A brand thinker and widely published writer and columnist, Kunal Vora is the Co-founder and Partner of ABND, a Mumbai-based branding agency that ranks among the top mid-size agencies in India and was recently awarded the country’s Best Brand Design Studio 2019 at the Pool Awards. In an earlier life in the early 2000s in Canada, Vora won product design awards for his work with Research in Motion, DuPont, and City of Toronto’s Olympic bid. In 2011, Vora founded ABND. “Brands come first, then comes branding… Branding is tangible — it is what you see, hear, taste, touch, and feel,” says Vora in an interview with Creative Brands. [Excerpts]

CB: What lies at the heart of branding? What precedes or follows the other — brand or branding? In other words, is brand a consequence of branding?

KV: Great question. As people, what we say, what we do, how we behave, what we wear, where we go, whom we associate with, and who we stay away from is an outcome of two things — one, what we truly are, our roots, our personality, and beliefs; and two, how we want the world to see us. 

Kunal Vora, Co-Founder & Partner, ABND.

The same holds true for brands and branding — at the heart lies a purpose, an essence or a philosophy which ideally does not change, that truly is the brand. The physical manifestation of this soul to the world at large is branding, which often roots from who your target audience is and how you stack up against the competition. 

Brands come first, then comes branding. However, branding is tangible — it is what you see, hear, taste, touch, and feel. And just like how what you wore, how you danced, and who you came with to the party last night leads to building a perception amongst your friends, branding does the same for brands.

CB: Advertising is one act, marketing yet another, although advertising is one of the most vital parts of marketing. However, great advertising and marketing needn’t necessarily make for a great brand. What makes for a great brand?

While branding, advertising, and marketing are three acts, they need to work cohesively. Like you rightly said, great advertising and marketing needn’t necessarily make for a great brand. They can ensure product sales and momentary memorability but may not always help build brand equity. Over the years we’ve all witnessed brilliant campaigns, which may have worked at a campaign level but neither contributed to brand building nor sales over time. Great brands are created over time, when a strong brand positioning derived from clearly understanding consumer and competition, becomes the guiding force for advertising and marketing.

Great brands are created over time,
when a strong brand positioning derived from clearly understanding consumer and competition,
becomes the guiding force for
advertising and marketing.

CB: Tough choice. Yet, to your mind, what 10 brands could make it to the Top 10 from among Indian brands as we speak? And what has worked for those brands?

Of course, the instinctive answer to this question would be Tata Group, Mahindra, Reliance, Infosys, Wipro, and HCL. Some of the legacy brands have consistently stayed on top, while there are some of the new-age brands that are aggressively moving forward.India is expected to emerge as the largest consumer market by 2021, and this will be clubbed with a business ecosystem that is capable of meeting these demands. 

Reliance’s Jio is a brand that is looking to fuel this growing consumer base, their understanding of the middle-class consumer and the heavy investments they are making into brick-and-mortar retail, logistics, and technology to go head on with existing e-commerce giants will be a brand to watch out for. Keeping revenues vs profitability aside, I feel the following brands will capitalize on this consumer growth to become leaders in their own space. PayTM and Razorpay are the ones to watch out for in the financial sector. With the growing appetite for education, brands like BYJU’s will look to extend itself to every household.

CB: Then there are brands that over the years have become institutions of excellence or have become aspirational models. Consistency, trust, and quality, but not limited to that alone, are the most easily identifiable markers of such brands. In an increasingly fragmenting market, even within narrow segments, how can ‘brands’ make themselves unique or stand out — in terms of products, services, visual identity, and responsiveness?

KV: In Strategic Business Management, we have what are called the blue ocean and the red ocean strategies. Just as the name suggests, a blue ocean strategy symbolises calm, free waters, open to exploration. I feel that it becomes easier for brands to stand out within narrow segments i.e. the blue ocean, if they realise and capitalise on that fact that their market is fragmenting. It allows for brands to project and communicate themselves as masters of their domain by crafting a niche. 

Precise brand positioning helps a lot. Take for example, Levers for Change, a brand we worked with last year. LFC is a management consultancy that helped manufacturers and industries increase business turnaround. The main issue was that they got lost in the ‘management consultancy’ space, often being compared to the Deloittes and KPMGs of the world. A branding exercise with them helped us understand their core expertise, their approach, and business differentiator. 

