Saturday, December 12, 2009

Year End Insights 2009

It’s been long, since I last visited this space. Many things have happened including the swing back of the economy and renewed interest of the companies in the innovation business.

I changed my mobile phone from Sony P1i to Samsung Jet (only to find that Samsung is still miles away in usability and product maturity, from Sony, as far as mobile phones are concerned). With P1i as a phone (I don’t know why Sony discontinued this wonderful platform), and Sony Vaio Tx series laptop, I am an ardent fan of Sony over Nokia, Apple or Samsung.

Insight India 2009 was held in Delhi, with all fanfare, allaying my fears that people may not participate as the economy was still just warming up. NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) was a surprise partner to this event, strengthening the connect of TRENDS in Fashion to use of Trend Research in Business Strategy. From jewelry brands like Trendsmith, to consumer electronics brands like Whirlpool, LG and luxury accessory brands like Tanishque were present in the event.

I spoke at a conference in Delhi on Italian Fashion industry and India connect, only to find that the ‘cluster approach’ is still very much a phenomenon restricted to crafts, and just about walking up to fashion industry. While we were talking power of cluster-visibility for Pune Design Foundation, it was rather ahead of time. No wonders that Pune Design Foundation has to give way to ‘India Design Foundation’.

We successfully worked on the brand integration strategy for an Indian mid-size conglomerte with interests in Europe and India. While corporate ethnography was a new learning, another realisation (new to me) was that you cann;t GIVE a strategy. You can only HELP it take shape like a MIDWIFE. Great stories around it.

My trips to malls have become less frequent. One of the malls, ‘Central’ which in the beginning had a promising experience of retail in India, appears quite ‘tiring’ to me now. Highly compacted space, with people falling over each other (who says its recession?) and repetition of product categories become visually overwhelming. Do customers come thinking ‘brands’ in mind in India? It is true when we talk of refrigerator or washing machine or camcorder. But while buying shirt or a shoe, there are dime a dozen brands in mass range. As a consumer I want a good quality shirt and I don’t care which brand is it. So while walking through the men’s apparel section if I see blazers hung at 20 places (because they belong to different brands), I get lost. Why can’t they put all the blazers at one place? The time to rethink better navigation has come in Indian retail. One of our 2010-11 trend, Drive Easy, also points to this.

I want to get a side-rail-drain fitted in the bathroom (Insight- People are getting exposed to high end interior hardware). It has been a while and can’t get the right person to do it. The plumber or a mason next door does not have the skill or quality to do such things and the guy who knows it, is actually busy attending to the bigger projects at hand (Insight- potential market opportunity). So the retrofitting, refurbishing and minor repairs at homes are one potential area where a branded service can enter. Mr. Biyani, after ‘Chamosa’, this could be a good idea for India.

More updates to follow...

Sunday, August 30, 2009


We have been working on Design Research field for almost 4 years now. What started as my personal interest in Trend Research resulted in a full-fledged practice of Design Research that encompasses Ethnography, User/Usability Research, Product Analysis, Brand Research, Competition Mapping, Brand Messaging, Strategic Scenarios and Design/Brand Directions. Coming from the womb of a Product Design company, we did have more assignments from the companies that dealt in Automobiles, Consumer Durables, Accessories etc. Microsoft was a different case altogether, where we worked on viability studies for e-learning in the current schooling system in India. But our recent foray into Corporate Ethnography was fully focused on Brand Research and Change Management.

It was about studying the effects of acquisition and product brand name and company name change for a few companies in Western Europe, which were acquired by an Indian business group. This group primarily deals in engineering products.

While rules of ethnography don’t change, but it does have some tweaks when it comes to applying to such situations. We choose the ‘attic’ way of Ethnography- i.e. open ended conversations (the applied ethnographic method is ‘fly on the wall’ or –‘amic’). Here the interviewer has a rough scenario of questions in mind but does not put them out like a laundry list. However the interactions can become quite ‘straight jacketed’ if enough care is not taken to unroll the perspective. Means people need to feel the comfort of being ‘heard’. Here are my observations and tips-

While this is ‘open ended’ discussion method- if it only ends up being a discussion, respondents start losing interest in about 25-30 minutes of talking. Some, who are quite verbal, can go on for hours but I am talking of the average respondents across the hierarchy.
The fact that they are mandated by senior management to interact with the research team, puts them on a slightly ‘defiant’ or at least ‘reserved’ mode। It takes intitial 10 minutes to dawn on the perspective of the research.

We did create some PERSPECTIVE BUILDER tools, which were essentially some pictures pasted on foam board, to create the SCENARIOS for the future for the business। Basic skills of STORY TELLING in corporate paradigm go a long way in building rapport with the respondents.

REFER TO THE LAST DISCUSSION: As we move on with the interactions through the day, we build-on the conversations referring to what the last few people have said (without naming them)। So the direction and quality of responses start improving after a first few interactions that are not so precise or structured.

