Thursday, November 01, 2012


India is undergoing a Tsunami of sorts with scams and policy issues. The question of allowing 51% FDI in multi-brand (& 100 % in single brand) retail has come to occupy the prime time public mind share. The government & those in favour of FDI argue that it is a part of economic reforms that will generate 10 million new jobs in retail, will bring in much needed dollars to support the economy, bring supply-chain efficiency in the sector, elimination of the middlemen and a direct gain to primary producers /farmers. Those against the FDI are arguing that the large chains will wipe out the small ‘kirana’ stores and small retailers, will create new middle men, disrupt diversity & traditional systems and kill employment.
I see this issue on a wider sociological phenomenon of change while economists take care of the numbers. This change also brings in some upheaval, voicing of the hidden needs, emergence of new needs and hence drives innovation in the society. Here are some nuances of this change and how it will drive innovations in retail, supply-chain and consumer experience. All that is articulated does not necessarily support or reject FDI but articulates the connected side-effects.

Changing retail texture of medicine shops in smaller cities of India


Wal-Mart entered China in 1996. Today after 340 shops in 125 cities, 90,000 employees and a annual sales of $7 billion (less than 3% of what Wal-Mart makes in USA) it is far less than what was expected from the Chinese market. One of the reasons cited is that unlike western countries, where people like to live in suburbs and drive to large stores in the outskirts of the city, the Chinese preferred living closer to the city center. Long drives, in heavily populated Chinese cities are not as smooth as could have been in the western countries. India! It is no different. Leave aside the initial ‘curious crowd’ for a few months, chances are less that people will travel 20-30 km just to pay a little less for month’s grocery. If people do go there then stores must ensure that they have the entire ‘zing thing’ that Indian consumers are now used to. India’s own brand Big Bazaar did bring the very first India centric innovation in organized retail like open grain retail, tiny service additions like on-the-spot dry and wet grinding and a complete food-court in ‘Shop-Eat-Celebrate’ mood of CENTRAL. 

Another upcoming innovation worth watching is Future Group’s KB Fair-Price shops. These are smaller format just-around-the-corner stores which will be running on a franchise model. For all we know, the visionary Kishore Biyani would have probably also thought of the credit and home delivery which kirana stores offer to the regular customers. It would be interesting to see if the large trans-national companies adopt this model in India.


The other day on the way back from our Sunday eating out ritual, we came across a ‘leafy veggie seller’, selling on this busy street on his improvised auto-rickshaw. He said that by 10pm he would be sold out. My wife fell for the fresh stock of leafy veggies. This person drives around 20 km with a stock of worth around Rs.1500 (all sold out in a matter of 5 hours). His differentiation: Fresh out of the farm+ Personal connect with those who buy regularly from him, where he actually gets to oversell +Specialization ‘Leafy only’. No supermall can match this. Concept of a car-boot sale is new to India and it is coming with a tweak- instead of a car, it is a load-carrier auto-rickshaw. In times to come, we will see more of these specialized and slightly elevated small retailers serving the daily needs of Indian consumers. This is a white space as far as organized retailing is concerned.


In the Rs. 35000 crore consumer durables industry in India today, the Korean giants, LG and Samsung together have around 30 to 40 percent market share in varying categories. Indian brands like Onida, Voltas, Godrej and Videocon were once written off against the superior Korean products have made a formidable comeback. While R&D is still not fully centered in India for many foreign brands (unlike Whirlpool), a lot of focus on ‘India Insights’ and related product research is surely heating up the innovation quotient in this industry. My company has been part of several such research and design exercises with Korean as well as Indian brands, which was unimaginable to be happening on Indian soil a few years back. Godrej’s refrigerator boasts of several innovations which were borne out of deep research. Now a global innovation story, “Chotu-kool” the mini-refrigerator for bottom-of pyramid consumers was designed, manufactured and innovatively distributed by Godrej, was borne out this steeped desire to understand Indian needs better than anybody else. Core mantra of insight and innovation is finally taking over the scale & distribution. Consumers have proven that only durability they want is ‘constantly right’ product. Brands and countries don’t really matter.

We can see that the bar on organised Indian retail has already been set high. It will be interesting to see if sheer scale can scale this or more ingenuity and innovation will come to play. Consumer is winning for sure in either case, irrespective of the government.