We realised that unlike traditional management consultancy firms, LFC focussed only on performance transformation and business turnaround, and did not dilute their offerings through Audits, Advisory, or Tax. This led to repositioning them as a ‘Business Transformation Consultancy’. Coupled with this, relevant communication helped them differentiate themselves clearly amongst the competition, both internally and externally. Additionally, we also identified business verticals where their expertise lay, and helped them focus their energies in those sectors only, as opposed to diluting their services by exploring all baskets. 

CB: Branding is not only a sensorial, visual, or abstract experience. How does it add to a company’s ROI and performance?

We tell all our clients to consider branding as an investment and not an expense. Whether it is understanding the pulse of the consumer, identifying the competition, getting a conflict-free brand name, designing a visual identity, or establishing the right tone of voice, they all contribute to the bottom-line. 

Take for example Precision Pipes, India’s leading manufacturer in plumbing and electrical pipes and fittings, who approached us to rebrand themselves and appeal to the modern-day audience. 

Most of their competition had top celebrities as their ambassadors and typically allocated big bucks towards advertising and marketing. Our research helped us realise that rather than rebranding, they needed to reposition themselves and appeal to the right audience i.e. plumbers and electricians who were the key decision makers. Their entire communication was then directed towards those unsung heroes, which included changing the tone to more local messaging in vernacular languages, ultimately resulting in bottom line growth and dramatic increase in brand awareness. 

Brand identity is where the 
logo, its typeface, colour psychology, and story create unique entities across industries. Each step in the branding process helps in creating assets, both tangible and intangible. And just like any asset in a business, this will only help in a rise in
the financial position of an organization.

Apart from competition and consumer analysis, a brand name too is most crucial to any company. We’ve often had experiences with clients where they didn’t invest in getting the right filtered name at the earliest stage itself, and ultimately faced lawsuits further down the line. At that given point, it becomes too late for any brand to change themselves, without affecting brand equity. While we have managed to rename and reposition such companies, a conflict-free name established in the earlier stages, which appeals to the TG and generates memorability is the most valuable asset. And finally, a brand identity is not only about pretty looking logos. Imagine a supermarket aisle with 50+ brands under one category. In an average of 7 seconds, these brands are fighting with each other to resonate with their ideal audience. 

Brand identity is where the logo, its typeface, colour psychology, and story create unique entities across industries. Each step in the branding process helps in creating assets, both tangible and intangible. And just like any asset in a business, this will only help in a rise in the financial position of an organization. At the end of day, if you get the brand right, profits will follow.

CB: Grab-a-Grub: So, you chopped up the name, made it Grab, and gave it an identity without losing the essential connect with its brand identity and legacy. The story reminded me of Mumbai’s iconic Dabbawalla, essentially in terms of it last-mile connectivity. In redefining the brand, you say Grab would function as a service for the merchant. So how does the customer interface come into the transaction? Post re-branding, have you had an evaluation of its performance?

KV: Grab was founded back in 2012 as ‘Grab-a-Grub’, a food delivery start-up, servicing practically all the prominent restaurants in seven cities across India. In 2014, around the time they were receiving their second round of funding, they decided to pivot the business model from B2C food delivery to a B2B last-mile logistics. They realised the potential in the hyperlocal logistics space way before the others and knew food would contribute to only a minor chunk of their business. This is when they bought us on board as their branding partners. 

From a brand point-of-view, we realised that they needed to shed the perception of food and create a brand which clearly stood out in the heavily populated logistics space. The challenge was that doing this would also mean losing out the existing brand equity built in the restaurant space where ‘Grab-a-Grub’ was already a leader. On the other hand, continuing with the same brand would mean losing out in the last-mile space which would eventually constitute the larger part of their business.

On-ground research with delivery staff, restaurateurs, logistics team, operations team, and understanding the entire supply chain gave us enough insights to carve the strategy forward. For starters, we renamed Grab-a-Grub to “Grab” after realising that a majority of the internal and external stakeholders colloquially called it “Grab” instead of the whole name. We evaluated the issues that could arise with a name like Grab, but believed that it would help retain brand equity because of the existing restaurant delivery business. 

Post the rebranding exercise, Grab has grown exponentially. They’ve been able to communicate themselves effectively and they have a brand that has been highly visible globally. They were recently acquired by Reliance Jio and now are an integral part of the Jio retail vision.

The new brand, the positioning, and the communication was all designed to give internal and external clarity to what Grab really was, especially because hyperlocal logistics is not a space easily understood. For an investor, it had to show a new visible brand that had a pan-India reach, that was scaling up, and was lucrative. For the merchants, it had to show a brand which was a pioneer in the last-mile space, it had to reflect experience, stability, and network. While not a B2C brand anymore, it still needed to differentiate itself from other logistic companies for the end user: “What makes Grab different from services such as FedEx, DHL, BlueDart, or Vichare Courier?”

