I teach at two architecture colleges in Pune and Mumbai- subjects being Design and Architecture Journalism, the latter being a course set up by me about 6 years back, and I think as of now I am still the only one teaching this subject in the country. Anyway, this post is not about what I teach, but what we discussed in class.
As my discussion was on, the guy from the canteen came up with a cup of tea for me. And while going out, this young lad of about 15 or so was talking to the peon about his cell phone. And he said, “Main ab to chaar hazaar ka Nokia phone lene waala hoon!” (I am going to buy a Nokia phone worth Rs.4000). And I immediately told my students, “Now this is a brand. The fact that even a non-literate young boy knows not only the product but the name of the company so well.”
And our discussion went to brands. We talked about Nokia vs Sony, Motorola, LG, Samsung etc; especially how Nokia has even managed to do so well against the Apple iphone. One of the reasons, as we discussed, could be that Nokia is very smart looking, and comes in affordable ranges too. Then again, a Nokia phone is very user friendly. Ask me, I tried a LG and seen Mukund try a Motorola…but no matter how good those cell phones look, a Nokia is the one I went back to. So is it function? “Form follows function” – a great principle in architecture, and one that Nokia actually includes in their design thinking. But its also, ‘Great service backing great form and function’ that sets Nokia apart. What matters is also what happens after one buys the cell phone. To top it off, it’s also how a Nokia phone makes one feel… ‘innovative, smart, sexy, connected…’ – everything that boy of 15 would like to be at his age.
So brands are all about how they make you feel. And also about being popular. And I got Bisleri and Xerox as two examples being given by my students. And I almost said ‘Yes,of course!’. Almost.
The reason for that, as I explained to the class too, was the fact that these two companies set out as the first of their kind and hence were really popular. And they got so well known, that the brand got diluted. Today, in India, if you say Bisleri, they’ll give you any packaged water- be it a Kinley, Oxyrich, Himalayan, Kingfisher…or even a Bisleri, the original name of the brand. Well,Bisleri did want to stand for packaged water, but today what they have got is not brand Bisleri, but being relegated to just ‘packaged water’. Similarly with Xerox. If one has to buy a ‘Xerox’ machine in India, one does not look at the original brand, but ‘a’ xerox machine which can be from Canon or any other company.
As we talked further, we realised that what we consider brands are so because of the consumer/client loyalty. But with the fast changing pace of life, a ‘brand’ today has a shelf life of hardly few months or years; as compared to what they used to be.
For example, a Godrej steel cupboard was something that was used for many years, probably generations too. Our parents used it, still do, and nothing can shake their belief in feeling the security that the Godrej cupboard can give. Not even other well-designed, customised, modern cupboards from other companies.
But in these new times, nothing can last more than few years. We change our phones, houses, clothes, shoes, watches, accessories, appliances, furniture and more with a snap of a finger. We are attached but don’t really love ‘our brands’. No longer are we so ‘brand conscious’ that we commit ourselves to any particular brand. If what we want is not available with brand A, we can and do opt for brands B, C, D…
Of course, we know our brands well. But keep hopping from one onto the next in the race of being better, stronger and smarter. All that matters is having/owning a branded item, not the brand itself anymore.
If you look around, there is very little commitment given to a particular brand. The minute another product comes that is fancier, richer and gives us that edge over another person, we immediately tend to pick that product up. It’s a world that is more and more becoming materialistic without actually caring for it either. This is something that holds true in all sectors and not just consumer appliances. Look at Fashion, furniture, sports…and more- they all are facing the same comatose point where they can hook a customer, but need not necessarily manage keeping him to themselves.
So, is this the era of the fall of brands? Are we going to see the popularity of branded items vs. brands themselves? Sometimes, in the race of being the biggest, largest and most popular, we tend to forget on being the best. Which is why there is a big difference on being famous, and being a brand. And maybe somewhere down the line some companies have managed balancing them all. Which is why a Nokia is popular, but has managed to retain its identity. Ditto an Apple Mac. No matter how many other computers come into the market.
Which comes down to a basic question. What is a ‘brand’ in today’s context? Is it something that is popular? Or unique? Or has the largest sales turnover? Or one that keeps changing with times to bring out something new? Or is it one that manages to touch hearts and connect?
It’s quite interesting to note that if we actually apply the above questions to our own design firms, then we can also understand and re-establish what makes or does not make our firms a brand.
The discussion then went on to architecture in India, and we were looking at architects who are popular, well-known/famous, great personality etc but yet cannot be called as ‘Brands’ of Modern Indian Architecture. But what we did conclude was that they were all brand ambassadors. Just like all of us could be- for the cities we build and design in. And it is the power of architecture to affect and effect that makes it such a great tool to brand-build a city or a nation. But like good old Spiderman’s uncle quoted, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And maybe being a brand in today’s context is that: being responsible.