EYE-2-EYE contact is tiring after a point। Hence we had another set of ETHNOGRAPHIC tool to evolve the ‘brand values’ from these discussions. Eye to eye contact is no broken and people become busy responding to the placards on the table bearing different ‘brand values’. This brings a PAUSE for SYNTHESIS in the discussion. Here the interviewing team’s as well as the respondant’s mind is synthesizing the overall discussion. Hence we did get some very important feedbacks after this stage.

LOCATION: On the hindsight, we had better off keeping the interview location in as neutral place rather than conducting them in the conference rooms in the offices। Even within the office, instead of calling the respondents to the conference rooms where our team is sitting, it was better to GO DOWN TO THE respondent’s cabin or seat. This gives them psychological comfort of being the BOSS.

EXTERNAL INPUTS: As a part of the brand research we also met scores of dealers, distributors and channel partners for the company’s products। And we think that those interactions are the most precious inputs for the brand’s current position in the market. The TRADE usually has a pretty good idea of what everyone else (competitors) are doing in product planning and promotion. More than the end user or end customers, I value these inputs more.

In many of the interactions, the discussions get clouded by some underlying HR issues, which could be person or department specific। Only way out of that is to genuinely listen, but no need to respond on that. We even marked the issues to the top management later.

Like HR issues, there are many side learnings of this exercise as there is someone to ‘deeply listen’ to the employees। We realized that there were GEMs hidden in the organizational hierarchy.

One of things helped us synthesize thoughts is some car journeys with some of the employees. That was primarily to go and meet the dealers/partners etc. But these journeys provided us with rich insights on work culture of the company. People become companions in a journey and discussion are far more natural than they every can be.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Why SMEs have not yet woken up to Innovation?

There has been a continuous rant by the government, chambers of commerce, design and innovation thinkers and the SME consultants alike- INNOVATE. The voice has only grown louder in the troubled times. Yet, we don’t see much activity on the SME front as far as innovation goes. Medium scale enterprises are still okay, but the down below- the small and the micro enterprises have not even blinked at the call of innovation to emerge as winner in these times. They are still trying the old ways of ‘optimisation’, ‘collaborations’ and trying the get a safe bet in the game.

Recently we were talking to a small manufacturer of home-plastic products. He has a factory where he has a few injection moulding machines capable of making the small plastic tumblers as well as big buckets of 100 lt size. He is doing decent amount of business (i.e. 30 Cr). He had never employed a designer till now.

The man who owns the company is the CEO and also the chief designer, who sits with his engineers and some reference products (could be some foreign products or some competition products picked up from the market) and gets the design which he thinks is the winner. This one man team accomplishes much for his size as of now. When we bring a portfolio of a design company of our size to him, he is at first scared of the big brands we have worked with. It straight away implies to him that our services are costly and he won’t be able to afford us. He verbalizes as much. However, on convincing him that no, we are talking to him with a different model of engagement in mind, we get a hearing. He wants to do great products and has collected a lot of insights. We understand his next product plan and give him a quote that barely takes care of one man’s salary for a month+ a small royalty amount. He does not bite the bullet. Later we came to know that he actually went with a CAD company (posing as a design studio). ‘Design’ is a confused definition for him, like many others.

This is small instance which is replicated in many ways during our conversations with the small manufacturing companies. There was a time when one could establish a direct relation between the ad-spend and the ROI i.e. sale of the product went up by a few times the very next week the ad is launched on TV/Newspaper combo. Of late, this correlation ceases to exist. But incase of product design and new product development, the correlation never occoured at the first place. Never was a time where people knew that if they spend x percentage of their turnover in product innovation then the top line is to grow by y percent. The rougest of the calculation is also not a common knowledge. It is a privy of the few for-runners and ‘test by fire’ companies who have gone big by doing it first. For the rest, any R& D effort is an affront cost which needs to be optimized (or a t times, just done away with the best alternative solution available). This is a startling but true realization that occurred to me after spending more than a decade in Design and Innovation consulting industry in India. I have seen by now two cycles of economy boom and sink. I have seen the buzzing alleys of MIDC (the industrial area in Pune), with flurry of material handling trucks. I have also seen, the same places silent and desolate. Every time, I thought that the industry is learning a tough lesson and investing in innovation is the only way they will go ahead. But I was wrong. Indian mind would shy away from taking any cathartic steps. It will always rely on time tested and the frugal advice. Innovation does no figure there.

There is a news that government of India has set up an auto-cluster facility in Pune. The common facility center for this cluster would now also house a design consulting office. Nearly Rs. 500 Million would be spent on design education and facilitation for SMEs connected to this auto cluster. This is one of the very first impetus to Design inclusion in the SME space though government intervention. This kind of efforts will go a long way in making the ROI (Returns on Innovation) to the industries.

to be continued...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A quick checklist for companies looking at Umbrella Branding/ Single Brand/ Brand Integration Strategy

1. House of Brands v/s A Branded House: choose the approach
Most consumer product conglomerates, such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Colgate-Palmolive, use the “house of brands” strategy. In other words, the product has the main brand name: Listerine, Head & Shoulders, Tylenol, and so forth. Very few consumers could accurately say which brand is owned by which company.’

