Wednesday, August 21, 2013

WHAT IS THE NEXT 'SWIFT' CODE- my article in AUTOMONITOR, Aug 19, 2013 issue

How to create another successful car like Maruti-Suzuki SWIFT for India that history will remember-

Saturday, May 25, 2013

In which we serve | Minds of Indian ' Design' clients

Fifteen years back when we started Onio, we were soon sitting in front of an Indian consumer durable company chief who asked us how many years of experience we had, since they were used to Italian designers who have spent several decades designing TVs. Of course we had no years backing us up, while we said that we bring the fresh perspective to entire design philosophy.

Since then, years passed and we worked with multitude of clients and evolved an entirely new niche for ourselves- Design Research. We get more than half of our revenue from innovation/design research that encompasses ethnography, consumer segmentation, concept directions, color research, brand strategy and future scenarios. It just occurred to me that we have been meeting clients with mind-sets that tend to repeat. I would think of these mind-sets as reflection of the times we live in; the zeitgeist of some sort. It reflects what India is passing through. Though this write-up is coloured from the point of view of a design company interacting with the business, however it will also help people who are doing in business in India, in general. It will be also interesting to contrast it with my observations published in Business Week in 2007

1.     Badi Dukaan (Big Traditional Shop): World of retail is changing. Big glossy, world class malls are now taking the route to smaller cities also. In the rush and competition to these malls and stores, the traditional ‘lala-ki-dukaan’ (trader’s shop) is changing too- in its wares and mind-set...sometimes rather painfully. Generations are crossroads. Old generation has built the business empire brick by brick and sprawled into several business and verticals. New generation has graduated from Howard and Stanford, raring to go offbeat way and try new stuff, but they don’t have free hands still. Enterprise still runs on a trusted coterie of ‘munshiji’ (the trusted secretary) who may be living in their own world. These organisations are struggling to digest the swift pace of modernity and young enterprise that India is overflowing with. Hierarchy and protocols are still layered here. To get to the chairman is a big deal, to get to talk to him is bigger and to have a chai with him is the biggest. People around him create a mammoth out of his personality. This organisation dislikes taking risks which no one else has taken. They would pay through the nose to hire the best foreign consultant available but to implement what he /she has suggested, they would rather rely on the ‘munshiji’, who would build his own interpretations of the entire initiative. Best thing to happen to them is a trusted business model, large volumes and submissive people. Foreign acquisitions are happening because all their peers are doing that. They are undergoing a struggle to liberate themselves in the new economy. They are passing through the delivery pains of what to retain of the glorious past and what to adopt from the sparkling future.  

 Getting a design brief right, is rather tough task here. What the marketing/design manager communicates to the consultant company may go for a toss when one gets to hear from the top boss. The brief is no longer a brief. It is reinvented with every face. The narrow lanes of this ‘dukaan’ open broad wide open once you pleased the top man with your wares.

2.      Nayi Factory (the new factory) : Factory as a metaphor signifies the old world impression of a large manufacturing unit with thousands or hundreds of people working. Rules are laid out and everyone follows the line. Factory owner, even in the recent times, holds a different awe in the minds of hinterlands of India. ‘New factory’ is the metaphor about change and awe for the betterment. Japanese consultants are brought in to bring in better systems and machines have are brought  from Germany and a few professional managers are running the show. Since they are producing so it has to sell; and sell in the highly competitive market. Ads blitz is not new to them and this company and brand is visible to many Indians. They are learning the new tricks of the trade fast and even going on the social media. They have done some fantastic acquisitions abroad and they are pushing the borders of Indian ethos to the other shores. They are open to new thinking but implementation is still a far cry. They have hired several top notch professionals in the industry but nothing really moves if the ‘family’ does not have a go ahead. Yet they are a bright spot in the Indian business topography. They are the bright new flame, though wavering now and then, of the emerging Indian innovation and design mind. They are looking at words like ‘brand semiotics’ curiously, but hesitating to step on to it. They like the word ‘ethnography’ but it is just another work for marketing. They are building the brand-India beyond the known shores but within India, they are struggling with the wares of yesterday. Bright future, surely lies ahead.

An innovation/research/design initiative here is taken seriously and managers are self motivated. They stay long within the same company. They are the people to please with your acumen. If they are happy, they will provide a ladder to the top. On the other hand, if the you happen to know the top man through some connect, the team down under will be friendly to you anyways.

