Branding Indian Luxury: A Semiotic Deconstruction


(This essay was submitted as an assignment to the University of Warwick on 14 May, 2018.)

With incipient beginnings as a seller of handmade soaps and candles crafted using the cold press Ayurvedic technique, Forest Essentials as a brand came into being in the year 2000, through an investment of a mere ₹200,000 (GBP 2,200). Today, it is the leading Indian brand of luxury cosmetics with a pan-Indian presence, retailing from nearly fifty points of sale across fifteen cities and supplying curated products to several hundreds of five-star hotels and spas and to guest suites in the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Residence in New Delhi). (Blackbook, 2017; Fortune India, 2014).

Being a relatively new player in the Indian cosmetics industry and having no real history or heritage to promote its brand image with, Forest Essentials acquired and capitalised on the rich history of Ayurvedic science and its appeal throughout the Indian subcontinent. Hindu mythological texts, especially the Vedas (c. 1500-800 BCE) and the Puranas (C. 250-1000 CE), are littered with references to Ayurveda, and cultural memories and folklore have spotlighted the use of Ayurveda by mythological personalities and then by the ancient rulers (Narayanaswamy, 1981). Forest Essentials then picked up and took advantage of the postcolonial ideology of the Indian populace that glamorises India’s ancient and medieval past, deriving from a nostalgia for India’s precolonial past when it was known across the world as the ‘Golden Bird’ for its material and intellectual wealth. With references in its product packaging and promotional photos to Indian mythology and to precolonial kingdoms and empires which connote richness, opulence, magnificence and prosperity, the Forest Essentials brand positions and establishes itself within the luxury market. These references to the nostalgia for India’s lost glorious heritage made by the brand are cultural expressions which Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron (2010: 136) have identified as “linchpins of identity” or the “foundational materials for belonging, recognition, and status,” through which the brand posits itself as typically Indian and as one which is appreciative of India’s cultural wealth and heritage. This essay will examine Forest Essentials’ logo, product packaging and promotional photos, and deconstruct using semiotic techniques (with a special focus on connotations and inter-textuality) its brand image in the Indian market.

As Jean-Noël Kapferer and Vincent Bastien (2012: 93) have observed, “There can be no luxury without roots, without a history to provide the brand with a non-commercial aspect.” It therefore becomes crucial for any luxury brand to associate itself with a backstory stemming from a strong heritage. Weare concerned here with deconstructing, in the sense described by Roland Barthesin his essay Rhetoric of the Image (1977), the linguistic messages and symbolic messages or connoted images used by Forest Essentials for the purpose of associating itself with the precolonial Indian heritage. The linguistic element in the Forest Essentials logo (Figure 1), for instance, is the brand name itself.

Figure 1

The word ‘forest’ in the brand name connotes organicity, fecundity and nature’s bounty. It immediately places the brand in association with the natural world, helping it qualify as a proponent of Ayurveda which is a natural science. There are also several mentions in ancient Indian epic literature of mythical forests which have been revered as sites where divine beings have resided, and so forests in Indian society (especially within Hindu communities) become objects of reverence and worship, and this reinforces the superiority of the brand – essential for luxury marketing as per Cesare Amatulli et al (2016). The word ‘essentials’ signifies something fundamental or requisite, and in terms of Ayurvedic science, possibly refers to the primary beauty and wellness rituals prescribed by ancient texts. Symbolic messages in the logo are conveyed through the kalpavriksha tree, the two concentric circles surrounding it, and the colour gold. The kalpavriksha or the ‘wish-fulfilling’ tree finds mention in thePuranas and herein, by association, signifies divinity and material and spiritual prosperity. The circles are a universal symbol of totality, wholeness and perfection. The gold colour is what Piercean theory considers a ‘qualisign’ (Danesi, 2007), and in the Indian context is symbolic of wealth, prosperity, grandeur and auspiciousness. In Indian culture, within all classes and communities, gold (in the form of jewellery or coins) is gifted and exchanged within families on auspicious occasions such as marriages and are handed down over several generations thereby occupying a significant role in the cultural heritage. The logo, combining all of these elements becomes what Pierce defines as a ‘legisign’ – “a sign that designates something by convention (literally ‘by law’)” (Danesi, 2007: 21), and becomes, overall, a signifier of the divinity, spiritual and material wealth, auspiciousness and purity of the Indian heritage which the brand Forest Essentials celebrates.

Forest Essentials’ product packaging also makes use of myths and elements from Hinduism to deliver the brand’s aesthetic vision.