On the contrary companies like Samsung and Sony still put their name on everything, but iPod and Zune are the dominant brands, leaving Apple and Microsoft to a lower-level brand. This is because people can only associate one brand with a product. A ‘branded house’ approach suits the companies where product life is expected to be longer. The ‘reliability over a time’ becomes the guiding principle for brand value.

2. B2B umbrella brand promotion in consumer space creates inexplicable demand pullAccenture sells nothing to consumers. But its ‘Performance Delivered’ campaign, backed by the advertising presence of Tiger Woods, has created a positive awareness of the brand among hundreds of thousands of people who may be working for the enterprises to which Accenture consults (or is seeking to consult). And the motivational value of inviting top customers, prospects and employees to golf events involving Tiger cannot be underestimated.
Intel is the ultimate ingredient brand. Zero sales to end consumers yet Intel built a consumer demand pull for its chips that required every PC manufacturer to incorporate them and to advertise Intel Inside on their products and in their ads.

3. Brand is an idea, Branding is a mindset
While assimilating an umbrella brand, it is important to step aside for a while from the existing brand portfolio. In the B2B enterprises, the brand portfolio is usually consisting of the existing company names/legal entities. While consolidating or creating a new umbrella brand, one can choose to create/architect a totally new name which makes lot of future sense but has little connection to the existing entity names. Equally important is to create a ‘brand thinking’ mindset in the company and the stakeholder, who may be too used to thinking ‘products’, ‘technologies’ and ‘business verticals’.

4. Create a unique character, written down and passionately curetted
Al and Laura Ries, in their book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, say that successful brands associate a ‘target concept’ (or a core character) with their brand, and that sub brands and super brands are recipes for disaster. Witness the lack of success with brands that try to be everything to everyone: Yahoo, GM, Ford, and to a lesser extent Hyundai, Yamaha, and Mitsubishi have not established a dominant foothold in their spaces because consumers have not associated a ‘key concept’ to their brand.

Samsung believes that their brand has four essential values- First one is technology value because they are a manufacturing company. The second is the product value. The third is marketing value and the fourth one is reputation value.

5. Architect the brand to be driven by Customer Centric World (and not Technology)
Organise your portfolio in a customer-centric way — for instance, ensure that the portfolio strategy drives your R&D strategy rather than allowing R&D to determine how your company goes to market. Both AT&T and IBM saw strong business growth as a result of this shift in mentality. Vertical wise split helps internal organization but not the brand penetration and recall.

6. Create clarity of offerings through architecture
Make sure that your product/service offering is clear to both your customers and your employees. If they are not able to understand what you are offering, it is a signal that the current architecture is not working. Organic expansion of enterprises usually results into an obfuscated and overlapping view of the business offerings, which needs an overhaul at the time of rebranding.

7. Differentiate and Cater to both- Product Buyers v/s Solution Buyers
· “Product Buyers” look for specific product sets and sophisticated components and thus require a wide variety of distinct products.
• “Solutions buyers” are less expert and seek holistic business solutions that are all-inclusive and off-the shelf.
Future is about dynamic companies who can sense the consumer needs faster and can bring solutions to the table, the fastest. A brand stitched around this core thought will generate internal energy to be more efficient through the value chain.

8. With Single brand, the measurement indices related to ROI on marketing becomes more tangible
Typical engineer’s mind usually distastes the grand marketing strategies and expenditures thereof. They understand the language of ‘selling’ much better. In a growing B2B enterprise, unifying the brand brings better indices of measurement of ROI on marketing spends and consumer satisfaction thereof.

9. Use the slow-down to promote the renewed brand
Samsung invested in product innovation way back in 1997 when Asian Crisis was on. Samsung also took up the Olympic Sponsorship when the company was almost bankrupt. All this paid off.


Author: Manoj Kothari, Founder Director and Principal Strategist at Onio Design Pvt. Ltd., Pune, India


Friday, July 10, 2009

Lessons from slow-down and Trends for Innovation 2010-2011

IMF projects India as the next boom place as the recession seems to be closing shop now on. While the new government in India is upbeat and heading for 9% growth, IMF has been moderate in the response and pegs it at 5.4%. The new budget just presented, focuses decidedly on infrastructure development and boosting rural economy. 55% of India’s FMCG consumption is in rural areas and 60% of population lives in the rural areas. Whatever strength Indian economy has shown till now is thanks to the robust banking system and the unwavering rural economy. There are some lessons hidden in the entire episode of slow-down that we are passing by. As a trend reader, it would be worth a look for deciding the future course of strategy for any organisation keen on India.

1. What worked till now, will not work!
Time for applying the formula is over. Swings in the economy, has never been so frantic and severe in pitch earlier. All that is learnt through case-studies is going to be useless. Time for mindless collaborations, copycat proliferations, riding on established brands and taking the consumer for granted is over. It is going to be the time of entrepreneurs and cautious adventurers. Being ‘visionary’and ‘pragmatic’ are not mutually exclusive anymore.

