Pooja Ahuja Nagpal
May 28, 2013

‘Emerging markets need the kind of rootedness that we have’: Ashwini Deshpande, Elephant

The director and co-founder opens up on 25 years of business, growing a design firm for Asia from India, and plans to set shop in Gemany

‘Emerging markets need the kind of rootedness that we have’: Ashwini Deshpande, Elephant

Design and brand consultancy Elephant Strategy + Design has been in the business for over 25 years. Helming operations in India and Singapore and offerings across multiple practice areas is Ashwini Deshpande, director and co-founder. Campaign India caught up with Deshpande to find out more about the consultancy’s inception, evolution, verticals and more.

How did Elephant Design come about in 1989? What was the design scene like and how many clients did you have?

In 1989, there really was no design scene; there was no organised design company and design as a business was non-existent. There were few smaller boutique offices but there was no consolidated, multi-disciplinary sort of design company. So as graduates of NID, there was actually no place to join. The choices used to be if you were a graphic designer you join an ad agency or if you were an industrial designer you would join a Blue Star or Tata Motors. So we said, let’s make the design scene, And we set up Elephant Design. We believe - and I can say this in our twenty fifth year - that we made this scene happen. We must have been the first company who started asking for ‘design fees’ in India. Initially, we had just a handful of clients. Interestingly, we started out with a client who was not from India. We did a bilingual global corporate brochure for a company that was owned by a German Company - BASF. He offered us 1, 00,000 Deutsche Marks which was huge money for that time. We delivered very well.

How did the transformation from being a design firm to a strategic design and brand consultancy happen?

In 2003-‘03, we realised that we were doing a lot of user-focussed research and this was leading to some degree of strategy. The fee for design strategy was not really there till then. We felt that somewhere we are adding a lot of value because of our experience and depth and diversity of clients, so we became Elephant Strategy + Design. That’s a new dimension we added to ourselves. The moment you commit yourself to (being) a strategy company then you have to have a different set of people. So we don’t have just designers, we have people who understand brands and communication. In terms of retail, we have added a lot of people. We have architects and interior designers. For product design, we hired people from engineering backgrounds.

How big is the team at Elephant Strategy + Design? Across how many segments and geographies?

In Pune, there are 60 people; the Delhi office is five years old and houses 20 people. And the Singapore office has a team of three persons. There is no studio at Singapore and it mainly handles strategy. Majority of the designers are graduates from design schools as we believe that it is necessary for them to have a formal education in design. We also have people who have done design management from MICA. Then we have the conventional MBAs from IIMs, SP Jain, JBIMS and so on. They bring in a lot of discipline and method that is required when dealing with large FMCGs and corporations. Further, we also have European interns who work with us for six months. It is great to have them as they bring a very fresh outlook on things. Design is not a new industry for them back home unlike in India.

What is the turnover like? How many clients do you have currently?

Though our growth runs quite parallel to the economy and the industry, recession does not affect us due to the diversity of our clients. For example, when the auto industry is seeing a dip, FMCG is doing fine and it rarely sees a dip. We have a lot of FMCG clients. If IT is seeing a downward trend then banking is doing fine. We have such a diversity of clients that deep degree of recession hasn’t hit us. Thus, every year we have been a profitable company and grown across geographies.

At any given point of time, there are 60 live clients on our roster. Apart from the existing roster, we acquire about 20 new clients every year across offices. In 2012, our Singapore office acquired eight clients – P&G, Unilever and few traditional Chinese family businesses, after one year of almost nothing.

What has stopped you from aligning with a network?

The one path that we consciously didn’t take is to be acquired. The queries started in the late 90’s when India seemed to be a great market to be in. Every big network has walked in and looked at us and we have looked at them. But somewhere, we had this very deep belief that there is scope to have a design and brand company for Asia from India that would grow around the world. We felt that Elephant was a strong brand to grow rather than dissolve into one of the other design companies. We felt our values systems and beliefs were very different from the other design companies that came with very large global mindsets. Further, we believe that emerging markets need that kind of rootedness that we have.

We are open to acquisitions as long as they understand the core competencies that Elephant has and grow them.

What are the different business units at Elephant Strategy + Design?

We have three strong verticals. One of them is Brand Advisory, which looks into the positioning of the brand, the values, essence and the visual identity. The next vertical is of Product Design, which is about design of appliances, medical devices, lifestyle products and so on. The third is Environment Design, which designs retail experiences, campus, and corporate lounges, among others.

From a design lens, how has the Indian market evolved?

From 1989 to now, there has been a big shift in the market. In 1989, India had not opened up so there was no liberalisation. So Indian companies were safe and secure and didn’t have to do anything outstanding to sell the products and services and they hadn’t faced global competition. So design was not looked at as a need. Then in 1992 liberalisation took place and global companies came to India while Indian companies ventured out. So there was need to be on par with global companies and design became important. This was the first turnaround. We would work with an Indian company to make it look international - we worked with MBT which later became Tech Mahindra. On the other hand, there were companies like CA (Computer Associates) which wanted to enter Indian markets and wanted to look Indian. We worked with ICICI Bank that was being launched.

Another big shift happened when the global recession took place. Everyone wanted to cut down on marketing budgets but somewhere along the way we had managed to convince companies that design is a capital investment and not a marketing spend. So a lot of the clients realised that then was the time to invest in design because it would give them differentiation. We were doing great FMCG work. Currently, it’s a great time for Indian companies as they no longer have to go out and prove themselves. There are no excuses for Indian companies to look any less or do less. We see Indian companies acquiring other organisations around the world and doing business as if they were multi-nationals from any other part of the world.

What are the differences in the work created for international market and Indian market?

In the FMCG category, there is a big difference in the way Indian and global brands behave. For an emerging market, the packaging needs to answer explicitly who the brand is, what the brand does and how. This is important as the users could be first generation users and are not that aware and educated. In developed countries, there is ample of choice and everything revolves around the brand So, you have to answer fewer and fewer questions about the products. Further, in India there is a challenge of languages so everything is heavily dependent on visuals. The work becomes minimalist as you go to developed nations.

What is the vision for the next 25 years?

For the immediate future, we have taken a decision to set up shop in Germany that will handle strategy, product and innovation. We will continue with the ‘frugal design philosophy’ where you can achieve much more with limited resources. The dream is to take the Elephant brand where ever it makes sense. It’s not about the numbers growing but it’s about what we have learnt as a design company and implementing it in any other part of the world. If it makes sense, then it’s super. I think that’s really where our value lies.

Campaign India

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