(this is an abridged version of the an article I wrote, awaiting publication)

Saturday, September 01, 2012


Onio has been sending out a quarterly update of  happenings and inspirations on Innovation and Design at Onio, as a newsletter 'Onion Peels'. This time when we sent the newsletter one of the replies caught my attention. While the context is set in India, yet it applies to several other parts of the World. Also the things mentioned are taken for granted now, yet to imagine a situation a few years back reminds us of the blessings (our generation) have and that we are a part of the mega-change that is taking place in India. Story-telling is an art and this email brings out the best of a hidden story-teller in a scientist (the author of this email) par-excellance. Thank you Mr. Mukherjee for this wonderful expression.

"Dear Manoj,

Just wanted to give my feedback......

It was great reading PEELS and really reflects on a setup that's full of energy and transformation be it in Design or Branding.

It was especially interesting to read the experiences of Ms. Fee Schmidt Soltau that she has so eloquently brought out. What caught my imagination that standing on your terrace she noticed the change that our country is going through. Probably we are so much part of it and deeply involved in our small way that we just fail to notice.....

This also got me thinking on the changes that we are seeing in our life time ( I take it that we belong to roughly the same generation....). Some of the amazing things that's personally left me gazing and thinking sometimes maybe small but have affected each and everyone of us. I thought of just sharing them with you :

a. Would you imagine the great ecstasy when I used the ATM for the first time maybe just about  10 years back before which we all used to spend hours in the bank with tokens and waiting endlessly for our call..... One cannot wonder how we have been able to network this all over our vast country where you can access your account anywhere and anytime. Believe me I have been amazed when I could access this in remotest places which sometimes my tours take me....

b. A similar experience has been with Railway booking and I can't forget my initial days of service when I used to spend minimum half a day patiently waiting with a small form in my hand hoping that the counter shall not close for lunch. Now you can do the same on your laptop or mobile and we take it so much for granted. Just imagine the vast rail network and millions of people would have thought this would not be possible in India.

Better graphics - better future -  Mumbai airport

c. Mobile communication is also one wonder of such change and transformation. Seeing the newspaper-man or doodhwala coming in a three wheeler (you no more see them on cycles)  talking on a mobile really brings a smile as again during my first posting, I was in Manali, HP where there was one blooming telephone in the post office and we would trudge 3-4 km on Sat-Sun just to see if it was working and if we could get in queue with a hope to talk to our families and loved ones back home.

d. One also cannot forget the revolution that that the auto industry has brought about. My office with 750 employees used to work in 1991 had two cars which were personally owned and we used to stare in awe when they drove by.....(can you imagine one was an open hood standard like the old Hindi movies with Rajesh Khanna or Dev Anand etc....). Today our office is so flooded with 4 wheelers that parking is a problem.

e. Another marvel I have witnessed is Air travel which we cannot but be in awe of. Could any of us imagine that in barely about the last 10 years this amazing change has happened. When I see families taking out their Dabbas in the 'no frill' flights and share parathas and achaar with their co-travellers it again leaves me wondering. Thats a WOW experience deep down....

There are so many other such amazing marvels that have happened in our generation that I feel fortunate as well as honoured to be part of it because don't forget that maybe 50 + years from now future generations will look back and wonder at what and how WE made it happen. That's the driving force that motivates each one of us ........

I guess that says it all since you and your team at Onio are so much part of it, churning out bright new ideas and innovating on a daily basis bringing about that change that shall make history. I personally have also gained a lot each time I visited you just watching your team strive with that positive energy and full of vigour."
Ms. Fee Schmidt Soltau had interned  with Onio an year back. She was involved in a cross-continental brand-strategy assignment with me. Briefly she touch upon some changes India is going through, in her letter. This feedback letter was from Mr. Alok Mukherjee, a senior scientist with one of the defence labs in India. As Onio, we have been privileged to be working on several assignments with defence labs and the brilliant scientist working there, in the past eight years. Mr. Mukherjee was the one who spotted us first, through a news piece on Onio several years back. It has been a wonderful experience working with him all the way through. As Onio, we are proud of the country's defence labs.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Jugaad has become a celebrated Indian mindset that makes wonderful contraptions out of literally nothing, keeps the life going in difficult situations and earns a lot of respect in the community of innovators. Books have been published. A large collection of indigenous innovations are with National Innovation Council. More is being discussed now in celebrated management schools.