2. What is costly, will have to have a damn good reason for it!
Brand alone will not sell a product. Superficial motifs and bloated ego mongering products and services will have to come to terms with a wiser world. It started becoming clear even before the recession set in, when companies were looking for ‘real differentiators’ through design rather than from a propped up branding campaign. But signals now are loud and clear in the favour of the same.

3. There is wisdom in ancient wisdom!
Grandma says, “Simple Living, High thinking” is the best policy. We never heard. India was never ‘styling friendly’ as a culture. We believed in ‘inner substance’ all the way. ‘Life beyond material life’ has always been the motto. Somewhere in the whole consumerism zeal, we started losing that. Slow down will act as a corrective booster and will bring back this thought big time.

4. Small living
Another rejoinder to the wisdom from the ancient- Small Living is all about Ver 2.0 of bottom of the pyramid. The sachet revolution really brought forth the power of numbers in India. Propelled by the new economic reality, from Nano cars to Nano housing, a lot more is going to go small. New luxury would be ‘Compact , Efficient and Earth-friendly’, and not ‘Big, Indulging and Phantasmagoric’.

5. Only naked electric wire is untouchable!
As the government pushes more and more reforms, mobility and communication for all, borders of mind will be overpowered by the borderless mind. Brackets that worked in the yesteryears, in terms of caste, regionalism and insipid culture, will be replaced by rationale and inclusivity.

6. Longevity, the new virtue!
Use, Use, Reuse is the new mantra that will supersede the hollow calls of ‘sustainability’. Recycling consumes a lot of energy. Reuse is easy. It is immediate. It puts creative energies to use. It saves money. What else could a consumer want? Companies need to make products that last long…very long. Warranty has to go, Guarantee has to come in.

7. Don’t design for ‘avatars’, it is the ‘attitude’ back in vouge
Booming economy and downloadable ‘skins’ made consumers believe that they are a part of the global ‘personality orgy’. It is time to give it a break at look at the basic ‘attitudes’; the DNA of individual consumers. ‘Sporty’ is for sportsmen, and ‘feminine’ is for females. Don’t mix the things that don’t.

8. DIY (DO IT YOURSELF) is equally for India
It eluded India till now. IKEA back-tracked for different reasons, one of them could have been also a possible impression that ‘Indians don’t like to do things themselves’. It is time now. Time to wash own utensils and iron the clothes. Superfluous luxury has to give way to healthy practices of self-help. Host of products and services are waiting to tap this arena.

9. Twittering gives way to Meeting
Social Networks were good for a pass time and as a date with the new technology. Inside became outside in the years of Social Networking; almost a voyeuristic utopia.
Is this phenomenon only going to head straight in the same alley, or take a turn? Well, more rationale is going to dawn in the conversations and probably the “Meetups” would help getting ‘real’ about networking. Blog and not Tweets, evolving into a natural community, would be one of the great tools for the next version of social networking.

10. Culture Farming
Cocooning is a global phenomenon. Too much exposure, tires. People recede into ‘familiar’ or ‘loneliness’. A society pushed into modernity and consumption too fast, has its backlash coming. People want to hold on to something in the torrent. Culture and traditions would be rediscovered. Forgotten rituals would be back with a modernist zing. However, this time the cocooning would give way to full-fledged organized farming of ‘culture’. They are selling tickets online to the next event of ‘Karwa-chouth’ Workshop for First timers; any takers?

Friday, June 26, 2009

What’s in a Trend?

Fashion Industry made the word ‘Trend’ popular apart from the share market. ‘Trend Forecasting’ is almost synonymous with ‘Seasons’ as you rightly pointed out. Designers and Architects being aware of the ‘international trends’ is another side of the story, which again is another name for ‘imitation’, in the current reality where consumer knows what is ‘in’.

Onio uses trends in the wider socio-economic perspective where ‘trends’ are not seasonal changes, but they are the responses of the society to the changing scenarios (they are also called 'mega-trends') i.e. when consumers are bombarded with mindless products and options, initially they like it, then slowly the ‘option fatigue’ sets in. This results in a trend for ‘simplified product forms’ and ‘products& experiences with easy navigation’. With this kind of pattern reading, Onio expects a ‘trend’ to last for a few years and not change every season.

Yet, there may be micro-loops of ‘fads’ which can change with any major event i.e. a big brand launching a particular colour. Even these micro-loops still follow the ‘mega-trend’ that we just talked about. For example, ‘Remixing’ is a trend that Onio has talked two years back, and named it as ‘Twin World’. Since people have more options, they want to mix and match. Indian food with Thai food, Indian traditions with modernity, past with present….and you see a whole lot of ‘retro-movies’ that have hit the Bollywood. This trend is at peak in clothing, but it will slowly come down to consumer goods, furniture and architecture (in that order).


