constantly pushing your limit, you must strive to become a better version of yourself every single day. HRX spreads the importance of fitness, belief and learning, taking off from my life, but has grown over the years because of consistency in quality, innovation and affordability.”

Celeb faces can result in footfalls and create a marketing blitz

HRX started out as a partnership between Roshan and Exceed Entertainment, along with a small stake for a boutique brand management agency called The Wild East Group, which has worked on celebrity brands in Hollywood and which Exceed eventually acquired. It was still early days for ecommerce when it launched exclusively on Myntra in November 2013, before Flipkart acquired Myntra. “When we met with Mukesh [Bansal, founder of Myntra] and his team, there was a lot of commonality in what we wanted to do,” says Punwani. “We had great support and vision from his team, and continue to work with Myntra even today. We also continue our relationship with Mukesh himself, partnering with his fitness startup Cure.Fit, for which HRX provides specialised workouts and goal-oriented meals.”

The partnership started out as a licensing agreement. “In about two years, they saw the potential and came back to us saying they wanted to invest in the brand,” says Punwani. “Since 2016, the fashion side of the brand—apparel, accessories and footwear—is co-owned by Myntra, Hrithik and Exceed.” Roshan owns a majority share in the brand.

Their target audience, says Pallavi Barman, HRX’s head of marketing and operations, is defined as the fitness enthusiast. “We’re India’s first and biggest homegrown fitness brand, and we’re competing with global majors like Nike and Adidas,” she says. “However, a majority of India can’t afford them. So the way we look at it is that their [Nike and Adidas] primary audience is people who can call themselves athletes, those who are picking up the 1st, 2nd and 3rd medals in a marathon. But we are for the 10,000 people behind them who participate and clock in their personal best, who have started out on the journey of fitness.”

Interestingly, the strategy from the start was to go beyond Roshan’s identity. While he remains the face and inspiration behind the brand, they have also, through their journey, signed on other brand ambassadors who they think embody Roshan’s fitness philosophy—actor Tiger Shroff was one of them, before he went on to start his own brand with Mojostar.

“We were clear from the start that this is a cause larger than ourselves, and one we want to build for posterity, and full credit to Hrithik for having that long-term vision,” says Punwani. “That’s the difference between a celebrity and a businessman. Very soon into the journey, we decided we would use other faces and have various marketing touch points—we sponsored marathons, football clubs, mountain biking. We recognised that the customer’s connect needed to be with HRX, not just Hrithik.”

“Hrithik is very involved and is a huge believer in data,” he adds. “The advantage of having him on board, even outside the obvious marketing push, is that he has been through the movies and understands what the mass market likes.”

HRX also has a fitness band in partnership with Xiaomi, of which 8.6 lakh units have sold between September 2017 and September 2018. To capitalise on the exploding sneakers market, HRX is currently working on a strategy whereby, by next year, 50 percent of its portfolio will be in footwear. They are also looking to start offline stores towards the end of next year, and working on international expansion plans. To start with, they are likely to target countries with a strong Indian diaspora, such as the US, Canada, Middle East and parts of Australia.

Celebrity sells: Stars build their brandsActor Sonam K Ahuja and Rhea Kapoor's brand Rheson borrows from the sisters' quirky fashion identities

Fame Game
Buoyed by its success with HRX, Myntra now has a bevy of celebrity brands, the latest of which is Saif Ali Khan’s House of Pataudi, an ethnic wear label that launched in October. They also retail Salman Khan’s Being Human, Virat Kohli’s Wrogn, Deepika Padukone’s All About You and Anushka Sharma’s Nush. Of these, Myntra co-owns HRX, All About You and House of Pataudi.

“At Myntra, we work on and test the whitespaces in fashion and lifestyle before deciding to launch a brand,” says Manohar Kamath, CXO and head, Myntra Fashion Brands. “It’s never a celebrity-first approach. For instance, Myntra wanted to build an in-house contemporary women’s-wear brand led by a celebrity. This aligned with Deepika Padukone’s vision of developing her own line to celebrate the modern Indian woman. That’s how we joined forces to create All About You.”

All About You is three years old, offering both western and ethnic wear. Its ethnic portfolio has been growing at 60 percent year-on-year. It’s also available now at Walmart Canada.

Myntra says celebrity-led brands contribute a “double digit percentage share” in Myntra’s overall fashion revenue.

For Shoppers Stop, the three private brands they retail make up 2 percent of their total apparel revenue. One of these is the year-old Rheson, set up by actor Sonam K Ahuja and her stylist sister Rhea Kapoor. While the concepts, ideas, prints and styling come from the sisters, Shoppers Stop manages the sourcing, manufacturing and marketing.

“Today, social media has made it easier for us to reach out to our target audience, more directly than ever before,” says Rhea Kapoor. “It made us realise the potential in launching our own brand. More and more people can showcase their work because of online marketplaces, and we want to do that with Rheson. It’s at a nascent stage, but we’re encouraged by the initial response.”

Rheson borrows from the sisters’ quirky fashion identities—it’s affordable, but offers unique pieces such as breezy palazzo saris, retro statement jackets, an emoji collection and cinema kitsch prints. “For us personally, we don’t see Rheson as a celebrity brand,” Ahuja said in an email. “It just so happens that the brand is run by two sisters who are members of the film fraternity.”

While most of these brands are in the fashion space, a recent entrant has deviated from this path. Launched in October, Da One is cricketer Shikhar Dhawan’s home décor collection, which retails online. Unlike the other brands, Dhawan and wife Aesha own and run 100 percent of Da One.

“I come from a middle-class business family, and always had the urge to start a business someday,” says Dhawan. “I love playing cricket, but that feeling never really went away. I think this is the right time now—I have matured and can handle my game; I know my cricket well. It’s good time for me to foray into something else.”

Da One currently has a collection of cushion covers and quilts, all made in India. Dhawan and his wife say they are passionate about home interiors and believe they bring positivity. “We’re not starting a business because that’s the trendy thing to do,” says Dhawan. “We really believe we have a good eye for this, and have built a strong team to take it to the next level.”

While celebrity faces can help in bringing in initial footfall and create a marketing blitz, such brands run the danger of banking on the celebrity’s own reputation, which is volatile at best. “The brand fit with a celebrity is a crucial aspect,” says Kamath of Myntra. “We have to ensure the brand ethos resonates with the celebrity’s persona as well as the aspirations of the target audience. Celebrities then tend to act like influencers and help build the brand, and consumers believe in its experience.”

“If customers come for my name, I’m confident they will stay for the quality product and service we provide,” says Dhawan. “Once they have a taste of it, it will bring them back. Eventually, they should value the product and forget my face.”

(This story appears in the 21 December, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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