My first interaction with so called jugaad was when I was still in school and used to see a ‘tractor like vehicle’ roaming around in the village streets. This was essentially an irrigation pump used as a tractor engine with extra fitments of gear box, steering, wheels and a career trolley behind. Once this contraption reaches the fields, the farmer can take off the engine and use it as a regular water pump by the well. This was really an ingenuous idea of making use of things at disposal. Seeing connections in the scattered reality, making connection between the needs and the resources is jugaad. Grill Bears, the anchor of Man and the Wild tele-series on Discovery displays jugaad mind at every step of his journey. Making a make-shift shelter out of dead-animal skin in the Arctic, is about Jugaad; using socks to soak the water dripping from the rock and wringing that to drink is jugaad. Survival drives innovation. That is jugaad. But can this survival technique be used as a mass-solution to drinking water problem? No. In other words, can we drive a mind to really have a socks-soaking mode in a corporate realm? No. Answer is not so simple. Situations are not so simple. Individual insights have limited play in today’s world of innovation.

War-craft jugaad-toy made by a kid

Entire Jugaad-play kit

Mr. Ratan Tata is a great visionary and owner of one of the best known brand from the emerging world. Yet, his individual insight on a small car fell short of living the dream so far. Stories were written and are being written. Nano will surely see success one day, I am sure about it. But, not so far.

The point here is this- India today, does NOT need jugaad. Jugaad as a mindset is okay for some people to solve some situations for a limited period of time. Time for quick-fixes is over. Quick-fixing has actually killed people. It has tarnished the image of the country as the one producing poor quality products and manpower. Half the engineering graduates produced by this country are not immediately employable (several research reports show that). From hospitality to software industry, all rue the fact that Indians take twice the amount of time/manpower for the same job than a westerner. Poor joinery and poor quality of products around us is a result of this quick fix innovation, apart from the corrupt practices. Today, when India is struggling its way up to an economic superpower and people are ready to consume the better things in the world, it is time for an antidote to jugaad. I would call it Jugadesign. Sorry for adding new gibberish to an already confused world of innovation and design. But this is what we need. With all the freshness of Jugaad, we need to add the structured and comprehensive solution that ‘design thinking’ offers. Some amount of holism and integrated thinking is the need of the hour. A product is not just about ‘function’- today it is as much about materials, technology, psychology, ergonomics, economics and sometimes about politics. Jugaad-mind cannot handle all this load. Under the garb of quick and simple solution, it breaks the society’s alignment on all that is long-lasting, reliable, aesthetically pleasing and morally right. Power-yoga and hot-yoga etc. are good for the west, which is done with certain basics and is trying to find the zing in every thing new. For the emerging countries, it is time to look at things that no doubt are locally insightful & refreshingly innovative, but also holistically thought out, aesthetically pleasing and structured for long-life. So much for a small contribution to a sustainable world!! Live long.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


No, it is not about the statistics. There is no dearth of numbers when it comes to rural India. Internet is full of it.  In short, 1.2 billion people in 600,000 villages ready to consume modern goods, are an eye candy for every company looking at Indian market keenly. Though 70 % of total population lives in rural areas in India and primarily engaged in agriculture, ends-up contributing only 19% to India’s GDP. While the overall penetration of urban goodies like TV, refrigerator or a motor bike is still very low yet the rate of growth (more than 40% in certain categories YoY) is highly promising, compared to urban markets. Indian government has been focusing on rural India through several schemes in recent past through women’s education, national rural health mission, rural road schemes, employment guarantee schemes etc. We have started seeing stories of women sarpanch from the villages, corporate from municipal councils and parliament is also talking of women’s quota in the parliament. Television as a media, reaches 92% of the Indian population. Mobile phone is now reaching close to 62% of Indian population (in some states it is close to 80%). People in rural India see and hear the same things that urban India drools for. CSR activities from several corporate are reaching villages and doing two fold transformation a) of infrastructure b) of awareness. Migration to cities has not stopped and nor is it going to stop in the next decade. It will continue. But at the same time, reverse-migration i.e. educated urbanites settling down as a novice but organized farmers, is also a reality.

Change is visible. One can see a lot of rural women becoming aware vocal. Electricity and the fruits of electricity is becoming a key to a village’s overall growth. As the modernity is being pressure injected through television and other media, the rural India is on a cusp of tradition and modernity. Sociologists and marketers are raising a question whether the core Indian DNA will manifest at all in the future consumption or will it just get subdued in the poring goodies.  Will they turn all American in next few years? Will they clinch the fist and close themselves to the cultural onslaught? Will the women in rural India, become career-takers from care-takers? Agriculture will become more or an urban-organised culture? Will the migration ever stop? Focus on simple living and high-thinking ever manifest again as a core Indian way of living?

