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!

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