A real brand for real people


By Sagarika Sundaram

How many Indian companies devote a whole person to brand and culture? Kassia Karr, who up until now has been an Internet friend, handles both at Bhane, a new entrant in India’s online retail scene. Based in Delhi, Bhane is a little company that sits within a much larger one. Founder Anand Ahuja and his team of 14 operate the business out of one section in a massive factory that manufactures clothes for brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Gap. His grandmother started the family business, and it is now one of India’s largest export houses.

I am visiting Delhi and Kassia has invited me over. The guard who signs me in corrects my pronunciation, “Oh, you mean Bhaa-ney”. Anand is amused when he hears this and declares that people should pronounce the name however they like, just as they should wear Bhane’s clothes however they like. In keeping with the spirit of our times, forging your own path is the essence of Bhane.


Bhane has peppered my Instagram feed since it launched a few months ago. It comes across as quiet and authentic. Just when I thought Zara had taken over Delhi, Bhane has appeared as an affordable alternative for everyday basics like cotton shirts, trousers, tshirts and jeans. On the website, outfits are photographed by street-style photographer Manou. I want to be friends with these beautiful girls and boys, invite them over for dinner.

Kassia takes me on a tour of the export house factory. Bhane has the advantage of infrastructure. I walk past mannequins of little boys and girls, pregnant women, large women - real people. A jigsaw carves into a delicious thick cake of red lace. Hundreds of shirts are hanging out to dry. Kassia points out the needle-detecting machine. All around factory workers are puzzling together abstract pieces of cloth into more recognisable shapes. Brands blur together at this stage, I can’t tell a Next from a JC Penny. And it doesn’t matter, because the clothes lose their meaning when I see them in such enormous quantities. Ironically, the scene is a testament to why branding matters. As I walk through the factory, it strikes me again that form and function are not the only reason we choose one chambray over another. It is also the stories we weave around them that bring meaning.


"So why do you have a brand and culture person?" I ask Anand. He says, "Once I have my basic garments in place, I need to give people a reason to come back. That’s where Kassia comes in." Bhane has consciously decided to spend nothing on marketing and leverage social media. "We’re making it up as we go along," he admits.

As they walk me out, Anand tells me that he prefers not to call his company a start-up. “That makes it sound like the only goal is to spin it off and make an exit. We’re building something to last.”

Sagarika Sundaram is strategist and designer based at Wolff Olins Dubai.

Titan trying edutainment too

By Beya Likhari, Zia Patel & Sagarika Sundaram

India’s oldest industrial house, the Tata Group, announced that its fifth largest company, Titan Industries, is working towards 'after school education through gadgets and technology' for youth in India. Last year, Titan raked in $1.63 billion from its watch and jewelry businesses. And while its foray into ‘Edutainment’ might come as a surprise at first blush, it makes more sense in the context of India’s demographics.

India has approximately 330 million people below the age of 15 and for a company to see this as an opportunity to educate the youth is refreshing. In a society where kids are encouraged to become engineers, lawyers and doctors, Edutainment could potentially break these stereotypes and open up more opportunities for the youth—while also opening up their parents’ minds.  Additionally, if these kids decide that they do want to become engineers and doctors, they are able to pursue other hobbies after school, outside of that curriculum.

The Edutainment industry is growing fast. Titan’s new business, for example, is projected to bring Titan a whopping $1 billion by 2020. And India’s most powerful actor, Shah Rukh Khan owns 26% of Mexico’s KidZania, which is set to open up in Mumbai soon.  

It will be interesting to see how Titan establishes credibility and uniqueness in the education space; Will they leverage and partner with Indian role models outside of run of the mill choices like Bollywood and cricket to spark young minds? How will they draw a link between Edutainment and their other two businesses? 

The current strategy is to develop content around themes like ‘journey through time’. Titan will be able to mine many such metaphors from the universe of watches and jewelry but the key lies in how they craft the story: an internal cross-selling strategy might make itself too transparent if one stepped into an interactive game with Titan watches plastered everywhere. 

