Brand, a key differentiator

Sujata Keshavan, the chairman of Ray+Keshavan | The Brand Union talks about the art of brand building through strategic design, the journey of the company over two decades, and it’s growth trajectory after acquisition by WPP, the global advertising and PR firm 



Like most south-Indians of her generation, Sujata Keshavan was a science student in school but had a keen interest in art, literature and poetry. “Pursuing science in India meant giving up arts and I was reluctant to do that,” she admits. When she heard of National Institute of Design’s (NID) five and a half year undergraduate programme in industrial design, she enrolled for it with the belief that it would give her an opportunity to combine her interests. At NID, she developed a strong liking for graphic design and went on to graduate in that field from Yale University and also won the Shickle-Collingwood prize for the most outstanding work at the university. Furthermore, inspired by Paul Rand, the U.S. based legendary trainer and a pioneering designer of corporate identity, she started working in the area of identity design.

When she returned from the U.S, she found that there was no place for her to do the kind of work she wanted to do. Employment opportunities for graphic designers were largely limited to the advertising and magazine industry and she found both these confining. Thus was born the idea to set up a professional design firm, Ray + Keshavan (R+K), in October 1989, in partnership with Ram Ray, her ex-boss. Today, more than two decades after inception, WPP, a multinational advertising and PR firm, is on the verge of owning 100 per cent stake in the company.

In this interview, Sujata Keshavan, chairman of R+K, shares with us the importance of brand design in helping companies succeed in their space, the challenges faced by design firms in India, and, the post acquisition phase of R+K.

Brand Building through R+K

Clients come to us with business challenges that can be as diverse as engaging with younger customers to entering new markets and geographies. We help them find brand-led solutions to these challenges. It is a four-step process that starts with brand discovery, then goes on to brand positioning, translating the positioning across the brand experience and, finally, helping the client deploy and manage the brand.

We do not work on campaigns. Neither do we engage with the media. A lot of our work is not oriented towards selling but towards creating a brand impact. For example, as designers we design apps for mobile devices, or do information designs, such as signage and path finding boards at airports– things which have nothing to do with sales or marketing.

Some of the challenges we’ve come across are

Brand building for an existing brand that wants to enter a new and different market

Managing branding for a JV between two large players, both with considerable brand equity

Reviving the sagging fortunes of a brand that is stagnating in the market due to increased competition

Helping a public sector brand that is losing out to smarter, more agile private sector players, stay relevant

Improving the brand salience and perception of a company that is heading for an IPO in the near term 

Biggest turning point 

The opening up of the economy in 1991 was a major turning point for us. For the first time, Indian companies could take their goods and services to global markets. At the same time, they had to deal with increased competition caused by the entry of multinationals at home. On both these fronts, R+K played a vital role in helping these companies build their brand and design, to achieve market success.

Growth of the branding and design industry over the last five years

There has been a huge rise in the number of firms, both big and small, in the last five years. Several international companies have set up shop in India. Graphic design as a course of study has gained considerable recognition and many now be seen as a valid career option. There are also a huge number of freelancers operating all over the country, especially in the field of graphic design, mainly because the entry barrier to setting up a business is very low. All it takes is a computer, a printer, and your first client, and you are in business.

Some interesting projects

It is hard to pick a few projects because everything we do is very interesting. At R+K, we play a game called ‘brand spotting’. When we leave an airport, we see how many of our brands we can spot before we reach our destination. Someone once said that it is hard to drive a mile in any Indian city without encountering a brand that R+K has helped to build. I think they were right.

We live in volatile times and, therefore, the best way to evaluate the success of a branding program is to see if it has endured the test of time. For instance, we transformed the Himalaya brand 10 years ago – helping it traverse the journey from a drug company to a wellness brand. From being known as the maker of LIV 52, Himalaya now has over 300 products and is probably the only Indian consumer brand to be present in 90 countries.

A fascinating project we worked on was in the brand transformation of Jammu & Kashmir bank, the largest employer in the state and the only Kashmiri organisation to be listed on the national stock exchange. We helped catapult it from an old generation bank to a modern, new generation financial services company with a larger mandate of catalysing the economy of Jammu & Kashmir.

Investment vs. Return

ROI is measured in different ways for different projects. In the case of consumer brands, it is easier because the increase in sales is a clear metric. For corporate brands, you have less obvious measures like increase in awareness and preference, higher engagement with target audience and a stronger reputation. Research shows that in the long term, companies that invest in branding outperform their peers in terms of market capitalisation.

Understanding deeper nuances of design

The biggest challenge we face is the lack of understanding about what design is, and why it matters. The Indian industry is not fully aware of the important role that design plays in achieving market success. It is often regarded as the creation of something pretty or attractive, in general, nice-to-have but superfluous. The larger and deeper picture of what design is and does, how it can act as a catalyst, and how design led thinking helps solve problems in any area, no matter what area it is, are aspects that have yet to gain traction in India.

Finding high quality talent has been a real challenge too because there are very few design schools of real excellence in the country. We spend a lot of time and effort delivering on-the-job training to junior designers. In fact, getting people at a junior level is not a problem because we are a preferred employer. Finding people ready to fill senior positions is much harder. We have been hiring designers from other geographies where quality talent in this space is more readily available.