Onio has been working on some innovation projects targeted at rural India for the last few years. Through our socio-cultural research methods, we have been preparing our own map of what might evolve as the cultural code of rural India in next few years to come.

1.      Modernity, as we know MUST turn Indian:  A rural Indian will need a TV. But it may not necessarily mean a black glossy slab of glass. Black is inauspicious. Indian eyes are aligned to seeing saturated colours and ornate objects. While digital entertainment is a reality, SAMAGRA aesthetics and SADAIV features are the Indian take on the products.

2.      Role reversals for productivity:  Rural Indians migrate to urban areas for better job prospects. Urban consumer companies and high net-worth individuals are going back to villages to set the new trend of organized agriculture. Processed food industry is growing by leaps and bounds and there is a dearth of large scale land farming. Very soon, these role reversals will generate a huge new opportunity in several sectors.

3.      Predicatability Predicament: Modernity brings predictability. Patience and reliance on nature is set to become passé. Switch-on, switch-off culture is tearing the urban minds down. Rural folks will be no different in times to come. Role of modern education, which is highly sought after today, will fuel this.

4.      Retreat & hardening: Tolerance was one of the core Indian virtues, preserved through the years. We can see that dwindling in cities. Whole of rural population will refuse to turn to the blind lane of modernity. Barring a few essential consumption items, this set of consumers will create a hardened shell around them. Some of the recent happenings in Khap Panchayats of Haryana are a living proof of these. These groups of people may resist the modernity and changes through a cult of social oppression. Another evidence of this seen in Asians living in the west who desperately try to preserve their own culture and some time end-up being more conservative than their own countrymen.

 One of the sure outcome is that rural market will stop getting treated as an alien markets. We are not doing business with strange creatures. The core Indian DNA that runs through an urban consumer, will also define the behavior of a far-off rural consumer…with minor tweaks.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Another conference on design;  May 29-30th, London. Impressive speakers and generic topic; which allowed everyone to stretch the content to their own interpretations.  This was my first impression in this conference where I was amongst the speakers. My impression changed.

I have been to several design conferences around the globe, speaking sometimes and listening to others at times. This was rather focused on Product Design with an added dash of innovation. In the world where ‘design’ is still, by and large, considered to be equivalent to ‘art’ or ‘good looks’ and when a whole lot of new streams like ‘interface design’ and ‘gaming design’ has taken birth, it was rather a classical confluence of minds discussing ‘product design’. 

Venue : Excel Center (massive infrastructure built near the Olympic Stadium)
in  the eastern London is in the far background, along the wharf.
Abandoned structures of the port have been retained as a piece of sculpture
As a design student seventeen years ago, I had only heard of Seymore Powell as an international design company and Philips as a grand manufacturer of ‘well designed objects’. BMW, McLaren etc. were car brands that were registered and canned in my mind as ‘unapproachable’ since luxury/sports brands guard their design secrets like crazy. On the other hand British Design was limited in my awareness as ‘good’ and ‘too many design graduates’, apart from some flickers of British Airways flat bed design by Tangerine and good signage at London underground etc.  Interacting with and listening to the design champions like Dick Powell, Sean Carney (Philips), Louis Kim (HP), Clive Grinyer (Cisco, ex-Tangerine), Sunghan Kim (Samsung), Allesandro Finetto (Whirlpool) etc. was a positive reinforcement , if not a knowledge nirvana, of several practices I have developed at Onio in the last fifteen years. It was interesting to see how Samsung, as a late entrant in the race which was has been won several times by companies like Whirlpool, Philips and HP, has really caught up with the game. Samsung’s presentation showed all signs of a company maturing in its thinking toward handling a large scale and meaningful innovation. Sunghan Kim’s presentation on how they go from ‘vision design’ to ‘platform design’ to ‘archetype design’ to ‘range design’ as a process did point to the direction that Samsung will soon have a strong semiotic language like Sony (who is losing it to Samsung).

The venue inside the Excel Center
I was the only speaker from the Indian subcontinent. One could see how an audience of nearly 240 people relished the change of flavor from ‘International’ to India, towards the end of the first day. It was surprising to see how my assimilation on core Indian design traits like ‘Longevity’, ‘Collective Wisdom’, and ‘Value thinking’ were precisely the same as spelt out by Cathy, my Chinese counterpart in the panel. I presented the tale of growth of design and innovation in India through three cases of Onio’s recent work. Several people in the audience later came up and told me that they were pleasantly surprised that design in India has reached the level of ‘cultural semiotics’ thinking or ‘global platform thinking driven by local usability’ as my presentation outlined.