In the entire rigmarole of trends, international look, forecasts etc. there is an underlying argument of ‘Indian-ness’ or ‘Indian Needs’. At Onio, we follow our own proprietary methodology for applying trends on the target consumers, called ‘Intentiability’. This process first identifies consumer segments based on their level of ‘root connect’ or connect with ‘Indian-ness’ and then looks at relative sensitivity to the prevailing trends. Higher the ‘root connect’ of a consumer segment, lower will be their sensitivity to ‘upcoming trends’. For example, we identified a group called ‘Desi-Dynamos’ primarily consisting of factory managers, politicians, senior level bureaucrats, and rural big-wigs. These people show high level of awareness yet when it comes to choosing furniture, they go by a) More solid looks, thicker materials b) Touch of glitter c) established brands and prevalent styles d) no drastic changes in shapes e) more ornamental and saturated palette rather than European pastels. Even if they follow the European pastels, it would be only if suggested by a high-end architect. They do not have a mind of their own. It is the mind of the community.

So trends alone mean nothing in the Indian scenario, unless the target segment is mapped for a) sensitivity to the trend b) their connect to the ‘roots’, as an attitude. This applies to almost all emerging countries (BRICs). While mapping a trend, it does not exclude the elements of ‘good design’. If a trend is suggesting use of ‘slim handles’ does not mean that uncomfortable handles would get a preference.

Onio’s Views on Trends

Trends deal with Future view, which takes a lot of effort to explain to the management.
We believe trends do three things for the innovation strategy-
1. Clues:
If the organisation wants to find some new leads to toe on the innovation frontier, Trends can point to some available niche. Niche emerge due to changing life-style. A trend-spotter’s eye catches it fastest.

2. Connections:
They throw up connections in the parallel fields where similar events are expected/happening. This helps the strategy articulation to the top management.

3. Conviction:
If certain direction has already been taken on innovation front, Trend study can substantiate the direction.

Thus Onio works on products, services and brand innovation through the first filter of trends, supported by user needs, technology changes and market statistics. We call this model MUST (Market, User, Society and Technology) as the four pillars of innovation in the current reality.

Onio considers ‘Trend thinking’ as a tool for business managers to think beyond the constraints and make invisible connection to leap ahead of the market.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

After I posted this, I came across comments of Faith Popcorn on the same issue-" In the next decade, the spirituality will become much more integral to daily life as companies and employers begin scheduling meditation or "spirituality breaks" for employees to pray or otherwise connect with a higher power. Noting that more Americans attend religious services than all sporting events combined, she adds: "Pick-your-own religions will become the new status quo. For example, people may combine Jewish ritual with Catholic sacraments and Zen principles."
I am sensing BUFFET-SPIRITUALITY is the next trend!
On one side the religious lines are hardening, and on the other levels of society, but the time for personality based preachings is over. Human intellect is seeking multiple answers in multiple hues. People are picking up the rght elements from Zen Buddhism, Indian mysticism, Yoga, Arabic Sufism, and more moderate virtues of other religions. People are designing their own religion. A buffett of spirituality, that matches their inner needs. Some of the comments I received on this trend are-
"New thought and new age thinking is definitely more accepted and mainstream now than ever before. I can't speak outside of my own experience with Christianity. Traditional mainstream churches are struggling with membership, Attendance is dwindling in the Catholic and Episcopal churches and I suspect in other denominations as well. Very few people attend under the age of 70. Young people want more discussion and less dogma. More entertainment and less ritual. Oprah and The Secret were the tipping point in the West. Even those who call themselves Christians are dabbling in Buddhism, Kabala and Sufi philosophy.Look at the success of Deepak Chopra! I think that is a very good thing and there's no going back. I think recent global events have made people more aware of the damage done by rigid beliefs. They reject the rigidity but still seek spiritual guidance and comfort."
Marilyn Ellis Owner, Lighthouse Organizers LLC, Harbor Light Coaching

"I concur. I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, but as I matured and educated myself, I found Catholicism wasn't meeting all of my needs; I needed to take a little from Zen Buddhism and mysticism. I think people have been partaking in this form of Buffet Spirituality for longer that we think. I also think it makes sense, due to Globalization... :"
Stephanie Benney Account Executive, PrintSmartz

"I've noticed that a lot of the publicity around positivity as a religious mindset - tuning into the power of the universe, to make your immediate dreams a reality has died down since the fall. In this economic climate, there's real opportunity for religions that give people hope and comfort of the eternal."
Patricia Smith Brand Development & Communications Strategist

"Speaking from a background in the psychology of religion, I disagree. Nothing new or future about that. The "shopping-mall of religions" is a hallmark of modernity, dating back at least to the advent of bourgeois culture. Open-ended media, the self-help shelves, consultancy-culture and increasing available resources (e.g. time, travel funds, etc.) may influence the spread of spiritual ideas and short-term interest, but religion needs to compete with science, therapy, entertainment and other (more current) offers on the open market of ideas and need-fulfillment. If anything, the recent fear of religious conflict probably puts a lid on new spiritual practice these days - and I don't anticipate a reverse pendulum-swing around the corner. "
Andreas Lieberoth project developer and freelancer

Monday, May 04, 2009

What would be te core values of a global product brand emanting from India?

