Advice on branding in India

Before we begin, let’s answer a few questions.

How many times have you walked into a supermarket and picked up a product because the packaging was attractive?

What connection will an international brand have with you if a tinge of local flavor is not added to it?

Do you buy an Apple iPhone because, well, it’s Apple, or does it offer better features than any other smartphone?

Finally, how many times have your bought a product because your friend told you the product was awesome?

If the words “design,” “logo,” “customization,” “loyalty,” and “word of mouth” resonated in your mind as you answered these questions, you’ve hit the nail on the head of the theoretical aspects of branding. Today, although Indian marketers actively engage in cocreation and prosumerism, many still associate branding with just advertising and media intelligence. This is where Landor Associates seeks to make a difference.

Landor Associates is a global brand consulting firm that entered India in 2007 to provide branding, design, and digital services to companies across verticals. Spearheaded by Lulu Raghavan, managing director of Landor’s Mumbai office, the company’s key clientele include Café Coffee Day, Taj Group, New Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport, Mahindra Group, and Tata Global Beverages, to name a few.


“An impactful brand campaign is one where the connection with consumers is immediate and they understand what the value proposition of the brand is,” says Raghavan. For instance, in a move to create product differentiation among global coffee brands, Café Coffee Day’s new dialogue box brand identity, designed by Landor, introduced customers to the concept of social hub. Its walls, signage, and menus carried punchy lines such as “agree to agree,” “filled to the brim with laughter,” and “brew a froth moustache.” The end result? The campaign created great resonance with its core target audience, while retaining the color scheme and brandline, A lot can happen over a coffee.


For this story, Raghavan chatted with Madhumita Prabhakar of theSmart CEO magazine to share her perspectives on how Indian companies approach the brand building.

Madhumita Prabhakar: What is the role of a consulting firm that specializes in branding?

Lulu Raghavan: Since 2007, Indian companies have showcased a noticeable shift in their understanding and adoption of branding as a publicity tool. Back in the day, CEOs equated branding with just a logo and advertising. Now, they are getting into the deeper nuances of it. Moreover, the importance of branding as a competitive tool has increased because competition is intense in every industry and a brand needs to fight for attention in order to survive. For instance, in IT, branding differentiation is carried out for quality talent acquisition and retention; in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, it’s about fighting for shelf space.

People have also started to realize that a specialist agency or a consulting agency is required, because unlike advertising, branding is a niche area of operation. If a company wants to make a brand change, it has just one opportunity to do it. If you have a heart problem you are not going to take a chance with a general physician; you want to go to a cardiothoracic surgeon for consultation. Similarly, branding is a high-stakes game and companies have just one opportunity to make it big, thus creating the need for a specialist.

Very few companies world over hold branding as one of their core business activities. The Procter & Gambles of the world may have strong marketing departments but have much to gain from a specialist branding perspective. An external consultant will bring in a lot of knowledge and experience from within and across industries. Moreover, a corporate branding program involves a lot of stakeholders. The entire process of aligning and getting consensus around the vision and bringing in a fresh perspective is something that an external consultant can do without much difficulty. Whereas, within a company an internal person may just not have that objectivity to be free from the political turmoil to navigate a brand change.

MP: How does an Indian CEO approach branding? How does our approach compare with the approach in the West?

LR: There is a vast difference in the way evolved markets and the way the Indian market appreciates and understands the value of a brand. I think very few Indian companies really understand the million ways in which branding impacts business and that the brand is the DNA of the organization.

In the West, if a telecom company wants to launch a new product, the CEO or marketing director can look to at least four or five such branding programs that have been done earlier, to set benchmarks. That is not the case in India. Since there are not enough examples to follow here, we need to rely on the branding experts to bring in expertise from elsewhere and hand-hold the process every step of the way. As for the companies, they need to have a clear vision of where they want to take the brand, because all the answers have not been worked out before.

Moreover, in evolved markets the CEO, who has the vision to adopt a brand-driven approach, typically has an army of marketing, communications, and human resource professionals who carry through and implement a branding exercise. That’s where India falls short. Here, a brand remains in the realm of the CEO, and distillation and execution tend to take a longer time to go through.

MP: What are your thoughts on building a brand primarily through a digital marketing strategy?

LR: I’d say in India the awareness-trial-repurchase model (ATR) is still considered the best method to reach a huge number of people, unlike in the West, where extensive usage of ATR is a very compelling reason for marketers to move away from it.

Thus, companies and digital marketers should embrace digital in a more holistic way and look at it on par with the way a brand behaves in the real world. The focus must be on getting consumers to try your product. For instance, using LinkedIn effectively has made a huge difference for B2B sales.

In reality, anything we commercially transact needs branding. What is branding? It is setting an expectation for the product that a consumer is going to buy, or a service he is going to avail. Branding is relevant for every single industry because when there is competition, there is a need for branding to create a differentiation.

MP: How should brands handle a crisis?

LR: If a company has been building a brand for a long time, there is a certain reputation it has earned that it can lean on. For instance, a couple of years ago, when a few Tata Nano cars caught fire, the goodwill built by Tata helped it respond to the crisis in an open, transparent manner. In fact, consumers don’t expect corporations to be perfect. They actually don’t mind when a company trips up and fails. What they’re more interested in is knowing how the company responds to the crisis. So the response definitely has to be about simplicity, transparency, and a future action plan. The company needs to go above and beyond the current situation and communicate with the stakeholders that it is taking serious actions to respond to the grave mistake that happened. The moment it fumbles, it starts to become quicksand for the brand.

MP: How does one up the ante on an existing brand?

LR: There are two ways to do this. First, improving the performance of the brand individually in the corporate space. For instance, Procter & Gamble has developed specific strategies for every brand under its umbrella, which is very much aligned with a cause that is connected to the consumers. Its Proud Sponsor of Moms campaign for the Olympics was so impactful that it developed a stronger connection between the consumer and the brand.

Thus, one way in which a brand can up its ante is through its ability to reach a higher order of emotional connection with its consumers.


Second, innovating on a product or service level by understanding a consumer’s needs more intensely. For instance, by catering to the needs of the new age glocal customer and growing market, Taj Group created a new brand positioned between Taj’s traditional luxury and the Gateway Hotel brand. It was called Vivanta by Taj. The brand adopted a contemporary outlook in every aspect, right from recoining the room categories from superior and deluxe to charm and delight, to making the interiors more lively and vibrant. Operating in a service industry, it also identified and enhanced customer experience points to create the maximum impact.

MP: How should start-ups with frugal budgets approach the branding problem?

LR: This one is pretty straightforward to answer, but difficult to implement. The only way in which a brand with a frugal budget can create amazing buzz and transition is through delivering a superior customer experience. The brand value, in turn, will spread through word of mouth. In fact, increasingly in this day and age, consumers trust the opinion of their friends and family more than advertising.


This article was first published as “At the heart of branding” by Madhumita Prabhakar in the Smart CEO (May 2013).

© 2013 Smart Media Group.