Schooled talent is not available in India; people have to be trained on the job
Brunton Road is a quiet street that branches off Bengaluru’s busy MG Road into a green neighbourhood. It houses India’s best-known brand makeover outfit.
There is nothing flashy about the entrance, which has a small, rectangular plaque that bears the simple legend, Ray+Keshavan. The understated style is highlighted further when you walk into the 152 year old building that is Sujata Keshavan’s office. Hand painted cinema posters from the 1960s adorn a wall, a logo ‘tree’ rests next to her desk and fans rotate lazily from the high beamed, sloping roof over an enormous table from the British era as Keshavan settles down for a chat.
On a different level, she does the same to brands. The difference is that the brands come to her. Whenever infotech, dotcom, FMCG, financial service, infrastructure or media brands are agonising over identity, many head for R+K. In 2006, WPP acquired a majority stake in R+K. Today, the Bengaluru based firm is a part of WPP’s Brand Union, a design conglomerate with 500 people in 21 offices across the world.
R+K became special from the day it was set up in 1989 in Delhi, with a couple of interesting firsts to its credit. It was the first graphic design consultancy in India and Keshavan was the first Indian woman to obtain a postgraduate degree in graphic design from Yale University. In Yale, Keshavan worked on brand identity and wanted to do the same when she got back to India. The only option was to start a venture as no organisation was working on brand identity then.
Ram Ray, having run the San Francisco office of JWT, had come back to India as head of Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA). “He knew the difference between design and advertising,” says Keshavan. The two got together, but when R+K was set up, hardly anybody knew what brand identity meant or its importance to a business. “They went to an ad agency, which was a one-stop shop for ideas,” says Keshavan.
The advertising industry was developed but not the design industry. Earlier, design work was about “you like this logo, take it”. There was no scientific process. “An agency would give a choice of logos, mostly tweaked from here and there, and you picked,” she says. R+K, on the other hand, works hard on the brand makeover. From logos to market research to talking to consumers and employees, Keshavan and her band of 30 people (the firm doesn’t have offices outside Bengaluru) guide the client through the entire branding process.
All this would not have happened but for an incident at an ad agency where Keshavan had taken up a job. She had made a greeting card for a client. But client servicing wanted her to come up with a few options to make the client feel that some work had been done. The young Keshavan insisted that her design was good and the agency should go with it. Her colleagues then came up with a solution. “Make a few bad ones so that the client picks this,” they advised. To her consternation, the client picked one of the “horrible ones”. That was the end of her stint in advertising.
MNC or charitable hospital, the low profile R+K’s solutions seem to have worked for a wide variety of clients. Keshavan narrates one example of how a hospital helped its mainly illiterate patients find their way about easily.
“At Chettinad Hospitals, a charitable hospital in Tamil Nadu, the key issue was navigation. The patient, on entering, gets a card with a colour and a big number on it. He goes to a building or area that has the same number as the one on the card. There, another person gives him a colour and a picture of where he has to go. Patients can easily use the combination of numbers, colours and pictures to find their way about,” she explains.
“How do you structure people’s movement so that they are not kept waiting for too long?” she asks. Just one visit through Bengaluru International Airport makes her meaning clear. “There is an aesthetic component where design plays a key part. But what is different about R+K is that we offer a range of services that nobody else does,” she adds.
Competitors too are generous in their praise. Ashwini Deshpande, founder director and principal designer, Elephant Strategy + Design, a Pune based design house, says, “I have a lot of respect for anyone who has made the profession of design a success story. I admire Sujata for her perseverance and approach. Last year, we met at Kuala Lumpur, where she had come for a pitch presentation and despite the fact that we were competing, we shared a great rapport. Incidentally, Elephant won the pitch. I am not particularly clued in to the work process at R+K, but there seems to be a lot of work coming out and that itself is a great achievement for a design company.”
Keshavan’s determination to excel has remained the same since she started out. How did her interest in design begin? “I didn’t know what to do when I finished school. I was the typical Tam-Brahm girl. The expectation was that I would do Maths or Science, and I was good at both. My mother was a painter and father, a good architect. A mechanical engineer, he was good at building furniture, loudspeakers and designed a lot of things in the house,” she says. Her father had heard of NID (National Institute of Design) and she applied there.
Travelling alone, Keshavan changed three trains en route from Bengaluru to Ahmedabad. She had thought of taking up product design or architecture. But on arriving, she chanced upon graphic design. To use a cliché, there was no looking back. The next stop was Yale University and a teacher who was ‘guru’.
“Paul Rand was a brilliant design guy, like Paul Samuelson in economics. I wanted to learn from him,” she says. Rand, a major influence in her life, was a legend – Steve Jobs called him the “greatest graphic designer”. He was the man who designed the IBM, UPS and ABC logos and worked with Jobs on the NextComputer corporate identity and Apple’s Think Different campaign. Keshavan, as much as anyone else, convinced Indian businesses that design was an effective tool that could bring them success.