By moving into the children’s market with a venture that will have a positive impact on Indian society, Titan is upholding Tata’s legacy of integrity. We love brands that create positive impact and are watching this space closely.

Image via http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/gallery/2009/sep/17/japan#/?picture=353075145&index=3

WEF talk @ Sandbox, Dubai

Businesses need to get over standardisation – been there, done that. What’s next though? In a world where online peer reviews are the only true advertisements, brands need to genuinely touch a consumer’s heart. Paradox and ambiguity challenge and excite humans, and it’s time for brands to embrace these qualities in order to earn trust. 

This Sunday, one day before the World Economic Forum (WEF) Summit on the Global Agenda takes centre-stage in Dubai, Sandbox, a global community of entrepreneurial spirits, will bring three members of WEF Global Agenda Councils and Wolff Olins MD Charles Wright together in a panel discussion to address the changing dynamics of business and branding.

Besides Charles, the panellists will include Tim Leberecht, CMO of global design and innovation firm frog (WEF Global Agenda Council on Values); Brian Collins, chairman and chief creative officer of COLLINS in NYC (WEF Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation); Sujata Keshavan, chairman and executive creative director of The Brand Union in Bangalore (WEF Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation).

7 - 9pm

Sunday, November 11

The Pavilion Downtown

Please RSVP to join the conversation.

Blurring the divide in India

Debbie Millman invites the event’s most prolific tweeters on stage to share their experience at Designyatra.

By Sagarika Sundaram

It’s refreshing to attend a conference in India where the front row seats don’t have a ‘VIP’ notice tacked to them. The theme of this year’s Kyoorius Designyatra, a design conference in Goa, is ‘The Divide’. Having attended the conference as a student in its first two years, I crossed one kind of divide in returning as a professional this year.

I’ve grown up with Designyatra, so it’s exciting to see my friends return as speakers or to launch projects. Satya Rajpurohit, a former classmate of mine who founded the Indian Type Foundry, launched his new typeface Engrez Sans at the event. The designers behind the event’s bold and bright identity design used the typeface in their work.

Rajesh Kejriwal, who launched Designyatra in 2006 said “the conference is what you make of it. Last year, we had 22 people who made connections that took them outside India for placements and projects. That kind of thing makes me proud. I wish more people would juice these three days.” 

The organisers, who drew up a solid lineup of names for the event, imaginatively blurred the divide between speaker and audience. An unmoderated Twitter feed projected on screen allowed people up on stage to respond quickly to audience questions and comments, making Q&A sessions really fun. People felt good being empowered with a direct line of communication to speakers. @Xische tweeted, “Watching people (us included) light up when spotting their tweet on the big screen is funny.”

A few sharp and critical tweets set off murmurs asking to moderate the feed, but Rajesh firmly disagreed. “Why would I do that? It’s great this way”. Robert Wong of Google Creative Lab agreed. He believes that expressing an opinion, however critical, with a name and photo attached is exercising our right to free speech. “Hiding behind anonymity is the worst.”

Of those speakers who took the time to tailor their thoughts to the theme of “The Divide,” a number flipped it, framing division as unity. Robert Wong spoke about design’s power to bring people together through stories. Ambrish Arora of Lotus used constraints as design elements. He asked us, “Can we be integrators?”

Designers in India are largely a privileged set. Most parents can’t support their children though an expensive design education that does not guarantee a job. It is important to enrich the country’s design discourse by including stories from different economic backgrounds. Blurring yet another divide, Designyatra brought us two leading rural entrepreneurs this year. Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who invented Mitticool, a clay refrigerator that runs without electricity, shared his business story with soul and passion.

Arunachalam Muruganathan had the crowd roaring as he explained how he shed blood, sweat and tears to design a revolutionary low-cost sanitary napkin. Muruganathan challenged us with a strong question unlikely to arise in agency-life – “What will you die for?”

