Bollywood stars for ad campaigns US dating apps woo Indian market

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Foreign companies are vying to change how Indians shop, watch, eat — and now, date.

Bumble, the US app, launched in India earlier this month, with the high-profile backing of actress Priyanka Chopra.

At the same time, rival Tinder, which pioneered the concept of swiping through potential dates, has rolled out new features designed to cement its foothold in the country, where it has been operating since 2015. Happn, which matches app users who have crossed paths in real life, has become one of the most downloaded dating apps since coming to India last year.


The dating apps have enlisted Bollywood stars for ad campaigns to promote them as places for constructive — if not necessarily permanent — relationships, eager to avoid being branded as “hook-up” destinations. In one Happn ad, 1990s heart-throb Hrithik Roshan narrates the tale of how the app helped two busy urbanites find each other.

Yet the companies may find Indians difficult to . Homegrown matchmaking services with names such as Shaadi.com — meaning “marriage” in Hindi — and Mumbai-listed Matrimony.com, which went public last year in a $78m listing, flourished in India since long before smartphones. The local sites cater to a country where singles frequently pair with partners in their religious or linguistic communities, often under their parents’ watch.

According to Matrimony.com — which gives both prospective spouses and their relatives a way to search together for eligible partners — almost nine in 10 marriages in India are arranged.

The latest wave of dating apps are nevertheless wagering that a growing dating culture in major cities, the fast adoption of the internet and an eye-popping number of singletons will help their businesses take off. According to KPMG, about 63m single Indians between the ages of 18 and 35 in 2016 were actively looking for partners in 2016, and the spread of smartphones is expected to help bring more of them online.

“Conversations about dating are still relatively nascent in India,” said Taru Kapoor, head of Tinder in the country. But she added that Tinder’s experience “over the past three years has shown [the company] that dating ideals, which were once considered the norm, are fast evolving”.

“Meeting new people is something that is quite difficult for different reasons in all countries,” said Didier Rappaport, Happn’s chief executive. “People have jumped on the technologies that can help them.”

Bumble, whose signature feature allows women to take the lead in conversations on its platform, launched in India with local languages and safety features that allow women to use first initials only and block unwelcome users.

Whitney Wolfe, Bumble’s chief executive and founder, said: “This is in no way, shape or form an American company arriving in India saying, ‘Wow, what a big market share, let’s go capitalise on that’.

“We’re entering with purpose, with mission, with a really nuanced, customised product,” she added.

Ms Wolfe co-founded Tinder in 2012 before leaving the company and setting up Bumble in 2014 with backing from Russian billionaire Andrey Andreev. She has said the company is interested in pursuing an initial public offering, potentially challenging Tinder’s US-listed parent company, Match Group.

In India, early indicators suggest the western dating apps might be on to something. Happn was the most downloaded dating app in India on Google Play from January to October 2018, according to analytics provider App Annie, and the second-most downloaded “lifestyle” app. Tinder was not far behind. They are growing at a faster rate than the local incumbents: Matrimony.com’s share price has fallen 45 per cent over the past year, and profits in the most-recent quarter fell 30 per cent from a year earlier to $1.9m.

The new apps “are trying to entice the young people, particularly folks who are not committing to whether they want to get married or not, to explore these sites, create networks for free . . . and then have meaningful relationships,” said Ambit Capital’s Vivekanand Subbaraman. “It is a real threat.”

But the foreign apps have yet to prove that the market can be lucrative. The apps are free to download and charge for premium functions only once users start swiping. Yet the Rs849 ($12) a month that Bumble charges makes it prohibitively expensive for most people in India, where some economists estimate the “middle class” spends between $2 and $10 a day.

Navin Honagudi, a partner at venture capital fund Kae Capital, which invested in Indian dating app Truly Madly, said the new entrants had yet to show they had found a viable model.

“They’re growing very fast,” he said. “But at the same time, will a model that works in the US work here?”

Executives say the bigger issue is who is doing the swiping. Far more men in India use dating apps than women, who often stay away due to safety concerns and stigma. About 85 per cent of Happn’s users in India are men.

“Pretty much every single man in India wants to be on an online dating app,” said Able Joseph, founder of Indian dating app Aisle, which is backed by US tech investors such as eBay executive Anand Vijay, and caps male users to about 70 per cent of its user base.

But Bumble argues its women-first brand and safety features mean it is best placed to attract female users. In September, Tinder introduced a tool that also gave Indian women the prerogative to initiate a conversation with a match.

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