Another contrast that struck me was that almost all the speakers mentioned that people, business and technology were the three pillars for any research on innovation. People either forgot ‘brand’ as the fourth pillar or simply took it to be ‘a part of business’. Brand, in the emerging economy is an important lever for innovation. If properly researched, a brand character combined with cultural semiotics, can result into multi-fold returns on investment on innovation.

There was a session dedicated to Trends and David Smith did a great job outlining the mega-trends impinging on the World. A healthy discussion also ensued post Prof. James Wodhuysen’s passionate presentation on ‘not design, but innovation led by technology’ will change the world.

There was a lot of discussion around Nano car from Tata and its failure to capture the intended rural and poor urban markets. I tried to dispel some myths (as I know of them) around some fantastic frugal innovation platforms from India, like Nano and Chotukool (by Godrej). In my mind, the next round of these products will be the winner round.

The only participant delegate from India was Aparna Piramal, a friend, industrialist (of BP Ergo) and a design journalist (for Mint) bundled in one. Interestingly, nearly 50% participants were direct brand owners in the industries and only 10% from the academia (rare, in such conferences).  

Is 3D printing, the technology of future or just another fad which remains on the fringes of the main stream innovation- this was another question discussed in the conference. Real implications of ‘sustainable thinking’ with respect to new polymers, manufacturing practices and product design were discussed as well. But it was clear that there is a long way to go.

Emergent note in the conference was surely the focus on emerging markets, emerging technologies, and emerging methodologies, in that order. It was indeed a well organised conference (by Crain Communications of UK) which generated a lot of traction amongst the industry worldwide. And yes, speakers didn't cross the time limit allotted to them.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Emperor of the New Bind

An advice for freshers in the creative industry

Over fifteen years now, we have been involved in recruiting designers and other personnel connected to creative industry. Every month now, at least a hundred resume and portfolios from fresh graduates land-up on our company email, seeking internship or employment. In a small company like ours, it sometimes becomes difficult even to acknowledge all of them. Surprisingly, in an industry that is 50 years old in India, it is difficult to find people with experience more than five years on a consistent area/platform. So the creative industry, especially designers, ends up employing a whole younger lot. I have been noticing that there has been a change in expectations from ‘fresher’ in the profession. Our own knowledge leadership in some areas has progressed from just 'product design' or 'graphic design' swiftly to ‘Design Research’, ‘India Insights’, ‘Megatrends & Foresighting’, ‘Productisation’  'Creative Engineering' etc. while speed of delivery, like any other field, has also gone up. I thought it would be good to jot down some of the basics that we struggle to inculcate in the freshers. Infact this may be useful to all ‘freshers in the service industry’ on how to prepare brace for the changing professional world around them.

1.      QUICK PRIMING:  Lead team goes and meets clients. Understands their business complexity and vision stages. Team also expounds the work done earlier at Onio at length and comes back charged with the mandate to be handed over to the creative team. At this juncture, seniors in the team are looking for quick resonances of the though process within the team. A classical mind suggests “this is just the beginning of the assignment...just collecting information right now”- While the new mind actually puts the project on the mental assembly line already. Mind starts searching immediate correlations, possibilities and some time even some preliminary thoughts on outcome, without getting attached to it.  In a days’ time, the new mind has actually chewed the content and it is now ready with a set of some important questions for the client. New mind’s best tool is Google and the best friend is solitude. New mind is absorbs fast and tries to run concurrently on conception and delivery.

2.      STRUCTURE IT: Sun Tzu says in the ‘Art of War’- “that army shall win which arrives first and waits for the enemy”. In the era of downpour of information and reducing attention span, it is stupid to let the audience /boss/client structure the content pushed down to them. People want to grab the sense of everything you are saying, top down i.e. they quickly want to understand the macro-context and then a ‘bit’ of micro. Rarely someone wants to go whole hog in your presentations. We work with European clients as well with Asian clients. Koreans would insist on putting complete story on one slide, with top five conclusions/actions also. While Europeans would call it kitsch and would go in a more story telling way. However, our experience shows that the world is tilting to East now. How fast a person can assimilate thoughts and how smoothly one can put them in visual hierarchy, gets the cake.