In another session, Nik Roope of Poke philosophically pointed to the stage as a divide, a separator between speaker and attendee, idol and fan. The organisers of Designyatra undoubtedly seek to bridge this divide, so it’s a bit odd to see a glaring red rope cutting across the back of the room separating a student section from the rest of the audience. Someone explained that apparently it had been requested by a group of senior Indian designers who were bothered by students mobbing them at earlier Designyatras.

As a former designer-mobber myself, it would delight my heart to see a student uprising walk past the barrier and squat in the vast space between the stage and front row. It would make these stimulating three days feel more intimate and friendly than they already do.

This piece was written during a design writing workshop held at Kyoorius Designyatra by Creative Review and the British CouncilStay tuned for more thinking and coverage from our time in Goa.

WO + MAKE Business Hub Dubai

By Sagarika Sundaram

Having only recently moved back to Dubai from San Francisco, it’s wonderful to see so much activity in the start-up space happening around here. Growing up in Dubai 20 odd years ago, I was hard-pressed to find events that went beyond expat get-togethers.

Earlier this week, Moussa and I were invited to be on a panel at MAKE business hub,  a café and co-working space in Dubai. Every month, they hold an event called MAKE Ignite. The format: three panelists present what they offer in ten minutes, and then 3 recently launched start-ups present their idea, inviting feedback from the panel and audience. As speakers, Moussa and I represented the design and strategy combination that is the foundation of WO. We spoke about how branding can help startups, using our Game Changers report to contextualise our advice. We also shared WO’s very own start-up skill share venture with the crowd - WO entrepreneur.

First off, we had the brothers from Wild Peeta, an up and coming shawarma eatery in Dubai, present us their foray into social media TV. Earlier this year, Mohamed and Peyman called upon their twitter followers to shape a spur-of-the-moment holiday that landed them in Sri Lanka and Japan. Twitter recommendations led them to one unconventional adventure after another. With a proof-of-concept in hand, they’ve now tied up with broadcasters to produce a full season of Peeta Planet, a reality show that will have them travel all over the world. 

Next, we had the ladies from iFlyPrivate present the region’s first online private jet charter service to retail affordable seats on an individual basis. Sure to be a hit with the luxury-hungry crowd in the region, they’ve already had someone buy up 27,000 USD worth of seats in their first week.

Last we had the folks from Aflamnah who have quit their cushy media jobs to start the Middle East’s first crowd-funding platform. Unlike Kickstarter, they allows projects to keep whatever funding they gather, even if they don’t hit their final target. A fellow panelist with expertise in seed-funding advised Aflamnah to have a solid roadmap to stay ahead of the pack, as he knows that in the next six months, Aflamnah will no longer have the luxury of no competition.

Entrepreneurship is not a new phenomena. What’s different now is platforms like MAKE ignite that gather the community together and stir it up. All in all, a wonderful night, though next time I need to arrange a rendezvous with one of those delicious looking canapé trays they had floating around. 

Sagarika Sundaram is a strategist at Wolff Olins Dubai.

Dreams, Hairstyles and Other Human Universals

By Sagarika Sundaram

I love a good list. This is one that I’ve been reflecting on for a few weeks now. I find it fascinating. By anthropologist Donald Brown, it’s a list of 200 human universals – a set of traits and behaviours, tools and tastes shared by every human civilisation on the planet. As I go down the list, it’s bizarre to picture that a Sub-Saharan nomad, an Icelander and myself, an Indian sitting in Dubai, have ‘poetic lines demarcated by pauses’ in common.

In the race to be the best, companies are always trying to differentiate themselves from one another. Part of our work as brand strategists often involves showing them that a strong brand is one that is relevant to people’s lives. This insightful list just strikes home that as different as our many cultures are, humans across the world have a surprising lot in common.

Sagarika Sundaram is a strategist at Wolff Olins Dubai