Saturday, November 27, 2010

On corporate and product semiotics in India

Semantics, in the field of branding is not new to Indian businesses. The science of ‘meaning’ has been around for quite some time as ad agencies, corporate communication departments and brand strategists across the world have pored over this subject. To a certain extent, even ‘services’ have been under the knife in implementing brand semantics. However, thinking of semantics for ‘products’ is a new phenomenon.

What makes an Apple product so distinctly Apple? What is the ‘Volvo-ness’ in Volvo vehicles? What is the common thread running through Tommy Hilfiger fashion-line and the accessories? One does encounter these questions every now and then in the design space. The good news is that more and more large Indian businesses are becoming aware of the implications of semantics first and then semiotics.

Semiotics is the broader umbrella in studying the science of meanings/indications/symbols within the products firstly as category signifiers and also as brand signifiers. If we look at the Raga series of watches from Titan - there is a women’s watch ‘category shape/symbol/code’ in the watch while there should also be a ‘Titan’ brand shape/symbol/code/visual elements present in the watch. I am saying ‘should be’ because most of the companies currently do not have a consistent thought on these subjects. In the tumultuous growth of the last decade, Indian companies never had the time to sit back and take notice of this ‘identity’ language for their products. As opportunities opened up, managers were busy cashing-in on them, year after year, chasing top-line strategies.

Thinking of brand semiotics is a matter of the restful mind, taking a keen look at things around like a diligent and caring grandmother weaving children’s woollens. At the turn of the first decade of the twenty-first century, we are at the threshold of ‘semiotics’ revolution in the country. Several home grown auto giants, consumer durables companies, lifestyle and accessory companies who Onio has worked with or has been in touch with, are looking for semiotic structuring.

They have seen their product portfolios growing into humongous proportions year after year, catering to different market segments, price points and several platforms too have fallen in place, but none communicating the ‘characteristic’ feel of that brand or company. Indian design is searching for an identity, for a change outside the academia now. Onio’s design research division OnioNxt works on semiotics under what we call the ‘design structuring paradigm’ which encompasses brand architecture as well.

Whilst thinkers are many, implementers somehow are rare. As usual, they hunt for a costly but ‘safe’ (as they put it), foreign consultant (who may or may not understand what India and Indian consumers are all about). These clients pay through their noses to get the top level ‘expert’ on to the company premises, who will do ‘the strategic consulting’ for the company at 33,000 feet and fly back at the same height!

It is left to the company’s managers to interpret the words of wisdom on to real situations. We were recently a part of one such meeting where we were called in to interpret the semiotic guidelines left behind by one such consultant. Company brand stands for optimism and legacy. Products, the company makes are worth a rainbow.

The meeting started close to one and half hour later although it was planned 3 weeks in advance. Meanwhile the junior, who was our contact point, explained to us how grand and spectacular the work has been done by the foreign consultant and Indian companies are nowhere close to it.
Chief of the division came in with a laptop open, and apologised for the delay but also added that he would have liked the junior to start off this session anyway. Other team members (who were mentioned in the email sent to us) were absent from the meeting (‘they are busy’, we were told). One gentleman who walked in - sleepy eyed - refused to share his visiting card, and after a lot of apparent discomfort rattled out his name. He slumped into the chair and dozed off in a few minutes.

We continued our presentation to the chief who was working on the laptop simultaneously and only occasionally lifted his eyes to look at the presentation and making some comments which were more out of his own experiences rather than commenting on what is really being presented. Sometime generic remarks on ‘how agencies work’ were sprinkled in the conversation (if at all). The meeting somehow ended with the slamming down of my laptop, as the ‘semiotics’ of that meeting were becoming unbearable for us.

We thanked them for inviting us for their time and invitation. Semiotics has started taking shape in India. So near, yet so far!