In a long, easy and often incisive chat, Keshavan talks design, strategy and what makes R+K the force that it is. Excerpts:
On design as a discipline
Design is a layer between art and science. It is very rigorous and market oriented.
Is brand makeover the same as design and logos?
We don’t do just a logo. We do a whole programme. Normally, our brand makeover projects take between six and 12 months.
We first identify what the issue is and the situation the brand is in. Why is the brand thinking of a change? Next, we start to explore the background. We discover there is a business reason – either the brand is stagnating or the brand has become irrelevant to the younger audience (as with Canara Bank). Or a brand wants to go abroad (Himalaya wanted to go to 14 countries, but it didn’t have the acceptability – the product was good, but the look and feel were not).
And the next step
For an existing brand, once we understand the situation it is in, we do a brand audit. We study the industry and understand it. Unless you understand, you can’t prescribe a solution. Facilitating with logos is not the answer. Sometimes, a brand makeover may not even need a change of logo.
We map the audit by talking to a whole range of people, customers and employees. This can take up to four months. We speak to analysts and the media too.
Once that is done, we arrive at the current brand perception. Sometimes, the client’s perception of the brand and the actual perception are not necessarily the same. We then sit with the top management to find out where they want to take it. Is it a five year or a 10 year goal?
We try and find out what the brand’s compelling truth is and what distinguishes it from competing brands. Just making them look nice is not the idea. But design invariably is an issue. So, does a brand actually need a change in the logo? You will be surprised at the number of large companies that haven’t identified these things.
That’s how you solve a brand’s problems?
We identify problems, but are not equipped to solve them. We study other brands to see where they stand on various parameters and work with the client to find out what has to be done to walk the talk. Sometimes, human resources issues come up.
Employees could be unhappy. Unless employees are happy, the brand will suffer.
Any amount of advertising or fabulous logos won’t help then. If the service of a bank is poor, it loses customers.
Is everything played back to the clients?
Oh, yes. People are always interested in knowing what others think of them.
What do you look at?
We look at core issues like: ‘Will you diversify? What are the areas you won’t get into? Should there be a master brand? Should there be sub-brands? Should the product brand take the name of the sub-brand?’
On how clients perceive logos
Logos are close to a brand owner’s heart. Choosing or modifying a logo is an important decision, and they participate. NR Narayana Murthy, for instance, was totally involved when the Infosys logo was being made. But most clients in India want proof that the logo works. That is why so much market research is used. The brand manager has to show figures to the management. He can’t say, ‘I had a strong instinct’ and get a clearance. In the West, they are more daring.
Communicating the makeover
It is the turn of the ad agency to take over and work on the messaging. But we identify certain parameters. Take Airtel’s communication after the branding. We defined the image area, colours, text area and the typeface. The agency chose the message and the image.
Sometimes, there need not be any advertising. The airports’ branding wasn’t advertised. Arvind Mills didn’t advertise its brand refreshment exercise. Advertising is vital for a product brand. Bru and Airtel advertised heavily. Canara Bank had to advertise because it had 2,800 branches and wanted the younger audience to come.
The consumer is queen
We track consumers through different lenses. A financial services’ customer is a consumer of shampoos and coffee, or a customer of a hospital or a traveller. We often bring cross-industry expertise to the client so that he can adopt some of the best practices of another industry.
On the WPP acquisition
It allows me to give good solutions in areas that may be new to India. For example, in financial services, I could use experts who worked on Credit Suisse. You can always learn from someone who has worked in developed markets. It is reassuring to clients. Moreover, we can access global case studies and other information.
On R+K’s strengths and what to consider while designing
We articulated the concept of intelligent design or strategic design. Design is not about pretty pictures. Good design should be well done and effective. And colour is an important input.
You will find a lot of blue in the banking industry. So, should a brand that is going in for a makeover follow the industry pattern or break the category to get salience for itself? Can you take pink and be accepted in the financial services category? Our designing is market oriented and it almost always guarantees market success.
Even ad agencies advise and work on brands
They do, but it is campaign led. It ends with the campaign. Our approach is more robust and specialised. We work like consultants.
On the state of Indian design
Once, a foreign journalist asked me to name 10 great products designed in India. I thought, but couldn’t come up with any that wasn’t from ancient India. The sari is a great design object, but what is there in modern times? There are clever adaptations but nothing original or great.
The Indica? It was styled in Italy. I even thought of services (laughs) like ‘Mumbai's dabbawalas’. Software is not a product. There are the soapstone boxes of Agra and other craft, but what we fail to do is give them modern design. You will find a beautiful samovar vase, but you can’t use it.
Schooled talent is not available in India. So people have to be trained on the job and that is a problem. In India, no investment has been made barring the odd NID or a Shristi (in Bengaluru).
Contrast this with China. The Chinese government knows that to go up the value chain, design is a vital input. It set up schools and got faculty from abroad and sent out hundreds of boys and girls to America and Europe to learn design and come back. Once in Italy, I met a bunch of Chinese students who were learning luxury brand designing. The Chinese are thinking long term.