I posted a question on two online groups I subscribe to- “What do you think would be the essence/qualities/values of a global product brand emanating from India?”

I provided the following explanation from my side, to guide the answers-

There is not a single product brand that emanates from India and world knows it. Tata (Nano, Titan, Jaguar...) has a promise but long way to go. With rich heritage, bright business minds and hard working generation India stands a chance to create one. What values should this product brand be built on?

Question was posted at my IIT alumni network and similar other groups where one can expect certain maturity of the understanding of the paradigm we are talking of. Answers ranged from highly IT centered view of the World (full of ‘Service economy’ jargon) to more mature ways of dealing with ‘Brand India’ before we talk of ‘Product brand’ from India. However, most seemed way disconnected from 'Branding' phenomenon. That is the reality of India.

Here are some interesting exeprts-
“The capability of the brand to win the value equation with its strategic consumer target against world class competition” - Devarun Ghosh at Procter & Gamble

"Brand has many levels of understanding. Brand personality can be a combination of communication, credibility, brand attributes that simulate with the product as well as the geography coming from. Personality of BMW (neo-professional, young achiever, pacy lifestyle) is different than personality of 'Force India' (honest, challenging and hardworking). As it was said brand 'IIT' probably the best ever brand India has ever created. What could be the personality? Intelligent, young, aspiring to go to the top, emerging from the crowd through sheer hard word! Brand emanating from India should have capture the essence of 'India' though depending on the product / market segment etc. I would propsoe to have a personality combining: - Intelligent - Dare to dream - Hard working - Young, challenging - Quailty assured".
Sudip Mazumder Experienced Program Manager

"Innovation. Yesterday's competitive edge becomes tomorrow's standards. Around the world, 'Quality' of products is taken for granted so no one can brag about the quality of their products anymore. It is a given in consumer's mind. The best business minds and hard working generation in India lacks Creativity and Innovation that can sustain its economy in Global Arena. It is always not about low cost. If cost alone matters, China will be the winner. Almost, all the products imported in US from China are 'Commodity' items, quality or continued support of which is least expected. For e.g., when a consumer in US walks into a store and picks up something with label 'Made in China', the characteristics "Quality" doesn't even spark in his/her mind. With so many software giants (most of them are the largest in the world) being in India, the situation is that we don't have even a single s/w product that India can boast of. Everything is focused simply on services and not the products. The businessmen in India at large are still short-term focused, without a long-term strategy. Tata's Nano caught the world's attention simply due to its size and prize.I am sure that Europeans, Japanese, and Americans wouldn't come forward to accept Nano in their markets. I am sorry to say this, but the truth is that in the Western world largely in EU and American continent, the image of India is still "slumdog", poor quality, unethical behaviors, snake charmers, swamijis, poor life standards, untidy, .... you can name everything. I have lived in US for 22 years now and have my kids starting the second generation. But this is the reality. The whole image of the country must be given a facelift. Only then its products will even be considered for acceptance into the Global Brand."
Muthu Chinnadurai Senior Business Systems Executive

"Manoj, let's start with what's a global brand.. It is something people around the world relates to and associates with a specific service or product, correct? When you think about it, India holds it's own in many spheres of human activity.. what immediately comes to mind is travel - India has a brand recognition in that space with Taj Mahal, the Himalayas, and the beaches of Goa and Kerala. Take food, Indian curry and tandoori is a recognizable brand the world over.. I am not sure if any single firm has capitalized on these globally recognizable 'India' brands.. and then there are certain other areas in industry, like IT or back-office operations and call centers, where Indian companies like TCS & Infosys have built up powerful brands, and these firms are so successful in building that brand that people here tend to think every Indian here in the US works in the IT industry! So is the case with call centers, though on latenight TV shows here, the hosts talk with an Indian accent when they refer to call centers! (not always in a good way though).. And in education, IITs & IIMs are globally recognized Indian brands.. These are some of the successes..there are many more like these, I would imagine. And then there are globally recognized images of India which are very negative.. poor basic infrastructure, corrupt government machinery, the vast division between rich & poor in India, and the red-tape everywhere..etc etc.. that doesn't do any good for 'brand India' globally. What India has failed to produce however - and I think this is what you are trying to address, though the usage of 'brand' got me to start off with broad strokes - are a globally recognized brand in engineering or consumer products.. and, i believe this has to do with quality of what Indian firms produce! Right from market analysis through product design, companies seem to focus on making something that meets 'some' of the customer needs, at the cheapest cost, getting them the highest margin, inevitably ending up with sub-standard products.. quality in production I believe is better, though here again, quality is applied with a focus on reducing cost, with an eye on improving profits, rather than making quality products. So Indian firms end up with products that could only be marketed in developing or under-developed economies like India, where customers are willing to trade-in quality for price. An Indian firm could successfully build a product that could become a global brand, if they design and build quality products for the global market.. it could be in any industry, and doing it in india will be no different from doing it in the USA, Germany, Japan or Brazil.. it just need companies to go back to the fundamentals of product development and quality management. There are no short-cuts to get there!"
Baiju Krishnan VP at Citigroup