3.       The Hotel: Any guest at a hotel gets the treatment that is usually not dependent on how big is his house or car. You are treated by virtue of a being guest on the premise. As a practising design company, someone who is deeply engaged with Indian consumers and Indian innovation, brings out the insights in the way world can understand in full context- foreign multinationals give us a feeling of being a guest in the luxury hotel. They see you as you are- an expert- not another chip in the block- or not a petty vendor who will have to wait for ages to have a handshake with the boss.  Though rather surgical- come, meet, work, go- these organisation still provide a respite from myriad and sometimes eccentric ways of working of the first two categories. India is providing a large untapped market to the whole world. So the companies who are here for a long term, are taking serious steps to understand the consumers and relevant innovation context. Also, in terms of sheer return on investment- time taken to communicate, time taken to deliver, time taken to get the payments- everything is rather smoother due to ‘systems’ being in place.

Best way into this ‘hotel’ is your acumen. Good place to meet these people is at a conference somewhere outside India.
4.      The Riyaasat (the small kingdom): This is the kingdom of the new age king. It is the one man’s kingdom, however small, that builds efficiency and vision into the dealings. Entrepreneurs,  have seen the highs and the lows of the business, but they have steered the ship clear and now enjoying the benefits of the new found land- fall under this category. They are now raring to go to explore the territory and flushed with funds for that. They run their enterprise with complete stranglehold but also have much stronger drive to take up new risks compared to the first category.  Once they are convinced about your capabilities and trust, you are a fellow king. Should there be a chance of mistrust and you are a dead-man.

New projects begin here with all zeal and zest, but pressing priorities of everyday, can derail the project despite noble intentions. Make hay while the sun shines!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Learnings from Ladakh

It has been on my mind to write this down. A trip to a hill station in summer could at best make up for a travelogue. However, Leh, the remote Himalayan town up north in India, left me diving deeper into world of meanings. Here is a small account of what I reaped. It IS a long post...

Play of colors in the Karakoram range ahead of Leh

Leh is the capital of Ladakh. Ladakh is a territory, a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. Ladakh touches China on one side and Pakistan on another. It touches the ancient silk route. The town overall has a Buddhist air. The history is filled with attacks and influences Mongols, Persians invaders and hence it has a mixed populace of Buddhists and Muslims. At the altitude of 3.5km above sea level air is already thin. It becomes thinner and more difficult to breathe at the height of 5.6km above the sea level at the highest motorable pass-Khardungla, which connects to Leh.  Being a border town military is everywhere. Take a snapshot of a market place and one in ten people in the crowd is a military man. It is a desert at high altitude, nothing really grows there in terms of vegetation. Six months of the year, people live solitary life, cut-off from the rest of the world as tourist season gets over and white (snow) is the color of everything around. This was for a quickest introduction of the place, now here is what made this trip so very special for an insight seeker-

1.       SURVIVING THE LACK OF OXYGEN AND THE BUSINESS: I had never experienced what it means to be in a less oxygen situation, till now. Closed rooms without proper ventilation for corporate meetings was the closest reminder to what I felt there. If cash is ‘oxygen’ for business, then yes, we felt it several times at my company. We were caught off guard by the ‘mountain sickness’ as we were just air-dropped into a high altitude, without pre-emptive medication. When there is a lack of oxygen, you develop headache and feel giddy. Sense of orientation goes for a toss. We were advised to reduce are physical activities i.e. even walking, to the minimal during this phase of acclimatisation.  Rigorous activities burden the breathing apparatus even more. So best idea is to sit in the room for a day and catch-up with the family, organise things etc. Thinking of the slow-down times, while it is good to keep trying for new sources of business we must remember that ‘too much activity’ will actually drain us out. A simple thing like taking a flight to meet a prospective customer needs to be weighed carefully as flight costs a lot of money. Try to get the things done as much as possible on internet. At the same time, if you try to sleep due to drowsiness, it will lead to a coma. Sleeping is the worst thing one can do when there is less Oxygen. Now, this sounds like a common sense but the problem is amplified in real situations.

Also, the people who travelled on road to reach this place were better off in tackling the altitude sickness compared to people like us who were just air-dropped here from a regular city. We also didn’t take the highly prescribed Diamox tablet early enough, thinking that we are strong enough and tablets are for people who never go to gym J. When the hard times hit, people who usually splurge are hit the worst. The stamina that appears as stamina in good times, is different from the stamina in bad times. While parents always insist on ‘not to spend too much’, no child really listens. This was a grim reminder to some basics of life being so omnipresent.

