29 April, 2023

Brand Tags and why they matter

When I wore a new T-shirt during a weekend holiday earlier this month, my teenage daughter pondered why I chose this one with a loud-brand name on it, as usually I go mellow on displaying brand love. Even my walking shoes would hardly display the swoosh or the cat or the three stripes. It has been years since I bought formal shirts which bore the “iconic crown” on the cuffs. But even those would be gelled in to the fabric colour. 

So much for a person like me who is brand-conscious but not displaying it in public.

On the contrary, many brands, especially fashion apparel make sure their company / brand names are loudly displayed on their products. Even on PCs, HP, Dell, Lenovo and Acer – the top 4 companies with a collective market share of 95% in the personal computing space display their names while Apple shows just the logo.

From Bata shoes to Adidas, Levis T-shirts to Hidesign wallets, one can see the brand names liberally displayed on the products. Though it is easy to identify, premium bikes such as Royal Enfield or Harley Davidson by its looks, have still large, loud brand forms. When the car ignition is turned on, there is a dramatic appearance (with music) of the brand logos, from Honda to Volkswagen and everyone in between. 

While people buy products for their functionality, consumers “pay the price” for brands.

It is psychological, after all. Essentially, display of brands one uses is one way of display of wealth too. Most people in the world, who earn several lakhs per year (in India) and perhaps over USD 100,000 pa globally are not putting in their efforts for just 3 square meals a day. It is much beyond. 

From the locality and the apartment complex one resides in (especially in India) to the vehicle they drive; filling premium fuel at Shell vs value fuel from HPCL; the brand of eyeliner to the grooming essentials one uses; from the school the kids attend to brands they consume at home from the dining table to the rest rooms, there is an intrinsic tie with the psychological needs, based on the theory of hierarchy proposed by Maslow. 

As people start moving up the value chain, their desire to consume “brands’ over products increases. I have seen this first hand at hypermarkets such as the erstwhile Big Bazaar. While there would be heaps of dal, sugar and rice piled up in large steel utensils, it would be common for women to interact with the staff to enquire the prices and make mental calculations comparing with the local shopkeeper. 

And then, there would be a small set of customers, who would prefer packaged sugar, salt and grocery. There is, in fact premiumization even in these categories such as pink salt, low-iodine sugar and so on.

A friend once told me, whether you travel in an Audi or a (Maruti) Alto, the destination is the same, and that both vehicles have just 4 wheels, a steering wheel and an engine. So, why pay a premium? True.

Between a Jockey and a Lux inner wear or Sudarmani how does it matter what one wears, as this is not even to be seen by anyone! Quite true, minus the quality of the fabric, inner comfort, etc. 

Well, these are the “outlier customers” for brands who do not wish to pay a premium for utility. 

However, as is always said, it takes years to build a brand name while basic products (and services) are offered for their purpose of gratifying a simple need. 2-3 decades back, Indian customers were buying goods and services. In the past 15 years, we have seen branded showrooms for various products mushrooming all over the country. A simple business such as grooming – hair saloon / beuaty parlour – as it was called, is now one of the largest branded business with over 2,500 “salons” across the country. 

There are an estimated 300 malls in India which have the best-in class Indian and international brands. The top 50 apparel, accessories and jewellery brands have in excess of 10,000 exclusive stores, each around 800 sq ft. across the country. Branded coffee shops, from CCD to Starbucks and the much acclaimed neighbourhood favourites, are over 4,000 in India now.

Consumers today are chasing brands and not just the other way around. 

Two new Apple stores were inaugurated in April 2023 at Mumbai and Delhi. Seeing the crowds waiting to be among the early birds for store inauguration in the past for Ikea, Starbucks, H&M, Uniqlo among others, I can confidently say these two stores would have done tremendous business this month. 

While many companies continue to offer higher importance for the “brand” in the communication – on the product, inside the retail store and other communication material, many small as well as large companies ignore it. Unless there is a deeper focus on brand building, with a long term outlook, existing and new consumer stickiness is going to be minimal or worse, nil. 

Indian consumers will buy more branded products in the next few decades. Loud display of affection, from dresses to kitchen knives to drinking glasses to shoes, it is a kind of self-gratification after all.

01 April, 2023

Goodbye Retail | Adios, amigos…

After spending the last 26 years in retail, I have decided to hang up my boots for good. I have been preparing for this day for the past few months, as I set my feet in a new direction, adjusting the sails and the compass towards another exciting destination.