My final note:

Baiju did capture the sort of background summary of what I am asking. All the discussion on 'brand India' is about that. However as Baiju indicated, I am asking a more pointed question- About Product Brands. I am a bit biased on product brand because that's what people see selling in the shopping streets when we visit other countries. A high end software, sitting inside a giant reactor, made by India is not visible to people. So I am talking about the product which people/consumers can touch and feel everyday.People think of Volkswagen as a well engineered car brand. Sony got the miniaturisation and thoughtfulness of Japan right. Newer entrant Muji, built a brand on good design and no-frill attitude that pervade japanese culture and Zen paradigm. Ferrari exahults the flamboyance of Italians. Harley is about great American Adventure and Exploration. On the other hand, let's take a humble example- a ball pen/gel pen - BIC is BIC..the legend. In India, we might easily have at least 100 manufacturer making gel/ball pens. They would be producing close to 5 million pens a day-all world-class. Technology is no different. Take Another example, Titan Watch- the king of Indian watch market. Look at VIP bags...almost as good looking bags as Samsonite but not quite TUMI. So even if we leave the services, out of our discussion and just focus on daya-to-day physical products, what is that value that people would like to remember/relish about an Indian brand? It won't be surely 'Low Cost'- this is a short term phenomenon til our labour becoe costly. 5000 years of history and all the bright and shining mind can not make a brand on 'quality', 'price' or 'engineering'...these are primitive differentiators. Let me sya what I have in mind...some pointers that you can add on- Longevity: Western countries make products that become useless soon. Indians never like to throw things. Married-for-ever is the institution that we revere. Can we use this micro phenomenon to build a design principle that says- make a product that should RENEW itself over a period or find a REUSE after its jobs is over. We know how housewives store all the free glass jars for containing dals and other condiments in the kitchen. Can we use this one a bigger scale i.e. Design a vehicle that would only require minor upgrades and minimal invasion to become new. Can we decidedly use tougher coatings on the body that it would remain scratch proof. Can we build things as a part of new brand character, that may be a bit costly but remain SOLID and REUSABLE to the core? We are talking of sustainability in the way that West does not understand and it comes to us naturally. Being a developing and deprived society for the time being, should not guide the brand character that would last for 100 years next.... Does it make sense? Can we find more such values that are core to the India but worthy of being taken up as a brand character for emerging Indian product brands?

Manoj Kothari

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Product Innovation in India: A round-up 2009

Two years back a small software service company approached us for a rather unusual demand -They had made an enterprise recruitment software for SMEs in India. It was rather odd for us to see a company, which only talked of outsourcing and partnership on their website, suddenly waking up to India centered products. Being a design company, we often come across entrepreneurs and startups, who have ideas in the consumer products (physical products) domain, but we had never encountered a software company seeking UI design help for a local customer base. This was, to me a beginning of a new beginning of the software industry in India.

Looking at the other side of the spectrum, our team frequents the MIDC area (Industrial Zone) in Pune and meets with several small and medium manufacturing companies who are either supplier to the large auto companies (like Tata, Bajaj, Mercedez etc.) or they take up small jobs for large companies (i.e. machining, mould making etc.). Five years back they were seething in deep recession and the situation was grave. Apart from the industrial scenario at that time, the Chinese products had also given them a hard bashing. By and by we saw them rising up to the economic boom and fighting it out with Chinese prices and quality levels. Today some of them are talking to us in a rather unusual tone. “Economic ups and down will come and go, we need to charter our course. Being a supplier to large companies is no more the aspiration, we want to create our own products now”. A steel furniture manufacturer who has been exporting beach-furniture as well as supplying furniture elements and components to large companies like Godrej regrets the fact that the innovation he brings to the table of these large companies does not elevate his position or business in the eyes of the clients. These are the rumblings of the things to come.

Another small manufacturing company based in Pune’s industrial belt deals in making plasticware for homes. They make close to a million buckets a year, apart from some activity in the B2B space where they make small components in plastic for large companies. The owner has been driving new product ideas on his own till now. His business didn’t seem to have been affected by the slowdown. The essential commodities never take the big hit, we learnt from him. He is rather planning to use this little bit of slackness in the market, to diversify his product range. He, for the first time, has thought of hiring the services of a professional company to help in product innovation. He mentioned how buckets were just seen as buckets till yesterday. Today, people would prefer to buy a ‘set’ (a tumbler, bucket, soap-case and stool, all in plastic) in a matching color scheme, for their bathrooms. Now, he is forced not to think in terms of ‘items’ or ‘specific products’ alone. Systems thinking, is now a forced learning.