2.       Compassion and  gratitude: We took a cab from Leh to go to Nubra valley- an area in the plains of Sarayu river, 100 km away from Leh. Khardungla pass connects Leh and Nubra valley. The famous or rather infamous Siachin glacier is just ahead of Nubra area. The tortuous hilly ride through the snow capped roads, was being beautifully negotiated by our cab driver Akbar Ali, a young man from Kargil area. While we were tackling the breathlessness and lying still in the car when there was a jam on the road due to other cars’ tyres slipping in the snow, he was the one jumping around to help other drivers. I had noticed that he had a peculiar way of adjusting the radio knob in the car. Later we realized that Akbar Ali does not have an index finger in both the hands. On top of that two fingers were conjoint in both the hands, effectively reducing the palm to three fingers. We didn’t realise this all this while, as all his interactions and driving was flawless. After the tense moments of driving on the edge of the mountain for hours, we stopped by an open ground after Khardungla– a riverbed, to take a stroll. I asked him if it bothered him to have hands like this. He calmly answered, “ This is with me since me birth. Many people are born who have much worse situations with their body and they live through the life with them. I am thankful to Allah that I can drive and earn my living”.  My mind went through several instances in personal life where I was frustrated with ‘I want more’ syndrome.
Akbar Ali puts chains the wheel to plough
the vehicle through the snow on the road

On the way back I read some posters on a public wall about focus on ‘compassion’ in Buddhism. Tough living conditions of the region and ‘compassion’ as an overarching life value, makes people ‘grateful’ to the supreme creator for what they have. With compassion and gratefulness, tough times can become the most enriching times.
3.       Innovation for the people on fringes: All this while our focus on innovation has been on the ‘mass products’. Businesses seek ‘scale’ before an idea can be realised. Business viability is not a bad word. It is the very essence of the trade. However, thinking of a few situations made me ponder on alternative way of looking at it:

a.       BSNL v/s Airtel etc. : In the fringe areas, only mobile service present till the last Indian border post is BSNL. While we are gasping for breath at Khardungla pass, one can see tall mobile towers smiling at US. OFC cable or Optical Fibre Cable owned by BSNL has put the marker stones all the way up there. Despite all the dirt in the public spending, it is only an institution like government who can link up the people living on the fringes of existence. Union budget 2013 mentions 1200 crores for setting transmission lines between Kargil and Leh. Yes, border towns need to be pampered a bit more.

b.      Toilets for the snow capped habitations: ‘We have a toilet but it is all frozen’- was a constant comment through the journey up the mountains, as ramshackle restaurants and even military settlements refused to provide a place to even women. Now, this is a genuine problem. Digging a pit and patching it up is the only way even Army seems to be managing there. On one side, Lonely Planet guide, talks of saving the precious drinking water and not use ‘flush toilets’ in the fragile ecology of Leh, on the other side, there is no alternative to the toilets. Wondering if ‘bio-digester’ toilets area reality and should be promoted by organisations like DRDO to stretch them beyond trains on to the mountains.
Modular structures for shelter are in rudimentary state

c.       Solar so much: We have been involved in a few assignments from the social enterprises. Bio-fuel, solar lighting, solar heating, electricity savers, safer kerosene stoves etc. Focus on solar energy is tremendous with unveiling of the Solar Mission 2020 by the government of India. My team mates have been to other remote areas like Kutch in the West and Gangasagar islands in the East studying the right solar energy solutions for people on the fringes. Here in Leh, I saw the ubiquitous solar PV panels even in small houses. At one of the road side restaurants I also saw a solar concentrator (picture below). Laddakh climate is supposed to be the best suited climate for efficient solar electricity from Photo Voltaic panels (sunlight with low temperature is best suited as compared to in Rajasthan where ample sun is accompanied with high temperatures, resulting in significant drop in per square inch electricity generation fro PV panels). I also remember a discussion with conventional battery manufacturer who was keen on making battery based LED lanterns. When I asked then why should people use battery based lanterns in today’s world while Solar is in, his reply was simple –‘It is just easier’. Indeed, it was the case when we were faced with frequent light cuts, no street lights and unpredictable weather which could go cloudy anytime. Battery based LED lanterns were better to manage. The home-stay we rented, had a solar water heater. But it also had an electrical heating override. Means the days, when there is no sun, electrical system does the job. So the solar is arriving and needed but not fully yet.