Figure 2

The packaging for its facial serums (Figure 2) is a case in point. The label for ‘Soundarya Advanced Serum’ features a common, well-known depiction of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi who is associated with wealth, beauty, fortune and prosperity. She is clothed in red – a colour which is symbolic of femininity and female fertility, and is adorned in gold jewellery, emphasising once again wealth and prosperity (Kinsley, 1987; Rhodes, 2010). The lotus gliding over primordial waters on which she rests is also a signifier of fertility. The word ‘soundarya’ in Hindi literally means ‘beauty’ and so the label, overall, immediately posits the product as a divine gift for the skin or an investment into the beautification of the self. The ‘Sanjeevani Beauty Elixir’ label, which features the monkey god Hanuman, makes a reference to an episode from the famed Indian epic Ramayana (c. 500 BCE). According to the Ramayana, when Lord Ram’s brother Lakshman was wounded in battle in the land of Lanka, Hanuman was called upon in the desperate hour of need to bring him the magical life-giving herb ‘sanjeevani’ from the Dronagiri mountain in the Himalayas. Unable to locate the herb himself upon reaching Dronagiri, Hanuman lifted the entire mountain in the palm of his hand and flew across the Indian landmass to bring it to Lakshman, whose wounds magically healed upon the application of the herb (Rajagopalachari, 1957). The word ‘sanjeevani’ therefore, in Hindu communities, implies something which is life-giving, healing, restoring or therapeutic. Hanuman is worshipped in Hindu communities, especially in North India, as a protector and as the epitome of strength (Wolcott, 1978). Combining all these mythical elements then, the label connotes vitality and rejuvenation of the body.

Although, in referring to myths and epic literature from India in the product packaging described above, Forest Essentials has successfully adopted and associated itself a heritage that resonates with communities in India, it unfortunately fails to cater to a large consumer base in the subcontinent which neither practices Hinduism nor has any familiarity with Hindu mythological texts. Hindus do comprise the majority religion in the nation. However, a significant chunk of the population practices Islam, Jainism, Buddhism or Christianity, and may or may not have a knowledge of the elements of visual representation from Hindu epic literature. Individuals from Hindu communities usually grow up surrounded by visual depictions of gods and goddesses in prayer books, framed photo prints or in the form of clay or marble idols placed in prayer rooms at home or in temples and are also, from an early age, educated about the ‘correct’ or ‘accurate’ representations of the various gods and goddesses. Individuals belonging to other religious communities may not always be privy to this knowledge unless they visit temples or read Hindu texts themselves. The labels on the Forest Essentials products, therefore, may not actually end up conveying what the brand intends on conveying as the context of the visuals may be completely alien to a large number of people. The importance of considering context while relaying coded messages to audiences (in this case the brands prospective consumers) has also been underscored by semiotician Umberto Eco in his book A Theory of Semiotics (1979)who points out, “Out of context, these so-called ‘signs’ are not signs at all, because they are neither coded nor possess any resemblance to anything” (Eco, 1979: 216). The labels on these products could also possibly be misread by other communities and lead to the products being misinterpreted as accessories for Hindu prayer, as even incense sticks, camphor and vermillion (typically used in every prayer ritual) in India are often sold packages bearing images of various gods and goddesses. In failing to target other religious communities therefore, Forest Essentials fails to secularise Ayurvedic knowledge altogether. Furthermore, since communities in various regions of the country speak different languages, a significant number of individuals (especially those from Southern or Eastern states where language structures are vastly different from those of Hindi) may not understand the meaning or connotations of the words ‘soundarya’ and ‘sanjeevani’. Forest Essentials makes a huge branding blunder here and essentially only ends up catering to North-Indian Hindus.

An important aspect to consider in the above product packaging is the use of two languages – Hindi (in the roman script) and English – on the product labels.  The combination of the two forms a linguistic message that connotes a blend of the traditional and the modern. The use of English, especially in postcolonial societies, as observed by Aradhna Krishna and Rohini Ahluwalia (2008: 693),is a signifier of “modernity, progress, sophistication, and a cosmopolitan identity”. Krishna and Ahluwalia also note that although native languages in postcolonial societies are often signifiers of inferiority and lower socioeconomic status, in India, a native language in India like Hindi has “several positive associations, such as solidarity, pride, nationalism, family, and belongingness, and is not necessarily associated with lower social status” (Krishna and Ahluwalia, 2008: 693). The two languages together therefore facilitate a brand image which indicates the infusion of modern aesthetic to ancient knowledge and heritage.