3.      HOT FRONT SEATING:  It is usually cozy back there. The one on the front has to go through the grill of handling comments and expectation on the opposite ends. Sooner one gets the taste of being there on the front, the faster his/her personality gets the boost. Those who let themselves fall in the background, remain untouched from the brutal shocks of ‘prim and proper communication’, tight deadlines, negotiation on the delivery front etc., but they also lose all the glamour of meeting high & the mighty, travel to far off places and also building a personal brand.

4.      10000 HOUR RULE STAYS: Well this is not my proposition. Malcom Gladwell already proposed it in ‘Outliers’. I am just copying it for the sake of validating his point of view and supporting it with my experience. We have seen how smooth talkers with no-substance winning the first chance, but sooner or later, they fall like a dry leaf. Getting a good command on any domain and any skill is going to take years. More than often, you would need a good guide and a mentor in the initial years, who could happen to be a tough boss. Persevere it. People who found their way inside Onio by being street smart were also shown the street soon Organisation has its own mind. System, sooner of later, ejects a person not really fitting in. On the contrary, those who began humbly; built their skills brick by brick and remained honest about it, proved to be the winners and became a darling of the team.

5.      POSITIVITY MEETS POSITIVITY: As one enters the organization, one comes across a variety of people and a variety of vibes. A happy lot will be envied. A disgruntled lot will try to increase their clout. The neutral lot will try to see the newbie with indifference and “let’s see” eyes. It is up to the new entrant, to pick up the right side of the situation. No system can hang in negativity for long. It resolves itself one way or the other. So make sure to listen to those who are still anchoring positivity. There must be deeper reasons. 

6.      CURATE YOUR WORK: Care for your work and your work place like ‘painting of the Monalisa in Louvre’ respectively. However ordinary the job and the work place is, it must be taken just about a little less than the worship (equating the daily work to worship, denigrates the spiritual realm, in my opinion).  People who forget to close the door behind or to put the chair back in place when they leave, are actually the people who can’t find the document in time or can’t recall an important conversation with the client. People who were found to be careless in communication were also the people who were careless in their work. Though there are exceptions everywhere. Seniors are always looking for a person whom they can trust for full delivery of a task assigned. People who are half committed to themselves, are also half committed to the work and the company they are working for.

AUTOEXPO 2012 - Memoirs

Better late then never. This post was written long back...didn't get to post it.

We chose to go there on non-media and non press day, primarily to see how consumers react to the new launches and experiences created by the emerging biggest auto market of the world. And just to put on the record, people/consumers didn’t disappoint us, but the new products on display did.

Queue to get into the Autoexpo- of those, who had a valid ticket

Car colors are spilling over to LCVs now

One of the eye-catcher styling- Renault Dezir

Real-Virtual integration at Maruti Stall- LIKES
on facebook are displayed instantly on the large screen at the entry and exit

Camera styling now crossing over to scooters- TVS Qube

Affable styling of Maruti XAlpha concept- reminds of Swift- the hot seller
hatchback small car

BMW stall- Launching the Mini - Thanks for lifting it up for public view- Crowd swelled to unbearable levels later

Entering the expo at 11am in the morning, we were on our toes till 6pm in the evening. Seven hours of visual blitzkrieg and several pulls and pushes in the crowd, left us utterly tired. We entered through gate seven, and headed straight to Maruti pavilion. Lack of proper signage is not something new to Indian eyes. While malls, roads, airports and hospitals are getting the due upgrades which India didn’t think, will happen to it so fast, signage and navigation guidance is a missing piece in the puzzle. Western best practices of certain distance, and certain signage are followed, but the kind of crowd that swells up in India is something unforeseen under ‘global best practices’. We need bolder and bigger signboard that can be read from 30-40 feet away. Signboards that are placed below 10 feet height get obscured by the people themselves. Once inside the venue, you are literally left to guide yourselves by looking at the tallest hoardings/banners of the halls. Later, I noticed some people passing by the hall, where huge banner of Mahindra was hanging (though the brands like Renault, Enfield, Hero, Bajaj were also present), saying “arey chal, Mahindra ko kya dekhna ( hey, let’s skip Mahindra)”.  Searching for toilets was not so difficult. One can just ask any guard and he promptly points the direction. However, there were no sign of the signage here, which is assumed to be a basic mandate for any event of this size.