4.       Cattle-class to Luxury class: General category travel in trains was anointed to be cattle class travel by one of the Indian ministers. I abhor that way of travelling as I spent several years travelling that way. So we hired a taxi (large car) just for two of us. It was a jolly ride till the road had no snow. Once the tyres were deep in snow, vehicles with less occupants inside start slipping and virtually blocking the entire traffic on the narrow stretches. Our driver commented that all the jams are due to tourist vehicles which travel with 2 or 3 passengers at max. Locals travel in mini-buses/Jeeps which are full to the brim and never face the problem of getting stuck in the snow. Something similar all air travellers must have noticed- more than plane is loaded, journey is less turbulent due to more wing loading. In fact, in our journey we had to plead to some people travelling in those mini-buses to grace our car, which they happily did. Luxury gets redefined in some contexts like this one.

5.       We all are just visitors!  We were there at Leh for just five days. Not at all enough to get the sense of the place. People take up voluntary work with NGOs like Snow Leopard Conservancy etc. and stay there for months to support the cause as well as build a sense of connect to the place. Visitor or ‘tourist’ label on us unsettled something within, till I saw a quote by Dalai Lama XIV in one of the local shops –
“We all are visitors on this planet. We are here for one hundred years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. if you contribute to other people's happiness, you will find the true meaning of life.

I have studied Indian philosophical systems including Charvak’s, which says that ‘eat, drink and have fun- there is nothing after death’ and also other systems including Buddhism which believes in reincarnation. At the monastery in the remote town of Disket, I happened to speak to a monk about a painting on a wall depicting the karmic cycle. In the center were three ‘poisons’ of this existence namely ‘Ignorance, Attachment and Desire’, which keep a soul hooked on to the karmic rebirth cycle  (see
for more details) .
    (Karmic Cycle depicted on the fresco behind in Deskit Monastery)
Such plaques for unsung soldiers who died in the duty
of protecting the country, are strewn everywhere
Apart from others what interested me was the concept of ‘demigods’ who are higher than the humans but not relieved of the cycle.. Demigod are still bound by the world of jealousy- depicted in a scene where tree grown on one side is giving fruits to the other households and both are fighting. It was interesting for a student of modern psychology and having studied Maslov’s pyramid of needs, that beyond the needs for self-realisation, there are several births to get rid of the basic needs/poisons :).

Live to Love Ladakh! Juley!!


Tuesday, March 26, 2013


This is a topic that every HR manager and every business owner can go on and on. Despite hundreds of kinds of psychometric tests, personal interviews and many guru- insights, it still remains a fuzzy area. I have gone wrong in hiring multiple times in last fifteen years for my company. But I also checked with some business owners who run an empire of millions and sometime billions of dollars. They say that even they go wrong many times, despite being equipped with big paraphernalia of HR brains & filters. Some of the things that we have done differently have really worked. Here are some insights that I have generated so far:

1.  DINNER TABLE FILTER: Can this person be taken to the family dinner table?

This was a very simple filtering advice given to me by one of the clients I worked with. And it does seem to provide an answer for a good-teammate selection. Person’s external polish that his/her qualification and degree provides gives way to his/her real self in a long stretch interaction. Small nuances of how to address, elders, women, subordinates etc. can throw light into a person’s value build-up and his/her longevity into the organisation.  This is rather conservative yet innovative way to look at people. And believe me; it applies to all levels of hire- right from office boy to CEO. After all, we spend some important part of our life in office. It is essential that we are COMFORTABLE in everyday interactions with the new person over a long time.  The ‘interview varnish’ that people put on at the time of first interaction, gets worn off very fast and their real self starts coming out and reaches every available ear if not eyes, if there is something amiss.  A similar filter is ‘airport filter’- imagine you would be stuck on an airport for long hours with this person. Would you like to spend that time with this person without needing to mentally shut-off?

2. RABBIT-TORTOISE FILTER : Speed v/s Longevity

A rabbit runs fast but take naps in-between while the tortoise is slow but steady. We all know this. In a business scenario, we need both the profiles; those who can outperform others in SPEED, as well as those who can OUTLAST everyone else. Rarely, we get both the qualities in one person. I have always been baffled with the latter. Those who are super sharp, super articulate and a bit of street-smart – the rabbits- are also like ‘hired-sharpshooters’. They come, do the job and move on. They don’t stay with you forever. My company (many companies share this concern) is a training ground for them. They know how to milk the best of every world they get in. They are easy with people and generous with words. They are the Rabbits of our filter. We need them, time to time, in different shades and intensity.