Post the rebranding exercise, Grab has grown exponentially. They’ve been able to communicate themselves effectively and they have a brand that has been highly visible globally. They were recently acquired by Reliance Jio and now are an integral part of the Jio retail vision. From 7 cities to 350+ cities across India and with over 1.5 lakh shipments a day, their clients include Amazon, FlipKart, Big Basket, McDonalds, Medlife etc. 

To sum it up, just as envisioned in 2014, food delivery occupies a minor portion of their revenue model which has been significantly replaced by their e-commerce business. 

CB: Saundh — classy, understated work. In creating a mint-fresh retail brand under its parent company Sahiba, an already established textile manufacturer, how did you position Saundh as one that “transcends boundaries”, given its “premium” branding with an “explorer personality”?

KV: Saundh was created as a brand for Sahiba Textiles, one of the largest textile manufacturers in India. When they approached ABND, they were unclear about the approach that they needed to adopt for this new brand. We conducted a detailed consumer research and mapped the competition present in the Indian wear category. 

Flooded with both organised and unorganised brands, the market had everything right from high-end brands like Meena Bazaar and Sabyasachi to local brands present at Gandhi Market and those alike. We realised that calling our clothing line Indian wear or Fusion wear would not help differentiate our offerings from the competition. 

There was a huge consumer segment,
who was aspirational and global in their approach and in a way, they transcended boundaries. But, while being global, their personalities projected a rooted essence…

On the other hand, there was a huge consumer segment, who was aspirational and global in their approach and in a way, they transcended boundaries. But, while being global, their personalities projected a rooted essence, which did not change regardless of their personal and professional growth. This helped us classify our audience as the “rooted, confident woman, who transcends boundaries”. These women do not wear mere clothing, but wear clothes like they are wearing themselves. Hence, while staying away from classifying the brand as Indian or Fusion Wear, we crafted a category of ‘Everywear’, inspired by India, keeping it slightly open ended.  

This positioning of the brand translated across all the touchpoints, including the brand name and its identity. Saundh as a name is derived from the fragrance that emerges after the first drops of rain hit the soil. Scientifically, it is said that this fragrance stays constant across all lands, irrespective of geography. This worked well with the personality of our confident woman, no matter in which part of the world she was, stayed grounded and true to her roots. 

The new identity depicted a minimalist brand, which mirrors the process of the soil soaking up the rain drops and throws off the fragrance, a.k.a Saundh. We reiterated the premium essence of the brand in the brand colours, which was a mixture of the symbolic blue of a rain drop and the muddy brown of the soil, in turn producing the Saundh colour, the Waft Blue. 

Saundh has beautifully translated their brand not only across their communication and social media channels, but also in their instore experience. Saundh has recently launched two stores, one in Mumbai and the other in Delhi, and are now looking at expanding across India. 

CB: How has branding evolved over time? Could you illustrate with a few contemporary examples?

KV: When it comes to branding, like most other things in the world, yesterday’s challenges become today’s opportunities and the challenges brand practitioners face today will become the opportunities of tomorrow. 

Among the most prominent evolutions we have witnessed are the switch from positioning to purpose, the in-depth knowledge of consumers, and brand led activism. 

Consider the example of Dove: consumers across the globe have looked at Dove as a purposeful brand because its mission goes beyond selling soap, shampoo, and other body care products. Dove has brilliantly used its brand to help improve self-esteem of women worldwide. They understand that low self-esteem is a serious issue and through all their campaigns, initiatives, and communication, they help girls become more confident and secure about themselves. This has been driven by knowing the consumers more than they know themselves.

As political tides change, brand
missions have evolved into activism, where they go beyond simply mentioning their core values to actually participating in defending them. Like when Donald Trump announced banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations, Starbucks promised to hire 10,000 refugees, Airbnb offered free housing to refugees, and Budweiser released a super bowl commercial with a heartfelt message
about their immigrant roots.

Brands have been using big data for understanding consumer behaviour, patterns, and trends. Big names, such as Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix, predict your actions before you can even think about it — no assumption, no intuition, but 100% science. And lastly, as political tides change, brand missions have evolved into activism, where they go beyond simply mentioning their core values to actually participating in defending them. Like when Donald Trump announced banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations, Starbucks promised to hire 10,000 refugees, Airbnb offered free housing to refugees, and Budweiser released a super bowl commercial with a heartfelt message about their immigrant roots.

[End Note: You can find Kunal Vora at www.abnd.in]