Interview Series on Multicultural Beauty: Maliha Mannan on Local Competitive Advantages

Euromonitor International is pleased to present an interview with Maliha Mannan Ahmed, who founded Bangladesh’s very first masstige organic cosmetics brand. Meena Herbal, as the brand is known, represents the growing sophistication and premiumisation of local players, not just in the more advanced emerging markets such as Brazil and China, but also in the smaller markets such as Bangladesh, thus adding an extra layer of competition in the global beauty industry.

In this series, Maliha discusses the competitive landscape in a market such as Bangladesh and what competitive advantages as well as challenges a brand such as Meena Herbal faces in competing with the more well-known global brands as well as the regional brands.

Maliha-Mannan

1. Why did you decide to launch Meena Herbal?

Meena Herbal was conceived as part of a larger dream. In 2000, we ventured into organic tea plantation. For eco balance preservation, herbal trees were planted as shade trees. Being professionally trained as a medical physician, I was familiar with the health benefits of these herbs, prompting me to experiment by mixing the different herbs to come up with the first prototypes. We started with a range of traditional herbal facial packs, facial masks and hair packs, which were very well received by the customers. Awareness of “organic” as a way of life was being created at that time and Meena became an integral part of that awareness. As part of being organic, we place an emphasis on ingredients that we don’t use. For example, as a rule we do not use hydroquinone, which is a key ingredient in the fairness creams, we do not use formaldehyde or DMDM hydantoin, which are used in shampoos, no steroids (used by many small local herbal companies), no dyes that affects the kidneys.

2. You are present in facial rinse off and have recently entered hair care. Is there any specific reason for concentrating on facial rinse off and hair care?

Our strategy is to keep our focus streamlined to be able to concentrate on high-quality product development and remain competitive against our larger rivals. So far our objective has been to specialise in products designed to provide nutrition for skin and hair in the rinse off category. Nutritious herbs like amlaki (Indian Gooseberry), haritaki (Chebulic Myrobalan), bahera (Belleric Myrobalan), vasaka, henna, neem and tulsi are readily available from our garden and the market for high-standard traditional beauty packs like uptans, chandan (sandalwood), multani mati (Fuller’s earth), neem packs and hair packs made from henna and amla (amlaki) were less saturated in our country, providing us with the perfect opportunity to enter the market. Moreover, what gives us a unique competitive strength in comparison to our larger rivals, in the categories we compete, are the ingredients directly from our own garden, thus allowing us to place extra stress on quality and reliability.

3. Who are your target consumer groups? What was the reason for selecting this target group?

We target a diverse group of consumers. Men and women of different age groups use our products. Our traditional powder packs are fast becoming a staple in bridal hampers and festival hampers and are frequently taken abroad by many as indigenous Bangladeshi products. We want to have something for everybody.

4. What is Meena Herbal’s positioning in terms of price? Why did you choose this specific pricing segment?

We are placed in the masstige segment, given we focus on providing high-quality benefit and product experience, but price is one of the most sensitive factors in Bangladesh. Except for the shampoo bottles, we procure all our raw materials from our garden and local market vendors. We have developed an innovative herbal extraction method in our lab and use a variety of these extracts for our shampoos, face wash, ready face packs and scrubs, and keep our formulations as simple as possible. This helps control product manufacturing cost along with ensuring the luxurious feel of them. There are plans to use nut oil/seed oil or essential oil for shampoos and introduce more environmentally friendly packaging that can be recycled.

5. You carry some cutting-edge innovations that are quite new to even the Western markets, ie conditioning shampoos, face masks etc. What are your inspirations for innovations/product development and eventual launches?

Earlier our backward linkage would take us forward. Now we try to bring out niche products that aren’t available in the market. Our uptan, neem face packs, chandan and multani mati actually contain the promised ingredients, unlike many other herbal company products. Maharani face pack is our one-of-a-kind mask, amla hair pack is basically a pack shampoo as well as scalp food. Our Amla shampoo made with amlaki extract was hugely popular and we are in the process of relaunching the range. The most unique products from Meena Herbal in the last four years have been our ready face mask, our hand and foot scrub and body scrub. The ideas are mostly generated from a couple of queries, what does a man or woman want when taking a shower? What would become an essential product in a woman’s toilet bag or cabinet? A person does not always have time to go to a salon or spa, but sometimes really needs a quick fix. So why not set up a range that takes care of the spa services at home and that, too, while we are taking a shower? No extra time is invested to take care of the spa regime!

6. How important is the digital media in branding/marketing cosmetics in Bangladesh? And what are your strategies for digital marketing?

The new generation is hooked on their smartphones and hence digital platform is a key element of marketing. Presence in social media and YouTube are some of the internet portals to create brand buzz and awareness, but, even now, to build the customer base for a brand like ours, we need direct sampling. Through social media platforms, people will know and talk about us, but product experience is also a must. We continually try to strike an optimal balance between product experience and social media awareness.

7. From our observations, we see that there are three levels of competition – first it is the global vs regional vs local, secondly regional vs local, and finally local vs local? How would you classify the competitive level in Bangladesh?

Bangladeshi consumers give quality precedence. The new generation are more beauty conscious than the previous and are very confident, thus opting on the basis of product offerings and not necessarily just brand familiarity. The multinational global brands are dominating the consumer goods market along with a couple of big local players, but if a smaller local brand has the right product with the right brand strategy then they don’t go unnoticed. Regionally we have a neighbouring country whose advertisements dominate our satellite TV channels and brand familiarity is high, consequently leading to more scope for dealership and distributors, allowing them to penetrate deeper into the market. Local brands do not have the same branding and market development budget as these multinational and regional brands, but they know that if they are able to strategically combine product offerings with the right pricing, there is scope for them to survive the competition.

8. What would you say are your advantages being a Bangladeshi brand catering to Bangladeshi consumers?

As a Bangladeshi brand, marketing only in Bangladesh at the moment puts us in an advantageous position, particularly because our direct competitors operate through dealership and hence their access to consumer feedback is one step removed. Our customers are within our reach, which allows us to study individual SKUs more easily and we can directly access customer needs and wants. We get direct feedback from our customers from various points of sale. Data accumulation is frequently updated and, most importantly, the various queries and product feedback from our customers help us to introduce new SKUs and tweak our existing range. Nevertheless, Meena Herbal faces competition from brands with much larger resource bases and there are many steep challenges ahead, but we are confident that we have the right strategies and are on the right track and there is ample scope for growth in the future.