Tortoise of our story is usually slow. They come usually from humble backgrounds. They are thoughtful and watchful of what they say and do. They are quick learners because of the hunger for going ahead. They are aware of the distance between them and the Rabbits within the company. They are consistent. Rabbit may arrive in office at 11-12am (and goes for a smoke every now and then, and claims that his/her working style is ‘non-linear’), while our tortoise is a bit old fashioned ‘linear’. He/she arrives at the regular time and does not leave till the mandated task is done. In parties they don’t show extra-ordinary talent and never a cynosure and an instant hit. They are mild with criticism and generous with empathy with fellow mates. Their work is not super brilliant. It just about meets the requirement. You need the Rabbit’s brilliance and garnish to make the work ready for delivery. However, they are the pillar of stability and peace within the organisation. On them rests the mandate of carrying forward the values and the legacy. They are honest flag bearers of what needs to be continued. Change is not their cup of tea. Change can be brought about by infusing a fresh breed of Rabbits into the team.


3. LOST & FOUND FILTER : Old friend in the new town

It has a strange pull. People who worked with us and left for different destiny, one day find themselves again facing us. Sense of familiarity and the expectation of the new energy they bring in from previous experience, together present a heady mix for a growing team. Team mates usually welcome such inclusions and relish the sense of home coming. Corporate world is replete with cases of returns and magnificent second stint, including the most famous one is of Apple’s chief.

4. NATURAL GROOVE FILTER : What drives a person

We hired a web-programmer long back. Very soon we realised that it is not going to work out as he started stumbling on every assignment.  However, as a person he was good and gelled well with the team. With some heart-to-heart talk with him I found out that he actually abhors the ‘computer’ work, but got into it as it seemed to be only ‘safe’ career option. He liked working with hands and showed me several pictures of some crafted objects in his backyard workshop. Well, I tried something new- we had a need to setting up a ‘model-proto-making’ facility within our company and just gave him a mandate of making it happen. To my surprise, he not only set it all up but also worked at the prototypes better than any professionally trained people I had seen. He worked hard without worrying about working hours and soon became an important pillar of the organisation. I used to introduce him as ‘master craftsman’ at our company, a designation which he probably never imagined but relished. Recently, he started his own model-making business and we were happy to provide him some referential work. He became an extended network resource who can be relied upon for a good quality work even in odd and demanding situations.

5. OTHER ENERGY FILTER : What’s behind the office veil

You can see the degrees a person carries. You can also see the list of other organisation he/she has worked in. In creative professions, a visual portfolio of work also works wonders. But there is always a lurking need to know more. What does a person do beyond the office work or during weekends- this discussion yields some important insights on the person’s life & energy channels. If a person is a die-hard movie-buff, on slight prompting he/she would go at length about a movie’s plot, direction, presentation etc. Passion drives this world. A passion & quest for excellence in one field gives respect to passion & quest for excellence in another field. This also provides a good connecting point to colleagues beyond office hours. It helps to have colleagues who have very diverse interests and who follow them passionately. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Engineering the Design


“Engineers who join this institute are told to forget engineering”. A head of a prominent design institute of India was heard speaking at an event. It was like déjà-vu. I heard that many times while I was in my design school. There were two kinds of students inducted into the design school – first, those who join after twelfth standard and spend five years in honing their skills as a designer, while the others join after engineering or architecture for half the period i.e. two and a half years. And as one would imagine, usually there would be marked difference in some skills i.e. sketching, between the two streams of design students. But was ‘freehand-sketching’ the only thing and everything that ‘design’ had to offer to the world? Well, at least this was the idea percolated within the designers. Engineers would be ‘denounced’ in every discussion around ‘design and creativity’, as the ones who can only be either a good manager or at best work on more ‘engineering’ centred projects. I was surprised to hear a senior designer in a consumer durable multinational company that he never asked designers with additional engineering degrees to work on ‘form and styling projects’, because he ‘knew’ that they won’t be good at it. This discussion however does not absolve the abysmal status of engineering education, in general, in the country where out of 7,50,000 engineers graduate every year. Not one tenth of them are readily employable. The entire aura generated out of this discussion makes an engineering graduate-now-designer disgusted with the whole idea that he/she is rather CHAINED into ENGINEERING to do anything creative. My discussion is limited to the perception of engineering within the design and so called ‘creative’ community.