As much as the destination is important, I have always believed that the journey is as important. So, I will continue to enjoy every moment in whatever I would be doing.

My most recent stint with Indian Terrain Fashions went awry for reasons beyond my control. Not only did it leave a sour taste for me professionally but also things took an unfortunate turn, sadly. This, despite me putting in my best efforts for the 8 months that I was actively involved in the company, having visited over 96 stores across India (of the 210) and making a huge difference in several aspects of the business including sales, marketing, merchandising, etc. 

Nevertheless, life moves on.

My career in retail began in 1997, when I joined Baskin Robbins in Chennai as a part-time employee, working 11am – 3pm scooping ice-cream. I would attend NIIT to learn computer languages from 7am – 9am and study B. Com at Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda College from 4pm – 8pm. Between consumers, computers and commerce, I decided to choose “consumers” and pursued MBA. Armed with a campus placement with the RPG Group, I worked with formats like Foodworld and Musicworld, where I learned the basics of retail management. Two extreme concepts, yet the fundamentals were laid well. 

I moved to Bangalore with just four bags, three with clothes and one with music cassettes to join India’s first seamless mall, Central in 2004. I landed at the most prized possession of my professional work in 2006, to join India’s first private, greenfield airport at Bangalore. Over the next 4 years, I would travel across the top 10 airports worldwide, learn about Travel Retail and speak at global conferences about the opportunity that is Indian aviation (circa 2008).I was responsible for conceptualising, designing and setting up India’s first ever Travel Retail areas at Bangalore International Airport. The Indian Travel Retail industry, including domestic retail, F&B and duty free is now estimated to be around Rs. 4,000 cr in annual revenues. 

Then came the next illustrious phase of my life – setting up 140 cafes all India for CafĂ© Coffee Day; within department stores, book stores, colleges and university campuses; hospitals and medical centres; inside the MA Chidambaram cricket stadium and Eden Garden as partner with Chennai Super Kings and Kolkata Knight Riders, respectively. People still say they have saved my number as “CCD Shriram”. Such a humbling feeling to hear that.

In 2012, I came back to my hometown which was now Chennai; joined Royal Enfield during its growth phase and set-up 160 dealerships all India. I also worked closely with the leadership team on the new retail identity of dealerships, morphing them from looking like an automobile store to a lifestyle concept. Bowed out of professional life in 2014 to experiment entrepreneurship – the accidental entrepreneur! Ran a flourishing Management Consulting business as well, working closely with Founders and businesspersons of eminence.

Worked on creating a chain of baby care retail stores; set-up perhaps one of India’s earliest quick commerce concept – Oyethere, delivering grocery and household items within 30-300 mins of ordering. Baba Ramdev was our unofficial brand ambassador. We rode on the popularity of Patanjali back then, whose products were elusive to find. Expert Investors laughed at my idea and said why would anyone pay Rs. 30 for home delivery. I gave up after 117 pitches probably, accepting the fact that the timing was not the best one. 

When I joined Levista coffee in 2020, little would I know that Covid-19 led pandemic would strike India and rest of the world. Despite Covid, or due to it, my team and I doubled Levista’s business in 350 days from 16 Apr. ’20 to 31 Mar. 21. India faced a nation-wide lockdown for the first fortnight that April. 

Partnered with Chennai Super Kings as the Official Coffee Partner for 2020 - the first ever coffee brand for CSK as well as with any other team in the illustrious history of Indian Premier League Cricket tournament. Also, signed up with Star Vijay’s Bigg Boss franchise feat. Actor Kamal Hassan only to see the brand stand tall and proud next to the actor on Tv, every weekend. Was a life worth having survived the pandemic, in many ways so I could accomplish all this. 

My life store as a book - “My Retail Journey - Part 1” will be released in 2023. Fingers crossed.

Now, that you have finished reading my mini life-bio above, sorry that the news of me quitting retail was a prank for April Fools Day. I am what I am because of Retail. I have nowhere else to go other than this industry which has nurtured me for more than half my life.

Thank you my retail fraternity, friends and former colleagues for all the support give to me all along. With four national level awards from the Retail and F&B Industry, 17 years as Visiting Faculty at preeminent B-Schools on Retail, as author of over 1,000+ articles, I still have a few years ahead of me and I remain obligated to many of you to make me who I am today.

Have a great day ahead.

Thank you, HR

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