Maruti, stall stood out, in my opinion on several counts. It did present an aggressive styling stance in the new concepts, missing so far in vanilla mode it has been running. The small SUV styled on the lines of Swift, appeared to have got the elements of bold and robust styling along with elegance of the Swift. Indian sensibilities are not tuned to the extremes. Or I would say, there is a feminine touch to styling that Indian mind seeks. XUV of Mahindra has been styled with ‘prancing leopard’ as an inspiration yet it does appear ‘feminised’ in several elements. I also overheard that though Maruti presents several new ideas and refreshing styling in the concept models, but fails miserably in translating them into real products.  Maruti’s application of new color scheme on the existing models was refreshing. Use of multi-hued matt-metallic colors was refreshing. It was a sort of déjà-vu for us, as we had forecasted these colors for mobile phone two years back. Trickle down of trends from accessories to automobiles takes this much time. Another interesting element common to many stalls but more aggressively used by Maruti was using Facebook registration desk and fingerprint terminals at each display that picks up your ‘likes’ and runs a scroll on a giant screen at the exit. Exhibition design today is getting digital more and more. TVS stall had a giant cylindrical screen (360 degree), of around 10 meters diameter, with a co-ordinated projection through several projectors, creating a seamless experience of giant screen around you. Later, I met the MD of Insta Group in the flight on way back to Pune, the company who designed and executed the stall. I did congratulate him for the good work here and how his small company, which has acquired a  few companies abroad, is trying to make an Indian dent in the global exhibition industry.

In 2006, when we conducted the first ever Mega-trends conference in India, along with Style-Vision of France, the film ‘Dhoom’ was just released. The trend ‘Magic Kingdom’ took note of the economic and infrastructure revolution in the country and predicted that everything mega, over sized, super-powered and over designed is about to come to the country. One can see the power-bikes on display at Autoexpo and can see that this trend has matured. From TVS to Suzuki to Hero, all had put up ‘power’ version of the bikes. Polaris had put up the off-roaders on display. As the Trend ‘Hypershift’ predicts the boom in ‘activities’ rather than ‘relaxation’, in the times to come, off-roaders and SUVs or SUV looks are a foregone conclusion in automotives.

My personal favorite in styling was Renault’s Dezir. The sensuous curves of Ferrari legacy were well contrasted with Techno-fluid grills. Bionic design of seats,  gull-wing doors,  combined with magical use of LEDs were some of the interior elements that complemented the styling. Pixel from Tata was another refreshing styling. Reva redesign proved to be disappointing. Rear treatment of Reva made it look more boxier than it currently looks.

Bajaj’s RE-60 seemed to have lost the sheen it originally envisaged. People commenting on TV “arey, auto ko ek wheel aur laga diya hai (just another wheel added to the autorickshaw)”, had already toned down expectations.  We got to know that the primary market for RE-60 may actually be south-east Asian market rather than India. My own calculation with regards to Indian auto-market is that Bajaj is committing the same positioning mistake that Tata did with Nano. For an autorikshaw owner, Nano might now appear a worthwhile option after spending few more bucks. Indian consumers still get driven not by absolute virtues, but with relative comparisons. In my opinion, Bajaj should quickly plan another upstream product in small car range to fully utilize the potential of the innovation they have cobbled together without a foreign partner.

One of the noticeable things this time, at least for me, was presence of ‘Brand accessories’ by Enfield and Yamaha. Though the Enfield stall was badly designed the write-ups and the display of brand accessories was impressive. India is just about beginning to get the taste of ‘brand cults’, which are a purely western phenomenon.

We could not see the BMWs, Volkswagen, Merc stalls closely as the crowd swelled to a level where you are guided by the push and pulls of the crowd. One of the things common between them was that unlike others, despite having a large exhibition area, they enclose the stalls from the top also and use empty spaces and lights to maximize the appeal.

Overall, this year’s autoexpo proved to be standing at a lower alter than I expected. It did not have enough inspiring content- products, displays, event management and the perennial hunt  ‘India Insights’ – all seemed to be wanting. Probably this is the reason that this blog post I wrote immediately after coming back from the expo, yet it is being put on the net after four months.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

India Trending 2012

As 2011 ended, the last week of the year was a good time to socialise a bit. As an innovation strategist, I think it is a blessing to be living in a middle-class housing society. I don’t need to travel too far for insights into consumer innovation for India. It happens right in my house and also next door. My house is located in one of the suburbs of Pune, which earlier used to be a satellite town of Pune and today is probably in the heart of the city. Next to our gated community (somewhat dated building by now), there is a small slum settlement, which is a good source of support manpower – drivers, house-maids, cleaners, painters etc. Our house-help, who lives there is a constant source of updates on what is happening in the rural belt of the region; what is the prevailing political mood around during the local elections etc. Residents of our housing society are an upwardly mobile crowd with both the spouses in a family gainfully employed. Since our building is close to a busy street, I can walk down to purchase daily consumables and at the same time visit a bank, gym or a sports stadium - all at a walking distance.  Thus I get a wide range of spectrum to catch the pulse of people.