Now after so many years in the profession I have seen that the other side, the businesses who consume design, had a different story to tell. Many clients- especially the SMEs, usually had some concerns expressed right in our first meeting. They would invariably tell us, “Whatever you design, need to be producible. We have seen far too many designers who give us sexy renderings/images which fail on the manufacturing front and the entire project loses steam ”. And we would tell them that we were well grounded in technology & manufacturing as much as in design, so no need to worry. I have seen in past my partner & co-founder of Onio, Prakash, sorting out some of the most perplexing problems in design-to-manufacturing journey. That started right from the first assignment that we did with Godrej Security Equipments Division on home security doors. He worked with the Godrej engineers and even workmen on the shop floor to make them understand the new design and help them overcome the resistance to change. It is not that these problems only surface in heavy duty product only. We worked for almost 5 years at a stretch on ‘perfumes and cosmetics field, designing perfume bottles, crème jars and respective packaging. Problems of realisation of design were present here also. A commanding knowledge of manufacturing processes gave us an upper hand whenever we were involved with a manufacturing company. A great skill in design and similar finesse in execution are not two mutually exclusive skills as they are believed to be. Situation has not changed after so many years when now many consumer brands just ‘marketing companies’. They get all the stuff manufactured in Taiwan or China. When they call us for design intervention, the questions remain the same- “will you design be realisable? Can you solve the manufacturing issues that come up through the process”?

Engineering is not just about solving manufacturing process problems. Current education system has made the grand profession of engineering, look like a mindless-tailor of physical products and structures, which lack sense of well-being. The strength of the field that coverts SCIENCE into something usable as a product or a structure, is missing. Engineer, understands structuring, much faster than many other people. Structuring information, or structuring a product- engineers are trained to think structures. When we took up a complex brand strategy assignment, this was ‘STRUCURING SKILL’ that came handy to put several contradicting factors together to make sense. Not all the time in your daily life, you need to BREAK AWAY. We follow structures of relationships, civil laws, organisation, religion, food regimen, etc. etc. There has been some great mind or minds that put things for us in a structured manner to make life simple (barring a few who went to ridiculous extent of creating ‘Seven laws of ...’ on everything).  The man who made ‘metro’ train possible in India in record project time and with exemplary project management skills, Mr. E. Sreedharan is a civil engineer. It was a feat in the circumstances that India imposes on any project of the size of Delhi Metro. Goa’s chief minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar is an engineer from IIT Bombay. Jairam Ramesh, ex-minister from the Ministry of Environment, who did some pioneering work in his area, is also an engineer from the same college. Several chiefs of large Indian businesses have engineering degrees (it is only recently that their sons and daughters are being sent to get a MBA degree from some foreign university and more recently to Design colleges as well). There are several people I know who are heading powerful banks and financial institutions abroad, are basically engineers. Why did the banks hire engineers and not just economists or Chartered Accountants only? Because it is believed that  financial institutions need a great analytical mind who can quickly sort out an amorphous situation into a structured and predictable model. I am not proposing that all the engineers should go and do banking business or famously ‘sell soaps’. But the point being driven is that there are a few core skills engineers acquire apart from solving technology/manufacturing problems, which are of immense value across the fields and design cannot be an exception.

And towards the end, I would like to recall an inspiration that drove me to the design profession. Leonardo-da-vinci, the grand master artist, architect, biologist and machine design, weapon designer- all bundled in one, of the renaissance times. While at IIT, studying mechanical engineering, I was sitting in the library most of the time and learning of Vinci, copying his sketches multiple times and trying to understand what drove this genius to think about everything under the sun. A human mind is capable of holding several contrasting faculties of knowledge. It is the modern education that makes to tunnel-visioned and fogs the brain when it comes to contrasting streams of knowledge. Let the world be born again with more holism in knowledge.

Time has come when Design as a profession, at least in India, has to embrace engineering in its full blown dimensions. Time has come to wash the bourgeoisie mindsets of those in creative fraternity to open the eyes to a reality that ‘creativity’, at an ‘idea’ level is just worth nothing till it cast into something of a physical reality. It is time to ENGINEER the DESIGN a bit.



Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Envisioning a global Indian consumer brand

It is not too far. Omens are on the horizon. Mahindra, Tata, Godrej are only the visible names that are acquiring the marquee consumer brands across the globe. There is an entire cadre of small to medium scale Indian enterprises that have ventured out to acquire global parent companies, consumer brands, design studios and other allied service companies to further their global ambitions.
Hindustan Motors - Creator of Ambassador car,
could have created a world brand. So near yet so far.

