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Arun Sirdeshmukh

Head – Marketing | 01 Oct 2004

“We don’t tackle competition; we tackle consumers. We talk to them and tell them that we have a fresh and different offer...Our business is to actually offer an alternative to the consumer. If he has been shopping for various brands that he has seen, we continue to believe that there is scope for more.”

A mechanical engineer and an IIM-Kolkata alumni, Arun Sirdeshmukh started off as a management trainee at Coats Viyella India in 1990. He moved on to Madura Garments as Assistant Brand Manager, Van Heusen, after a one-year stint at Coats. From 1996 to 1998, he worked as Group Brand Manager at Madura Garments where he was responsible for the marketing, merchandising, advertising and overall profitability of the Louis Philippe brand. He also handled export marketing of brands like Louis Philippe and Allen Solly, primarily in the Gulf. In March 1998, Sirdeshmukh joined IBM Global Services, Bangalore, as DGM for a brief period of six months following which he moved to the Garments division of Mafatlal Industries as a Management Consultant. He is a co-promoter of Indus League Clothing and now Head, Marketing. He has been responsible for the launch and growth of Scullers men’s and women’s wear since 1999. Speaking to Shubha Kumble of exchange4media at the Indus League headquarters in Bangalore, Sirdeshmukh shares his experience of building an apparel business from scratch, the prospects it holds and lots more. Excerpts:

Q. Could you please take us through how Indus League came into being?

Indus League was formed in April 1999. Most of us, who formed the group, had worked at various times at Madura Garments, building a large part of the current apparel industry. Sriram (Srinivasan) who heads Indus League was the President of Madura Garments. He and Uday Kumar, who heads Finance and HR here, were co-founders of Madura Trading, which was the beginning of the garments business for Madura Coats in 1988. This way, most of us have had prior experience at Madura in launching and building brands. I, for instance, was involved with the Louis Philippe business from 1993 to 1998 and have been closely involved with the success of that brand. There was a conversation that happened amongst this group at one point when we thought of starting something on our own. It was the dotcom boom period and the idea was compelling. We were the people who had literally built the branded apparel business in the country and the opportunity to do something on our own was terrific. Sriram was the one who brought us together. Indus League must be one among the very rare investments from a venture capital fund to a company that is not into IT.

Q. Indus League today promotes two brands – Indigo Nation and Scullers. How are the two differentiated?

Indigo Nation is a young man’s formal wear brand. With young comes the connotation of value, and that of being fashionable. So the true core aspects of Indigo Nation are value and fashion. If you look around you will realise that typically all men’s formal wear brands are those that have been around for more than 15 years. So, they end up being brands that both you and your boss wear. We are the alternative for the younger guy. If you are young at heart or young, say in the age profile of 25 to 35, then this is the brand that you should be wearing. It has an attitude, great value and is fashionable.

Scullers, as opposed to that, stands for sporty clothes that you wear to work and after. Sportiness comes from within the brand name itself. Sculling and rowing are sister sports which hold a lot of drama. If you look at the stores, the whole look is built around the sport of sculling. This is an elite sport and only few people know that in the West, one of the largest watched events after the Olympics is the boat race between Cambridge and Oxford or those at Harvard and Yale. It has a very university look with a very preppy feel and that is the sense we would like on our clothes. We believe that these are simple, distinct positioning stances. They hold great scope to increase our businesses as we go forward. They have very clear planks, very relevant planks.

At a very early stage we decided that we wanted to be a man’s and woman’s offer. Not a unisex product, but that we would have both in men’s wear and women’s wear under the same retail space. Within one year of the launch of our men’s wear, we were the first to launch a branded western women’s wear into the market. We were the first to come in and we continue to be one of the leading brands in the women’s western wear segment.

We think this is a unique enough positioning that successfully differentiates our brands. Within our portfolio, Scullers is the premium product and Indigo Nation is the more value-oriented one.

Q. Being a relatively new and small company, how do you tackle competition from larger and much older brands?

We don’t tackle competition; we tackle consumers. We talk to them and tell them that we have a fresh and different offer. Our job in the early stages was to make the consumer come and try out our brands. Now that we’ve been around for a few years, we already have a set of loyal customers – whether it is at our own exclusive stores, all large format department stores or multi-brand outlets or our export presence in the Gulf and Sri Lanka. Our business is to actually offer an alternative to the consumer. If he has been shopping for various brands that he has seen, we continue to believe that there is scope for more. As long as there is a clear position that you can occupy, a distinct and relevant one for the consumer – they will shop. This is the premise on which we exist and we are happy to let competition do whatever it is doing.

