Ashwini Gangal

"Naming a brand like this is more complex than people realise": Sujata Keshavan on Vistara

We interviewed Sujata Keshavan, chairperson and executive creative director of Ray+Keshavan, the design agency that helped create brand Vistara.

Edited Excerpts

Did the brief require you to keep the name Indian/Asian? Or was that something that came from you and your team?

We were given an open brief and asked to present our approach in the event that we were to be selected. We definitely had a view that the name should be derived from an Indian or Asian root and that we should not take a generic, bland approach divorced from our culture. So we pushed strongly for that, and I think it resonated well with the client, who had a similar view.

Our research told us that people were extremely interested in the new airline, coming as it did from the Tatas... and that too after so many years of waiting. The fact that the Tatas are doing this in partnership with Singapore Airlines has created very high expectations and an extraordinary level of interest among people who travel by air. We were thus looking for an interesting and memorable name, because the airline deserved that.

What was the next step? Please walk us through the process of naming the brand...

The process started with us brainstorming with an open mind, where we came up with hundreds of names. The entire Brand Union network of 21 offices participated in this exercise.

We then organised them into different buckets, that is, names with an Indian/Asian root, international names, names derived from the JV (Tata and Singapore Airlines). We then evaluated the names against the brief, for appropriateness and relevance and knocked out the ones that were not suitable for the brand. Each name that survived went into a long list. This list was debated several times by a group of branding experts across the network, who took the list through several rounds of shortlisting.

The shortlisted names went through phonetic testing, for pronunciation across different countries and language speakers. We tested for both, negatives in meaning across all major languages, as well as for pronunciation.

This led to a further shortlist which was checked for availability for global registration. Suitable urls for the website were generated for each name and checked for availability.

After making sure that all the names were sound, and appropriate for the brand, we presented the final set of options to the client.

How important is it for a brand name to have meaning?

One thing that's difficult in the process of naming, especially for a global brand, is to get that name registered in different countries. Any word with a meaning has almost always already been taken by somebody. It is getting harder and harder to find brand names with meaning that are available for registration, particularly for globally relevant brands.

If you make up a coined word, or some gibberish, that is, a word that doesn't exist in the dictionary, then it's much easier to come up with something unique. For instance, the words Cinthol or Fanta don't have a dictionary meaning. You are judging them only by their phonetic qualities, the way they sound. These words are unique, so it is easier to get registration.

But then, on the other hand, with such words, you have to work harder to make people associate the qualities that you want the brand to reflect with the name, because the name is like a blank canvas with no inherent associations. When you have something with meaning, it can help bring in relevant associations and feelings about the brand, and can be easier to remember.

So how did you zero in on Vistara?

We had generated a lot of options. Then we made shortlists and more shortlists and ran checks and tests... finally we presented around seven names to the client.

Vistara was our favourite for many reasons. Firstly, because of its meaning - it means 'a limitless expanse', just like the endless horizon one sees while flying. For a brand that intends to push the boundaries of the air travel experience, it seemed appropriate.

We tested it across several countries and it scored very well for its phonetic qualities. People could pronounce it without too much difficulty and liked the way it sounded.

Naming a brand like this is more complex than people realise. The name has to work across geographies. It must have no negative meaning in any country. For example, we had come up with another very nice name, a coined word, but in China it meant 'to kill', so it was shot down!

We definitely didn't want something that was as generic sounding with words like Sky, Jet, Air, Blue, etc. One of our approaches was to combine the names Tata and Singapore Airlines, as both brands have tremendous equity. One of the names that had been considered early on in the 'JV approach' was 'Tasia'. But it too did not get accepted in some part of the world because it meant something negative in one of the major languages.

In Vistara, we found a name that would truly reflect a combination of East and West, for a brand that combined Asian hospitality with global operating standards. In this name, you've got 'Vistara' which means expanse in Sanskrit, as well as 'vista', which in English gives you the same sense. It also has the word 'star' in it as well as 'tara'! The star is a universal symbol of quality and excellence, that will exemplify the brand in the coming years. It's so curious that it all just came together in a single word!

Aviation as a category is not readily associated with ancient words, culture, roots... everyone tries to appear more modern. Was yours a conscious attempt to go against the tide in a sense?

Well, the word Vistara is ancient in the sense that it belongs to Sanskrit, a classical language. Incidentally, it also has the same meaning in Pali, so the Buddhist/South East Asian influence is relevant too, especially as the JV is with Singapore Airlines.

However, I don't consider the word Vistara ancient. Hindi is derived from Sanskrit and in Hindi it becomes 'vistaar' which is very much part of modern parlance.

The word Vistara is timeless, and can lend itself to a truly modern and contemporary brand expression.

How important is the branding element in this category, really? One may argue that busy or fatigued travellers might not care much about a logo or its design...

A logo is a symbol of everything the airline represents; it takes on all the qualities of the brand.

It is just the starting point of the brand identity. From the logo, come the colours, the look and feel, tone of voice... the entire visual vocabulary across all collaterals, like the lounges, staff uniforms, menu, etc. The traveller cannot separate, in his/her conscious mind, the logo from the whole brand experience. He/she might not consciously say, 'Oh, I like this part of the design but not that part...' All aspects of brand delivery are strategically conceived to provide a seamless brand experience.

Eventually, the logo emerges as the signature of the brand.

How different was this experience as opposed to working on say, an FMCG or bank brand?

I have always wanted to work on an airline brand. Within the field, I can't think of a single designer who would not be very excited by this category. For one, it provides scale; you can express your idea in a bigger way. When you see all the planes with the design on the tail, all parked next to each other, or when you see the repetition of the identity as you are going across the airport... it has real impact.

Also, people engage a lot more with the look and feel, and branding of an airline than they do with that of most other categories. And of course, there's something magical about the plane flying with the design on it.

Designing for a hand-held object is different because it's a small thing. The scale is reversed.

Also, with an airline there are a lot of technical issues to consider while transferring the design onto the plane, or designing the livery, as we call it. There's a huge price difference depending on whether you use one colour or two or three or more. The airline industry is challenged for margins, so we had to be sensible about the cost of implementation of the design. In designing for an airline, I'd say you have to be creative despite these constraints. It is more challenging in a way.

Would you then say that it is the most difficult assignment that you have worked on?

It wouldn't be fair to say it was the most difficult assignment merely because it had special technical constraints. For example, there have been instances when we have designed things for people who are illiterate. Those projects were challenging in other ways. I can think of a project where our solution had to appeal simultaneously to diverse classes of consumers; that presented its own set of difficulties. But that's what keeps life as a designer so interesting.

(Ray+Keshavan was founded by Sujata Keshavan and Ram Ray in 1989. Since 2006, it has been part of WPP's global brand agency, Brand Union)

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