Another way in which the brand associates itself with Indian heritage is through the set of illustrations on special product collections which are inspired directly from Mughal decorative artwork, specifically the pietra duramarble inlay work featured on famous Indian monuments from the Mughal age such as the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb, as can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Pietra dura ornamentation in Mughal architecture developed as early as the 1640s. Floral motifs were embedded into monumental structures inspired from the references to garden imagery in Mughal poetry used for underscoring political accomplishment, prosperity and a flourishing imperial regime (Dadlani, 2016). For instance, historian Lahori (quoted in Dadlani, 2016: 180), in a court chronicle from the mid-seventeenth century, notes that “Hindustan [as the empire was known back then] had become the rose garden of the earth and his [Shah Jahan’s] reign which is the cradle of prosperity has become the spring season of the age”. The floral imagery on the Forest Essentials packaging, therefore, is reminiscent of the grandeur and majesty of the Mughal age and encourages a nostalgia for a time when the land was prosperous and thrived under impressive rulers. As Chanchal Dadlani points out, “This ornamental language, rendered in low-relief white marble and pietra dura, became a clear marker of Mughal imperial identity, distinguishable from modes of ornament deployed in architectural monuments of contemporaneous Islamic courts” (Dadlani, 2016: 180). Floral motifs such as the ones in the Forest Essentials labels are easily recognisable markers of Mughal aesthetic and connote richness, opulence and affluence. The colours used on the labels are also similar to those of the semi-precious stones – jasper, carnelian, topaz – used in the creation of pietra durainlays and reinforce the luxuriousness of the brand. Although Ayurvedic knowledge had no associations with the Mughal dynasty (it was practiced and studied independently by Hindus), the use of Mughal aesthetic helps the brand link itself with characteristics such as longevity and traditions, which, as Lena Fäustle and Kate Lottridge note, are “components of heritage that make a brand rich with aspects of the past and applicable to the context of the present and the future” (Fäustle and Lottridge, 2012: 8). Packaging like the one depicted above therefore, is a form of heritage branding which “celebrates a particular past through the lens of the present” (Balmer quoted in Fäustle and Lottridge, 2012: 8).

The Forest Essentials brand has also attempted to posit itself as one that is used by the affluent and well-to-do segments of society, as can be seen through its promotional photos (Figure 4) which recreate the paintings of India’s celebrated modern artist Raja Ravi Varma, the subject of whose art was typically persons from the aristocracy.

Figure 4

Raja Ravi Varma, who lived from 1848 to 1906, has been hailed as India’s first modern artist and his artworks, having been popularised through large-scale reprinting in the form of calendar art, poster art, matchbox labels, tin sweets box labels et cetera, are familiar to pan-Indian audiences. Belonging to an aristocratic household himself, “Ravi Varma moved naturally into the milieu of court painters at work around the palace,” notes Tapati Guha Thakurta (1986: 177). In the days of the British Raj, he was sought by the Indian aristocracy and nobility for his skills in portraiture, which at the time, had become the new means of displaying one’s socioeconomic stature and authority. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, most political power and autonomy had been taken away from the princely states by the colonial government, stripping them of their precolonial glory. Ravi Varma’s portraits, for these communities, then became a tool for re-visualising their honour and rank in Indian society. As G. Arunima (2003: 66) has aptly pointed out, “For the princely states in India, portraiture had become a modern way of expressing an ancient right to political power and the continuity of their lineage. […] within the space of the portrait this fantasy [of political power and autonomy] entered the realm of the possible. Princes, their resplendent wives in silks and jewels, and aristocratic interiors from all over India were committed to history, in the grand tradition of European portraiture from the seventeenth – nineteenth centuries”. Forest Essentials’ recreation of Ravi Varma’s portrait art, therefore, is another technique used for reinforcing the luxury aspect of the brand, associating it with the wealth and decadence of the Indian bourgeois. As can be observed from their style of dressing and their embellished jewellery, the women featured in the portraits are unequivocally members of the upper class, moneyed communities. They are dressed in silk, a particularly expensive fabric affordable only by the moneyed class. The traditional golden borders on their sareesare also a trademark of upper class clothing. Women in Ravi Varma’s paintings have, over the passage of time, come to be accepted as “stereotyped models of femininity, in their sensual appearances, in their evocative facial expressions and in the leisurely mood of their actions” (Thakurta, 1986: 179). In the portraits recreated by Forest Essentials, the women subjects exude an aura of wealth, leisure, decadence, and self-indulgence. The images ultimately connote the ideal forms of femininity according to traditional Indian standards, featuring women whose body language conveys fragility, dreaminess, a sensuous allure, but also confidence and maturity. Ravi Varma’s biographer E.M.J. Venniyoor (quoted in Arunima, 2003: 66) observes that women formed the main subjects of Ravi Varma’s art for “it is they, more than the men, who carry with them the country’s traditions in dress and customs and convey the tenor of Indian life”. It is perhaps for similar reasons that Forest Essentials recreated only those artworks which featured women as the subjects. The recreated photos are used by Forest Essentials as promotional content displayed on its website pages and in large framed prints in its multiple stores across the country and serve as symbolic messages which relay to their consumers connotations of ‘Indianness’, wealth, luxury, self-indulgence and sensuousness.

Capitalising on the various strands of Indian heritage, right from the Vedic age to the early colonial age, therefore, Forest Essentials builds for itself a brand image which, as stated previously, is nostalgic of India’s celebrated and glorified pre-colonial past. The brand has used religious symbology, inspirations from medieval architecture, and the subjects of modern Indian art to codify the following values – (1) Tradition – through its references to Vedic and Puranic texts, Hindu religious imagery, Mughal architecture and modern Indian portraiture; and through its use of the Hindi language (2) Excellence – through visual and textual codes which underscore the products’ supreme, almost mythic and divine quality; (3) Richness – through cultural symbols of wealth, glamour, opulence, affluence, fortune and prosperity; (4) Sophistication – through its emphasis on Ayurvedic science, its use of the English language, its references to precolonial royalty and aristocracy.



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