Let’s look at another scenario, that of Individual inventors. This is almost unheard of in India. If we Google the word ‘Inventor’/’Innovator’, thousands of results will hit the screen, but they are mostly from USA. The land of innovation, USA has probably more Inventors’ Associations than the inventors in India who eventually own the IPR for their invention. We were working on a design, of a safe paraffin stove for the South African market, which if tumbles by mistake, won’t spill the kerosene/paraffin and therefore won’t catch fire. Africa is known to have hundreds of deaths due to the unsafe design of these stoves. People, who live in thatched huts, some times leave their stove on during the night, for warmth. As we finished the work on this innovation, we came to know that there are more than 18 different innovations, which are registered on kerosene stoves, by individual inventors across India. The National Innovation Foundation, which collated these innovations was mesmerized with the content of these innovations, which ranged from improving the efficiency of the stove to using dual fuel in the stove. This segment of product innovation is the most potent one, but highly under-exploited.

Problems on the upper end of the market are quite different. Companies that woke up to design and planned innovation a decade back are in a different stratosphere of maturity. By now they have well established processes of insight collection and several thousand documents of market research piles up every year for their design teams to use. The new range of design and the launch is a big planned fanfare which is now a yearly activity. They already know that copying, western designs does not fetch them customer attention in India, anymore. Today, the Indian consumer wants to articulate his own needs, and wants them to be answered smartly. These companies are still struggling to find an ‘identity’. Over the years they have mastered the art of new product development and marketing. However, ‘design language’ is the higher question that is haunting them. VIP, Titan, Onida, TI cycles, Bajaj etc. are some of these big consumer product giants of the Indian market that are now raising the right questions of the brand identity of their products. Semantics is now, a known term in these design studios.

Asian Paints is a good example, which stands out in terms of establishing a full process of trend forecasting for the upcoming year. While Trend Forecasting is not new to India and has been used in the fashion industry amply, a non-fashion industry taking it up seriously in fully indigenized ways is definitely commendable. The Fashion Industry has been under severe influences of the designs showcased in Paris and other trade fairs like Premier Vision. However, the time has come, when Indian textile and clothing manufacturers are finally looking at an ‘Indian interpretation’ of these trends. This is a first step towards becoming comfortable with home-grown trend reports and projections.

One of the large Indian automobile manufacturer wants us to work on the Color, Material and Finishes for the next range of luxury vehicles. India started styling its own vehicles almost a decade back and this was well received by the consumers. But it is only recently, that serious thought has being given to the area of CMF (Color, Material and Finish), not only for the upcoming range but also for projections on the next upgrade i.e. three years hence of an existing product. These decisions previously rested with marketing or foreign design and styling consulting companies. But we can now say that the Indian automotive industry too, is fast maturing.

For me, who saw a lot of rants around the Chinese onslaught of consumer products, the growth of the service economy and two rounds of recession, dating with foreign brands, technologies, collaborations and even consultants; it is heartening to know that India is moving up the value-chain of innovation. It may not be pacing up but inching up for sure.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Innovation in the slow times!

It has been almost six months since I wrote on this blog. World changed at an accelarated pace in the mean while. India boom seems to have hit a road block or at least a bump. Banks after banks and comapnies afte companies in USA are lining up for bankruptcy. USA is doling out the steroids like a Hollywood movie, which may only last till the movie lasts...India is bearing the brunt of its economy having strong links to USA economy. Whatever was left, out friends at Satyam have blown it off. It was clear the 2009 is going to be tough, but now it appears that it will be tougher.

On the other hand, how is Innovation industry seeing this all? Will companies stop the expenditure on all that belongs to future (including heavy R&D and Design) or will they use this time to gain some muscles through research and innovation? Will they outsource more or will they do it all inhouse to retain the jobs? The two sides of the story are all doing the equal rounds.

Time and again our clients are asking a question, as if it adds to our readiness and capability -"have you guys been affected by the slowdown?"
Well our answers is " far so good".

The fact is barring afew projects which were to come from USA, the project pipeline is as thick as it had been. There is client who is planning to invest several million dollars in land acquisition in the next few months, another one is planning a complete new range of kitchenware lauch in India, another one is gearing up for new age toys for children etc etc. They are not talking of cutting costs. They are not talking of slow-down language. Another client DRDO (Indian DefenceResearch) is totally slowdown proof. A client of ours makes energy meters and this market is again has minimal effect of world situation. Megaprojects which have several years as timeline, companies that work in energy, food, essential commodities and basic services are not slowing down. Hero Honda the motor bike making company from India has shown GROWTH in this year (amazing...), which proves the point that all those companies who were livin by the ad expenditures are nose-diving now, while companies who live by the shear quality of their products andservices are here to stay put.

There are lessons to be learn for the next cycle. Up up and higher is not the way World goes , all the time. Innovation companies need to keep a good mix of clients who are riding the waves along with the clients who are staple-cruisers. Post-dotcom times, this is a reminder to all of us.

All ye who Innovate

"He who innovates, will have enemies in all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and will find only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new"
-Niccollo Machiaveli