Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brand Crafting: How does a design strategy company fare better than a marketing/brand consultant

My blog posts seem to emanate from some questions, to which I did not have an immediate answers. I found it better to think for a while and pen them down. This one is another chip in the same block. Yesterday, a leading newspaper approached us on elaborating the work we did for Secure Meters - Brand Transition Research and Re-branding. Onio has been working with Secure Meters for quite some time now, not on product design but rather on brand strategy.

Secure Meters is one of the leading home grown energy metering companies which has acquired companies across the world and is developing cutting-edge technologies on the energy metering front. Each of the acquired companies, though working in the same domain, had a different brand name and geographical reach. This posed a big challenge for brand-architecture and messaging over time.

Secure chose to work with Onio on brand integration thus showing remarkable corporate maturity and the ability to work with new methodologies in this area. With assistance from Onio, the group finally prepared a brand transition plan towards a single corporate brand across the globe. Onio used corporate ethnography as a tool and interviewed close to 40 stakeholders (including board members, senior management, workers, distributors & suppliers) across three countries in five locations worldwide.

So the first question this correspondent from the newspaper asked me was, “Why did Secure come to you and not go through the conventional model of involving a market research company / marketing consultant / ad agency in this work?

Onio had conducted brand strategy and research assignments earlier but not on this scale. I would try and articulate what I think Onio brought to the table for this work -

1. Focus on Empathic User Research: Gone are the days when a brand strategist would spin a word-web and spice it up with glossy graphics to create a brand definition. Today's brands whether corporate or consumer product brands; are deeply entrenched in the user space i.e. how does the user/stakeholder interact with the brand? And mind you, this stakeholder of today is tremendously aware and rational. So the ability of empathising with people across the hierarchy and the value-chain, to extract the concerns and projections, comes naturally to a design company. Use of ethnography and visual tools to enhance the interaction with the respondents and observational research are some anthropological practices which design companies like Onio have adopted early on.

2. NEED at the centre of brand innovation: Design companies are trained to think with the NEED first. Contextual inquiry into the NEED can be quite an entangling task. A simple word like 'need' has multiple dimensions in the mind of such a researcher. Matching the corporate needs to employee needs, market needs to social needs, aspirations to capabilities and verbal to understated… there is a long journey where the researcher needs to remain connected to the ground realities. This multi-dimensional facet in the need universe is a skill taught in design schools.

3. Textual to Visual World: Complex modelling of the brand universe of an emerging organisation can be a daunting task. Gives and takes between different companies, product brands, technologies, geographical reaches, operating divisions and possible directions of evolutions can become a maze of words that may only confuse the managing team. A clear visual illustration helps the team in a big way to see the emerging patterns.

4. Meta-crafting Abilities: This one particularly is my passion and forte. Brand Research and Strategy is a game of 'fact-finding' and 'meta-crafting'. Design companies are used to the detailed information collection and extraction of meta-facts out of it. Though meta-crafting for product innovation assignments could be very different from a brand design assignment, the skill set is similar.

5. Ability to be a gentle sounding board: This one is something not so straight forward. It is more of human quality than a corporate skill. Onio discovered it long back that mid-sized, owner-driven enterprises look for a consultant who can be a good sounding board rather than a 'holier-than-thou' domain expert. Many of these enterprises have been built on individual insights, business acumen and years of sustained hard work. Hence articulation of even the pain areas needs to be done with care, because it may nudge some of the stakeholders the wrong way. It is a tact combined with clarity of insight and articulation.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Customer Needs v/s Industry Needs v/s Country Needs

 Interview with Shri Dashrath Patel published in a Gujarati daily 'Sandesh' on June 25th 2010. Translated into
English by NID alumnus Mookesh Patel.

NID has failed in realizing its established goal. Students focus on 'styling' at design institutions.

"National Institute of Design (NID) is in the process of celebrating 50 years of its establishment in the field of design education.
While numerous events are being planned for this purpose, institute founding member and Padma Shree Shree Dashrath Patel saddened by the progress and direction of the advancement of the Institution believes that the intention for the establishment of NID has not been realized and that there is a need for an earnest review of its structure and system on the eve of 50th year celebration.