So far, by and large, all the acquisitions made by these companies are in the careful-entry mode. Indian managers want to get a psychological entry into the space without upsetting the existing scheme of things. They are learning the rules of the game. Indian acumen & ferocity of business is yet to show up. No doubt, business has to be run as usual but the changes will come and will come slow. The brands and their key managers have been wire-fenced from the Indian influences. Being involved in one of such studies, I know that there is a fear of direct revenue loss, should things change overnight.  More than revenue loss, it is the loss of mind-share in the eyes of the global buyers. The buyer who is used to seeing certain faces and certain way of communication does not want to be a radical innovator in a purchase process. His brand loyalty also comes from the ‘interactions’ and not only from the product. However, the change is imminent and we will see some brands emerging on the global arena with a distinct Indian signature.

Indian signature does not mean just an Indian acquisition and brand being run by an Indian management. I am talking of distinct brand character that is based on deep rooted Indian ethos. Now this, may not be applicable the already existing marquee brands. But it could be a totally new kid on the block travelling the journey of a garage start-up to king of consumer brands within a span of few years.

We have seen some already popular Indian brands in the market. Tata Nano is the name of choice. Though it has not created a market for itself in India as envisaged, it has definitely carved a clear niche in the global consumer’s mind. People are aware of Nano as a car. However, Tata Nano and Chotu-Kool refrigerator made by Godrej (for bottom-of-pyramid consumers), both do not represent the ethos of Indian mind truly. ‘Frugal’ or cost effective design that has come to be associated with India is an aberration at best, to what rich Indian legacy has to offer. ABUNDANCE and not FRUGALITY is a core Indian tenet. FRUGALITY as in pragmatism and minimalism is fine. But if it means just material reduction, making the structures weaker, not accounting for the long-usage comfort, bad-aesthetics- then this is not what India stands for. Being poor, was not a choice for India. India has been a land of riches and that is what the Indian mind is currently yearning to get back to. When we talk of rich, it is about being ‘value abundance’. So when we speak of products ‘LONGEVITY’ is one of the abundance that would emerge to be one of the Indian ethos in the global brands. When VOLVO stands for SAFETY and FERRARI stands for flamboyance and speed, and Indian brand should stand for LONGEVITY. Nano, surely is not about longevity.

Next things, that is deeply Indian is ornamentation. Argument is that it is quite oriental as a value. Yes, it is oriental. But that is okay to be universal oriental value. It is Indian as well. Ornamentation is seen as ‘abundance’ in India. Ornamentation assures the Indian mind that a lot of care has been poured in materialisation. Ornamentation presupposes abstraction. And that is where it distances itself from Western realism. Focus on realism has forced the aesthetics of minimalism on the world. Indian consumers, who are lured into the land of minimalism as styling, are just tasting a new dish served to them. Soon they will get tired of it. Return to the home flavour is the human tendency. When a global Indian brand is envisaged, it will be as much about ornamentation as it will be about longevity. I use a term called ‘samagra’ (which means ‘comprehensive’ in Sanskrit). Somewhere SAMAGRA is also about multi-sensorial experience. What we get when we go to a temple- ring the bell, touch the deity, taste the prasadam, smell the ‘dhoop’- it is always a complete sensorial experience. Samagra on a broader sense points to this ‘enveloping effect’. Car companies in India are getting better at it. Ask Hyundai!

Third thing that Indian ethos stands for is surely EMPATHY. The land which gave birth to Buddha and Mahavir should be the first one to understand the pain of others. Ergonomic, Culture-aligned, Environment friendly & Universal design (inclusive design)- these are four sub-tenets of EMPATHY. These sound clichéd but keeping them in the first cone of focus is what is needed while conjuring up the new global brand. More often than not, businesses run to copy a success of an existing product, brand and thereby, end up copying only the ‘tactical’ end of the success, not the core DNA that shaped it.  EMPATHY needs to built into the core DNA of the global Indian brand. This value goes on to define the service interactions in more pronounced way, not only the product.

VERSATILITY is what is in the DNA of India. No object here is usually used for only single purpose. Idea of multiple usages is another example of ‘dematerialisation’. It saves materials & energy. So while west could have ten different spoons for different kinds of foods and connected scoop and spread devices, Indian mind would rather look at ‘two in ones’. Entire philosophy of ‘Jugaad’ is also a testimony to this virtue.

Indian consumer brands have gone miles ahead where they were ten years back. Today, walking into a VIP luggage showroom is an equal experience (if not more) compared to a Samsonite showroom. Mahindra is running full steam in the auto market while the rest of the players are cringing at the low sales in the domestic market. Aesthetics and Style quotient has gone up several notches. However, manufacturing quality of Indian brands remains a big concern still.

