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Can you tell us about your work?

If you have been watching Indian brands getting transformed one by one to take on global challenges and ever wondered who was behind these changes, meet Sujata Keshavan Guha. She’s the makeover woman who’s been pushing the Indian brand wagon on to the fast track.

Her client list reads… Wipro, Infosys, TVS, Titan, Dabur, Himalaya Drug Company (HDC), MTR, Mother Dairy, AirTel, and a few other MNC brands too. As Founder and Managing Director of Ray + Keshavan Design, in 13 years she has made Indian companies aware of strategic design and its importance in brand building.

With a chuckle she says, “Some of them still think that design is just making some pretty patterns.”

R+K’s mode of operation: “We do it through a process called LIVE the brand where LIVE stands for Learn, Introspect, Visualise and Execute.” Sujata ensures that along with her and her team, even the client company works hard at ushering in the changes. “They must see that the business environment has changed radically.”

What did you study?

When she enrolled for the Graphic Design course at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, in the 1970s, it was a fairly unknown institute and nobody had heard of graphic design as a profession. She was just 16 and was travelling to Ahmedabad from Bangalore, changing three trains and spending nearly four days onthe journey. After a six-year programme at NID, she obtained a post-graduate degree in Graphic Design from Yale University School of Art. Incidentally, she is the first Indian woman post-graduate in graphic design. Needless to say, several awards have come her way: The Eastern Press Award and the Schickle-Collingwood prize for outstanding work. She’s the only Indian designer to have twice won the Graphic Designer of the Year award by A&M for advertising and design excellence. But the most important of them all is the rising sales figures of some products that were gathering dust on the supermarket shelves.

Please talk about your experiences as a designer?

Talking of how her profession has changed a great deal, largely due to technology, she reminisces, “Earlier if we had to get a particular font in 3D, we had to paint the letters on wood, cut it out and photograph it. It was a laborious process. Now the PC does the most amazing things.”

But there is one disadvantage from the technological revolution that she dislikes; rising output is not matched by quality and well thought-out designs. “You can see this impatience in today’s children too. They have much less concentration and want things to happen in a jiffy.”

Accepting technology is also not an effortless process either, feels Sujata, who has seen some of her peers buck the trend. “Not many of my contemporaries have made the switch because of the fear of technology. It’s unfortunate that it’s not yet got entrenched in their professional life, because you can do some amazing things with the PC.” That’s why she has decided to invest in technology and stay on top of it.

This designer also holds the distinction of getting the first Apple Macintosh into the country. “This was in the year 1985 and even the Customs Department was not aware of such a thing.” And that’s why R+K’s client list ranges from software to healthcare to cell operators to food product companies. As she says, “We strive for international quality right here in India.”

Can you explain the design process for a new client?

The first thing that the R+K team does on acquiring a new client is to undertake a brand audit exercise. “We speak to the employees, the clients, the suppliers, the ad agency and all the other stake holders in the company and get a perception of the brand they have.”

Then they start redoing the company’s image. Sujata talks of an Indian software brand that R+K had to reposition in the US. “The brand was having a problem in the US and the company wanted us to establish its credibility in that market.”

So R+K talked to executives at various levels in different departments. “We even spoke to the HR department and advised them on what kind of employees should represent them in that country.” Meanwhile, R+K initiated some events for American CEOs sponsored by the software company, redid its Web site and established the company’s credibility through case studies.

When R+K took on Project HDC, the entire team knew it was going to be a mammoth task and a tremendous opportunity to prove itself in the market. The mission was to refurbish the image of a pharma company that was about 70 years old. HDC was a kind of legend with illustrious brands such as Liv-52, Septilin and Bonnisan. “These are well-established names, but each highly individualistic and not integral with the company. And internationally too, each product had different images in different countries.”

Sujata and her team were apprehensive about bringing in any radical changes, either in the packaging or in the font or the name itself. “But the company was game and opted for a complete makeover right away.” The makeover involved bringing all brands under the umbrella `Himalaya’, developing a logo, redesigning the packaging and trade dress for the brand and developing an identity for the stores. “All this had to be done keeping in mind that Himalaya is a global Indian brand.” Starting from colours (change to teal green and orange from brown and yellow), the change was brought about in all aspects — stationery, in-house journal, Web site and the product packaging.”

Even the building now dons a new global look with the same teal green and orange. She explains that this two-year exercise (which is still going on) was a lot easier because the company was committed to change. Another unique feature about Himalaya is that it was selling ayurveda like modern medicine, i.e., in capsules and not in the form of `powders or churan‘. Therefore it was easier to treat these products like modern brands and give it a singular look. “Today Himalaya is an accepted brand in over 60 countries,” says the designer. When the Bangalore-based food products company MTR approached R+K for an image change, they had a specific problem: weak acceptance among the youth. “Quality and fine taste were attributed to this brand and accepted by the older generation, but the younger crowd had to be pulled into MTR products for a dosa or a meal.” Sujata and her team tackled this problem with packaging. The fonts changed, the colours changed and the packaging highlighted the convenience aspect. “Young people in a hurry had to be made aware of the ready-to eat feature of MTR products. This was done and the increasing sales figures are the proof of the pudding,” she says, adding that MTR has a seen a 27 per cent growth in its convenience foods category after it opted for the new packaging. Earlier the growth was barely 1-3 per cent. “And mind you, there was no advertising or any kind of promotion campaign. In the soups category, the company has experienced a 200 per cent growth. And most important, we’ve finally made it more acceptable among the youth. They love eating a dosa like a Frankie,” she remarks.

By her client list, it looks like Sujata and her team are working for the cause of Indian MNCs. “That’s where the real challenge is,” she quips. The MNCs already have all their design plans and strategies in place and only look for some minor jobs here. “Maybe some kind of localisation.”

But is she ready to take on an American or a European MNC brand for a makeover? “Why not?” she asks. “Having worked for these leading Indian brands, we’re well aware of what’s happening globally. The only sticky ground would perhaps be the Chinese or the Far East markets. Again, give us time and we’ll prove ourselves,” is her parting shot.