Q. Most brands are making a clear move into the lifestyle segment. Is Indus League also following this trend?

There are two parts to this. Part one, it has become fashionable to say that we are pursuing the lifestyle platform. Part two, if you look at our mission statement, we call ourselves a lifestyle brand marketing company. The idea here is that we are selling a concept – there is a look and feel to it. We are yet to move into the stage where we will be able to present what you may call a lifestyle offer to a complete extent. The combination that we need to do that is the option of having large format stores and a slightly wider portfolio of products. But first and foremost, you need to make your position clear to the consumer, which I think we have done very well. People are already buying our brands because they see us selling a lifestyle.

Q. How is the women’s branded western wear market doing?

It is probably the fastest growing category in the entire apparel industry. The driver of this is of course availability. We did the pioneering work of offering western wear as a branded option. Earlier, women were not shopping for western wear in this manner – they would pick different products from different places – often at small, unbranded stores. It was a painful way of doing it. Now that we are offering an option, there are more brands that have come forward and made their own launches. The industry is really growing and you will find large format stores increasing the space they allocate for women’s western wear. In terms of figures, there is no authentic published data. But it is still just about a tenth of the men’s wear business. The men’s wear business has been reported to be around Rs 6,400 crore. So there is obviously a lot of catching up to do.

Q. Moving on to your brand communication, what kind of an advertising strategy do you apply? What kind of a budget do you work with?

Our strategy is linked to where we are present. As a business, we are largely South and West based – places where we run our own stores or places where we have a wider and stronger presence. Our presence in the North and the East is relatively lower. This of course drives our communication strategy. You will find us among the significant advertisers in the South and West. We will be present in the North and East in a bigger way in the coming years and would change our advertising strategy then. For now, if we are looking at print, then it is the dailies and magazines with a stronger South presence. We were a television specific brand in terms of Indigo Nation, which we moved from electronic to print. We are also significant players of outdoors in the markets where we are present. We have also used radio tactically whenever we thought it would make an impact. In fact, in the early months of radio, we were one of the biggest advertisers. But at this moment we are outdoor and print dominated. And like most players in our industry we spend around 10 per cent of our turnover on advertising.

Q. Why are most apparel brands absent on television?

One of the main reasons would be that of thresholds. If you want to be on television, you need to contend with television spends of others not only in your category but also across categories. So if you have a “Sehwag ki Ma” bombarding you every 10 seconds, it gets a little difficult to match the threshold levels. There is no apparel brand in India, which individually is more than Rs 200 crore. But on the other hand, there are lots of products in other categories – from atta to salt -- which are much larger and can afford to support a larger advertising spend. The second reason, I feel, has to do with the category itself. Most of the brands that exist today are either premium and mid-premium which means that for a lot of us the proposition that we are selling every season involves a lot of touch and feel. It is generally believed that television does not permit you to tell the whole fashion story. This is also the case internationally where you will find most fashion brands opting for print rather than television.

Q. Would you be launching any new brands?

Not as of now. We would like to concentrate on consolidating our present businesses. There are a lot of new opportunities coming our way in terms of malls and the general retail scenario is catching up fast. We are keenly developing our present brands. This of course doesn’t mean that we are closed to any new opportunity, but it’s not on our agenda for now.

Q. How have your brands performed over these past few years?

We are among the top five apparel brands in the country. We run a Rs 90-crore business in retail market and we are doing this with a footprint that mainly covers South and West. Between our two brands we are roughly the same size. We are the dominant players in the markets in which we operate and we are moving towards consolidating our position in other markets as well. Similarly, we are the dominant player in certain other segments like the women’s western wear.

Q. What plans do you have in the pipeline?

Lots. First of all, we are looking at extending our footprint to the North and the East. Second would be an increasing presence in the malls. Third is further growth in the western women’s wear category. We will have a significantly greater visibility in this sector. Also in the pipeline is an extension of the product line we currently have on offer.

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