Dashrath Patel in his special interview with 'Sandesh' regarding the aim for establishment and the current status of NID said: รข€
The Government of India decided to found this exceptional premier design educational institution in country based on Germany renowned 'Bauhaus' and 'Ulm' design schools that emphasized the principal of need for any design object. The intention for such decision was to provide the Indian population with design services that realized extremely useful tools and objects during the early years of progress and development of independent India. Understanding the context of  'need' within our country during the process of design was the basic expectation of all educated and trained designers at this institution. From 1963 until 1972, institute focused and worked on conceptual development and implementation that addressed country urgent needs such as school furniture, smokeless Chulah, public toilets, hospital trolleys, etc. However, since then the NID direction has altered. NID has missed the opportunity to realize its initial goal.

In reply to the question 'What is the importance of design?'
he said: In most design process, the emphasis is on public 'need', public economic status, increased and effective deliverance, reasonable price, infrastructural sustenance, adoptive production methods, etc. The design and production of products that follow this design process helps the growth and development of the country and its people. However, we have failed to understand its importance. Due to the open market strategy since 1991, India experienced an incredible effect of globalization and the design arena degraded. Fresh design graduates misplaced their priorities and emphasized 'product styling'and the 'look' and
the trend still continues."

My comments follow, explaining the situation on ground as a practicing design thinker.

Dasharath Bhai is right in his observation that designer coming out of design institute today are more inclined and probably 'sold' to the idea of scintillating styling jobs. Number of jobs being offered today in the design school campuses are far too lucrative for newbie designer to even think of starting independent practice or much less to start an enterprise with his/her own idea. Industry, on the other side is in a transition phase as of now. 15 years back when I started my career in design, 'collaboration' with foreign partner was the name of the game for Indian industry. From technology to new product ideas to brand definition, everything came in a packet from the collaborator, which the local partner had to just 'run' it for them. Many are still doing it. There was no need for a designer that time. I felt as if I am joining a redundant profession. Many of my seniors form design school, working for the industry had found themselves growing in the allied streams (i.e. marketing, or product planning etc.) rather than as a designer  within the company. Graphic design was still an evergreen field, with a stiff competition from ad-industry. Interaction or digital design was not born that time. Retail Design was absent too.

But when I look at a scenario that started evolving in last 5 years, I can see that there is a growing need for local design talent. Surprisingly, that need is stronger not from the local industry, but from the local design centers of the foreign companies, who have realized that local insights ARE going to play a role in future.  Local industry is still keen on foreign label/designers rather than experimenting with home grown talent. Now what are these foreign company owned local design centers up to? They are focusing on 'customisation' of the global product platform and not necessarily building a product from ground up for local market (exceptions are always there..we are working with one such large global company on evolving a local platform for BoP refrigerator). So the focus is on styling and a bit on local usability. That probably explains the 'pull' from the industry what Dasharth Bhai was alluding to.

There is another link in the chain- the consumer. What is happening to the Indian consumer?

Over the last decade, one can see that India is going up on the consumerism curve where the west is already on the maturity and saturation mode. They are talking of 'sustainability' and 'conscious consumption'. While the Indian consumer is just about learning to walk the corridors of 'choice'. 'New wrapper and old wine', is still an enticer for the consumer here which does not hold water any more in the western world. Foreign labels are still a sign of quality and value. We were in for a surprise when in a recent design research at Onio, some of the car owners who were attracted to buy a 'German' car model recently launched in India, even justified the slow-pick as an engineering feature of a 'solidly built car'. While consumer is slowly maturing to understand that 'real value' behind the glossy styling and offers, there is a long way to go. Some SMEs and home grown companies have caught on to this mature consumer and shown the bravdo of working with local design companies and creating a world class product that stand above the category. Onio's work with Amara Raja group for Tribal Italia home inverter is one such example.

Now the last angle- What is NID or any design institute doing in such a flux of scenario in industry, consumer and design? Well and education institute providing a profession centric education is likely to have a rub-off from the market demands. Though the foundation and values of the institute would have to be carefully guarded, but they can not avoid the ripple effect from the industry. I think this transition period is likely to last for  5 years more before a stronger voice of 'what's the Indian content in it' becomes a resonating voice form consumers, Industry and hence the design education institutes alike.