A fellow resident happens to be a distributor of luxury eyewear in the state. I asked him if there was any pointer to a ‘double-dip’ in his business. He said that the overall quantity being sold has literally doubled in the year gone by. His company is on a launching spree of exclusive stores and that is allowing it to offer a wider range of eyewear which earlier was limited to only a few designs (sold through the shop-in-shop format). A data check suggests that the luxury segment in India is anyway growing at 20% CAGR, which validates my neighbour’s corroboration. Even as 60% malls are underperforming in India, the categories, which are missing exclusive retailing experiences, still have sufficient retailing ground in terms of footfalls and revenues.

Another neighbour who is a manager in a manufacturing company drives a compact, entry-level car and has a grown-up son who is yet to start earning. He recently purchased an ‘Enfield Bullet’ bike for him. Our conversation revealed to me how his son had been pestering for a specific brand. Enfield is a revived retro-bike brand, doing very well in India. He also told me how power bikes are a craze in his son’s friend circle. I found out later that, another fellow resident who also drives a compact Maruti Suzuki car had gone out of the way to purchase a ‘Yamaha Fazer’ bike for his son. In the Indian context, a USD 2000 bike is costly indulgence for an ordinary family (annual family income below USD 12,000). Motorcycle market is another promising market of India, growing at over 17% annually.

Bikes or bicycles with gears are a new aspiration for kids in the five to 15 age group, but only second to gaming. It is amazing to see bicycle stores coming up in the city selling kids’ bikes for upwards of Rs. 5000 going all the way up to few thousand dollars (not rupees).  A city kid who is just seven, is able to specifically mention the brand he wants to purchase  and also the accessories such as suspension, eighteen gears, pedal brakes etc.. ‘Gizmofication’ of their lives is being fuelled by TV shows  like Power Ranger and easy availability of computer games. PSP, Wii, PS2, PS3 etc. are now a part of common vocabulary. Walkman or iPod now no longer are the aspiration, and are probably becoming an accessory for the older generation. My son who went to meet his friend (both study in the 6th grade) was surprised to see his friend constantly busy with extra tuitions, while his father, constantly playing on PS3. Electronic malls like Tata Retail’s Croma , now stock many ‘odd gadgets’ apart from massagers which were earlier stuffed only with white goods and computers. Our own trend prediction ‘Hypershift’ calls for binding innovation to ‘activities’ rather than ‘single need’. For example, a chair is not to be designed only to ‘sit comfortably’ but for ‘muscle activity’ & ‘mind activity’ instead. Combining gadgets that track and reward your muscle activities while sitting, is one of the ideas many start-ups are working on, around the world.

 Mobility for working women in India 2011
LED revolution is happening around the world. As part of the on-going research at Onio, one of our teammates recently purchased an LED lamp, which took us by surprise. It was a Chinese product, resembling an ordinary LED retrofit bulb with a mode selector switch. During a power outage, this bulb can be shifted on battery mode and can operate for 8 hours. Priced around Rs. 200 (USD <5) apiece, it is a boon for what can be done with LED lights in India. Another friend of mine who lives in an upmarket gated community in Pune, changed the common lighting of his residential complex, into LED-based lighting, saving nearly half the electricity expense every month (nearly USD 6000 every year) besides of course saving natural resources. He said the ingenuous masterstroke was to retain the existing lighting fixtures and just make them LED adaptable through extra fitments. This saved a lot of replacement cost.

Trends have been usually understood in the ‘fashion design ‘parlance. Of late, I have started seeing business conferences around the world, including a session on Trends or Mega Trends, connecting them to business strategy. Onio has been organising ‘Insight India’ conferences since 2006. As we usher in another new year, I am looking forward to tie these tiny pearls of insights into a common thread of Megatrends, around the time when Pune Design Festival unfolds in Pune (tentatively around the first week of February 2012). Look out for Pune Design Festival – Trends to Business Strategy Workshop by Onio.