When hiring brand consultants we look for people who can think out of the box and at the same time carry analytical and problem solving skills. In our office, the suits are no less creative than the designers. Good communication skill is a must across the board.

Scaling up R+K

For the first twenty years, the scaling up process happened organically, with us building the team in accordance with handling larger assignments. The scope of each of our projects grew as much as the number of projects we could handle at a given time. We enjoy working on projects that are likely to have a greater impact. After selling to WPP in 2006, we got scale by association. We became a part of Brand Union, the global branding and design agency with a footprint across the world.

Acquisition by WPP 

As the effects of liberalisation kicked in by 2000, our clients started asking for wider consumer insights and deeper domain knowledge of other markets. Sensing greater opportunities here, several international branding companies started setting up shop in India as well. We felt that, in this changing scenario, it would be wise to partner with an international group, which would strengthen our offering – allowing us to combine our in-depth knowledge of the Indian consumers and market with that of global knowledge and best practices. We also felt that it would be a major incentive for our employees, who could look forward to working with global teams in different geographies.

Post acquisition phase

We are now the India office for Brand Union, which has a global network of over 500 people across 23 countries. Our teams have benefited greatly from the cross-pollination of ideas and exposure to multi-country projects. We have learnt to implement large-scale systems and WPP’s focus on results has definitely pushed us to grow at a pace which we may not have been able to achieve on our own. At the same time, we are also happy to see that our team and work standards match the very best in the world.

Three years from now

India has not even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to branding and design. We have so much to do. R+K’s strategy is the same as it has always been – to deliver outstanding work and build great relationships, which will automatically result in growth. Our proposition is that ‘the experience of the brand is the brand.’ We have introduced newer practices like employee engagement and marketing effectiveness that will aid in delivering this experience.


1. Choosing the right founding partner in Ram Ray

When I decided to set up a professional design firm, my ex-boss Ram Ray was very supportive of the idea and offered to partner with me by taking care of the business side of things. Although he was a hard-core advertising man, he had a genuine appreciation and understanding of design. He retired from the company in the late nineties. 

2. Created a new fee paradigm

When I started my company, creative services were by and large the domain of advertising agencies. I realised that, as agents, they charged commissions on tasks executed on the clients’ behalf. Thus, their revenues were based on how many times a TV commercial ran, and how large (in square centimeters) print ads were. I felt that this revenue model devalued ideas and intellectual property. So, I decided to charge creative fees for ideas, skills and expertise, and not commissions based on the numbers, size and material of finished products.   

3. The first to introduce the idea of strategic design in the Indian market

When I set up R+K, design was a very new aspect, and people had little understanding of what our offer actually was. Being a strong proponent of the power of design to help deliver business success, I was convinced that our offering was intelligent, not just pretty. In fact, when we spoke to our clients, we always used the term “strategic design”, i.e. design that is in sync with the business and brand strategy of an organisation. 

4. We fought for our ideas and convinced our clients

Since design does involve intangibles (the magic versus the logic), clients sometimes hesitated in their decision-making. We were very invested in the work we did and tried extremely hard to convince them to see our point of view. They were impressed by the passion that we displayed and by our persistence. During our early days, we spent 10 percent of our time doing the work and 90 percent of our time convincing clients. 

5. Associated with high quality people in every aspect

High quality has always been the hallmark of our offering. We associated ourselves with high quality people, the best talent, and also worked with high quality clients who had an appreciation for what we were trying to do. It was important that our work be consistently good, and not be given to occasional flashes of brilliance. In fact, even on a bad day, our work will never drop below a certain standard.

6. We developed vendor quality

In the early years, we put in a great deal of effort in improving the quality of the eco-system of vendors who supported our design services. Printers, tool-makers and small-scale metal and wood workshops by and large worked to abysmally low standards. Paper stocks were limited, printing machines were antiquated, and the small-scale industries that we relied on were not familiar with professional project and time management. This was a huge challenge. 

7. Moved the company from Delhi to Bengaluru in 1995

As effects of economic liberalisation started kicking-in, a new knowledge economy was being created with Bengaluru as its home ground. All the companies that were being set up there needed branding and design services. And, moving our base to Bengaluru created some wonderful opportunities for us. We were able to set up a very good digital design wing as a consequence of the move. 

8. Started a brand-strategy consulting practice to support design

While we had always emphasised on the problem-solving aspect of strategic design, at times, before we got to the design stage, we found that solutions often called for strategy that was business and brand related. My colleague, Meeta Malhotra, spearheaded the creation of a brand strategy practice which covered brand mission and vision, personality and positioning and, brand architecture and valuation. We created our own proprietary tools and processes called LIVE the brand, which we later trademarked.  

9. Worked across sectors and industries so we were not affected by downturns

Unlike many firms in the West, which tend to specialise, we have worked across industries such as technology, infrastructure, telecom, pharma, financial services, education, and everything in between. This proved to be a wise decision as we could move with agility from one domain to the other, when there was a downturn in one sector. For example, when the dotcom bubble burst, we quickly moved to FMCG, which was unaffected at that time.   

10. Sold to WPP, we are now a part of the Brand Union

In 2006, WPP acquired a majority stake in R+K. The sale has happened in tranches and by the end of this year (2013), WPP will have bought 100 per cent of the company.

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