I would surely put the next paradigm change into global brand scenario as FIVE-SEVEN years from now. And this change will see some Indian brands rising. I want to be one of the drivers for sure J.




Monday, January 21, 2013


I have been using ‘5000 year old culture’, as a referential phrase for India, while speaking in several forums. I have not seen this phrase being used anywhere in the ‘incredible India’ campaign so far. I have been wondering why has the chronological reference not been taken into account for branding India? May be I missed seeing it. At least all the major airports of the countries I frequent, don’t have it. Wonder which other country can boast of this fact and actively promotes it? KOREA, yes, when you land on Incheon airport, at Seoul, South Korea proudly announces that their culture is also 5000 years old. When I went to Indonesia, well they were talking of way more longer.. millions of years.. neolithic ages  J. Yes, Indonesia was the land where the remains of legendary ‘Java’ man (Homo Erectus) were found (Java is not the programming  language alone, it is an island in Indonesia with an ancient cultural roots). 

But none of these countries we spoke about so far have the sense of ‘country’ or ‘city’ branding what the western countries have. In Berlin, I saw huge shops selling Berlin Souvenirs. The souvenirs, unfortunately, were nearly all, made in China (just like all the London souvenirs). However, it was a big business. At least the imagery that was being printed out on these souvenirs was consistent. It is a different point that they were also selling some ridiculous items like broken chunks of erstwhile ‘Berlin wall’.   Imagine, purchasing pieces of ‘Wagah border’ wall one day...

One of the visuals for Pune branding by Innishari
Anyway, no one brands their city like Americans do. ‘I love NY’ t-shirt has been seen in literally every major city in India. People wear it probably just to show either they or someone in their family or friend circle has been to this city. Sometimes, people wear it just because it looks ‘cool’. The graphic is bold and makes a statement. Americans can brand literally everything. India is still recuperating from its colonial penury and making a very slow progress on these things which only occur to a nation once there is some wealth. While roads and bridges are criss-crossing the country and nearly every airport is undergoing an overhaul right now, there is no thought on MESSAGING on the airport. One sees, aluminium clad walls thatched all over the country in a race to make the airports ‘world-class’. What is lost in this race is a more settled feeling of ‘permanence’ and ‘cultural signature’ of every place.  Bhutan has shown the way. Thimphu airport does not copy the architecture of these ‘modern airports’. But such cases are rare in India. Kerala was the only state which took up the state branding much ahead of the country’s brand and successfully culled out a niche of ‘God’s own country’.  Tourism soared into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Last week Indian Express reported the Pune city branding initiative by an upcoming start-up ‘Innishari’ that had created a set of modern visual narratives on Pune. This was put up in a local mall as a part of the ongoing Pune Biennale.  A series of seven visuals presented were in a mixed style- ‘realism’ and ‘abstraction’. Realism makes it understandable and abstraction makes it refreshing.  Realism connects to masses and abstraction connects to the intellectuals. Pune as a city has so far been identified only with a picture of ‘Shanivaar wada’, a rather not-so-grand a fort made by Peshwas. Beyond that Pune has little visual identity. A city that is bubbling with more than 5 million population out of which hal f of them directly connected with IT & manufacturing industry; where something unique amongst Indian cities- 300 German companies have found their home; which is the cultural and educational hub for western India, cannot be merely depicted with a picture of one fort (the restoration of which, too needs to be taken up seriously by the government)!

You go around the city and you don’t even find any poster that promotes the city. Whole city has been plastered with pictures of small and big time politicos. These posters appear not only on the designated hoardings but also on temporary structures that spring up as anybody’s guess.  Every small time politico worth his name has to put up a big hoarding congratulating some big-wig of his party on his or her birthday, or offering just a welcome note. Half of the faces put up there can be used to scare a child. City municipal council seems to ignore any sense of visual order or disorder against the political pressures. Same situation exists in several other cities. Beautiful cities of Lucknow and Cochin (where I have recently been to) show the same visual mess. This visual cancer can only be cured by a level-headed political leader who should put his foot down to save the city and ban the temporary hoardings. But along side, efforts of city branding like what Innishari has put forth, must be given space. In the eyes of a global visitor passing through the city, it will reflect the connoisseur pulse of its citizens.  This, I believe is the real DNA of Pune, a city that attracted me to it sixteen years ago!
Here is the recent press coverage of the event: