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Raghu B Viswanath

Managing Director | 16 Jul 2010

People are beginning to realise that branding is more of a science than art, and our products are focused to aid that branding is a science. Clients’ perspective to his business has changed and they want to get the brand blueprinting or the brand vision map ready before getting in the market. We are beginning to see a lot of traction. This method of ecosystem branding, where we are positioning ourselves like the hub and the PR, advertising agency, design firms as the spokes, is new to the industry and is gaining ground. Today, clients believe that one marketing manager cannot be the hub alone and would like to use Vertibrand as the extended hub, and I think as a model this is gaining a lot of currency.

Raghu B Viswanath studied at IIT, Chennai and followed this up with a PGDM in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour from IIM, Calcutta. He has over 20 years of experience in Brand Management, Marketing Strategy and Business Consulting in blue chip organizations across various sectors. Starting his career with SmithKline Beecham Consumer Healthcare Ltd, Viswanath moved on to Titan, where he last he held the position of National Brand Manager.

In 2000, Viswanath founded Vertebrand as India’s first, integrated brand strategy firm, specialising in building brand equity for businesses across industry verticals. Viswanath talks to Tuhina Anand of exchange4media about his vision and mission, and the future of Vertebrand.

Q. How would you differentiate Vertebrand from other brand consultancy firms?

Vertebrand was started in the year 2000 in Bangalore, and at that point of time it was essentially to help start-ups and family-run companies to build brand equity. The moment one says ‘brand consultant’, one thinks of conventional ways of branding like logo design or advertising or some communication, because that’s what traditionally a brand consultant does.

When we say ‘brand consultant’, we mean people who actually manage brand equity of the business. We are talking about being a turnkey business consultant. We believe any business in any sector, if it has to grow and succeed, must be able to differentiate itself considerably from the competition. That differentiation is not just in having a creative hand, but in terms of products you diversify into, the way you relate to your customers, the systems and processes you have internally, the people you recruit – so we say every aspect of that business, both internally and externally, must differentiate it consistently from the competition. Therefore, we say we are brand consultants.

The reason we call ourselves brand consultant is that we believe anything we do and do consistently will increase the valuation of your business. At the end of the day, the primary focus for Vertebrand is to improve brand valuation for any of our clients.

Q. Tell us about your clients.

When it comes to brand valuation, we could today arguably be the largest in the country. Vertebrand has assisted a number of nuclear brands, many of whom have subsequently gone on to become success stories, including MTR, Nilgiri’s, ‘W’, Namdhari’s Fresh, and TVS Tyres, among others. Vertebrand has also undertaken brand repositioning and entry strategy projects for large Indian conglomerates like EID Parry, TI Cyles, TAFE, Blue Star, BILT, Titan, Dabur, Mahindra Retail, Apollo Hospitals, Piramal Healthcare, and so on. A host of MNCs like HUL, Tetrapak, Timex, Schindler, Hewlett Packard, Marazzi and D’Agostini, Italy, have also benefited from Vertebrand’s intervention. Right now, we are doing a very large piece of work for Ashok Leyland.

Q. Is your brand evaluation similar to what some other consultancies offer?

Similar yes, but we have our own model. We follow a completely different model, which is based on the strength of customer relationship. The basic principal of brand valuation is the same anywhere in the world, the only difference being what aspect of brand valuation you give more importance vis-à-vis another.

Q. How different is the research that you do, as compared to others in the industry?

We are actually turnkey sales and marketing consultants with a brand valuation focus. So, we do everything that both management consultancies do, including research, understanding size of market, opportunity assessment for a completely new product or service. The difference between us and any other research agency will be that while we look at data, we also value add. We will look at factors like the differentiating aspect of the company and where it could score. For us, research is a means to an end, but not the end. We spend a huge amount of time in the last mile like studying market and competition, strengths and weaknesses of competition, the size of the market and to grab the market what are the things one needs to do uniquely and differently. We convert a generic research into something that’s brand focused and specific. Right from research to the core of our offering, we have powerful and robust tools to help us achieve that and understand the brand positioning.

India being a complex market even if there is a renowned international player, one has to carefully position oneself to succeed here. We believe that before jumping the gun and launching a product and getting into advertising and communication, one needs to get the positioning right. We believe brand positioning is science in itself and can’t just happen on its own.

Q. When do you enter in the picture – when a brand is entering a market or when a brand is fully established?

We have two roles, one is when a new brand is entering the market and the other set of assignment is when there is a brand, which is either languishing or has reached a saturation point and wants to completely re-brand itself. In the first case, we enter when a completely new brand is entering the country. We present the road-map, looking at opportunity, positioning and financial plan.

Secondly, we enter when a company is looking at brand extension or business diversification. There is an extent to which one can stretch a brand, after all a brand is like a rubber band and if you stretch too much it will snap. We worked with Titan when they wanted to diversify into a new category. The genesis of Titan Eyeplus is an exercise that we have done. We look into facets like where the brand can diversify, the opportunity and then the fit with the existing brand portfolio.

Then we look into brand rejuvenation. This is essentially about a brand which is languishing and needs to get far more aggressive to reinvent itself.

Then we look at brand perpetuation. It is largely to do with family run businesses that have developed brand equity of their own, but their successors are not interested in building the brand further. In this case, we create a road-map to allow this brand to exist forever and even look at transferring the business to people who would have interest in that business, so that the brand continues to live even if owners change hands.

Q. It seems you do a lot of backend work. Does that make it difficult to explain to your clients?

Unlike people operating in this space, we don’t focus much on physical identity like logo or design, which is primary area competence for many. Till 2008, we didn’t even have a design team, so if a prospective client asked me to show my work, I didn’t really have anything to show. It’s like being the director of a movie where you are in the background and while the actors steal the show, all the while it’s been the director who has shown the road-map.

Even today, 90 per cent of our competence is on the intangible backend part of branding. Brand, for us, is business; it is equal to system and process. Brand is a science rather than an art.

Q. You have been in the business for a decade now. What really has changed for your business with the changing times?

For a very long time in India people looked at business in bits and pieces. Even clients looked at various functions like HR, Marcom, sales, etc., as individual functions. Today, because mergers and acquisitions are becoming big and people know that they can buy out and sell out business regardless of how much strapped for cash they would be, the intrinsic value of business is something that’s valued and the awareness that people can buy one out for that has changed the game. Suddenly, people are looking at business in a holistic manner rather than an individual component. Because of this, the concept brand value is gaining credit. Also, people are doing at lot of looking before leaping now, thus spending a lot of focus on planning, where we come into play.

In India, no one liked to pay for brain storming or pay for pure intellect. There has to be something tangible that has to come out once someone is paid. With the changing market, India, too, has changed and there are clients willing to pay for intellect as they see value in this kind of input.

Q. Were you a misfit when you started out?

When we started, we struggled from 2000-04 to even break even. But even then, we did not change the focus of our work even if there was temptation. But with a huge amount of trial and tribulation, we have succeeded, and today we are growing exponentially. I would probably believe that we are one of the largest in this area purely on the basis of our fee income.

Q. In creating such a different set-up, what’s the asset that you have?

Because the way we are redefining brand, it means that as an organization, we need to have competencies in various fields – be it research, sales distribution, analytics, CRM, HR or even finance. We need people with functional expertise in many of these areas, thus at Vertebrand, the profile of people is vastly diversified and come with a rich experience in any particular field. Unless we have multiple skills, we will never be able to deliver. Therefore, we are truly large in size and most importantly, we are not a one-man show.

Q. In the value chain for a client setting up a new business, where would you fit in?

We are somewhere between the management consultancy that looks at the feasibility of a business and helps set up and then gets the marketing manager communication arms, be it PR, marketing, advertising rolling. We are in the middle space, which was a non-existent space. We have created a niche for ourselves in that interim step. We would come into play to do a good dispassionate assessment and a plan on what is best for the client to spend the money it plans after setting up and give him an accurate road-map ahead to succeed.

Q. What is the way ahead?

People are beginning to realise that branding is more of a science than art, and our products are focused to aid that branding is a science. Clients’ perspective to his business has changed and they want to get the brand blueprinting or the brand vision map ready before getting in the market. We are beginning to see a lot of traction. This method of ecosystem branding, where we are positioning ourselves like the hub and the PR, advertising agency, design firms as the spokes, is new to the industry and is gaining ground. Today, clients believe that one marketing manager cannot be the hub alone and would like to use Vertibrand as the extended hub, and I think as a model this is gaining a lot of currency.

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