Excuse me, I think you forgot design

February 22, 2016 12:00 am | Updated 08:09 am IST

Anant Rangaswami

Anant Rangaswami

Last week, I was in Jaipur as an invited participant in WPPStream, the spectacular annual unconference. There are no presentations or keynote speeches. Conversations, discussions and provocations are the highlights of the menu.

In addition, there are a few ancillary activities that attempt to foster team-building. One of these is The Pitch, where teams are given three minutes to address a defined task.

Rajasthan Patrika , one of the sponsors of Stream, challenged participants to make Hindi and other Indian languages ‘cool’. The solutions we saw ranged from the mundane to rubbish, so let’s move on.

For the past two decades or so, as the circulation of newspapers in Indian languages sky-rocketed even as circulation of English titles stayed more or less flat, advertising rates defied these numbers. English titles kept raising prices (and advertisers seem happy, for reasons I cannot fathom, to accept the increases) and regional language titles struggled to do the same.

It makes no sense. Perhaps Rajasthan Patrika felt that the solution lay in finding a way to make Indian languages ‘cool’ so advertisers would be more amenable to rate hikes, hence the challenge at Stream.

Trying to get cool (which is not the easiest thing in the world, as millions of brands learn the hard way) is impossible unless regional language newspapers address a more basic brand need: aesthetics.

A well-defined and consistent aesthetic is critical to building the perception of the brand, which in turn gets consumers to pay a premium. And non-English newspapers fail miserably in this area. To begin with, these papers (in general) are printed on cheaper newsprint than the newsprint used by English newspapers, resulting in their tending to be far less white.

Next, no investments are made in design. Few regional papers are truly ‘designed’: stories are laid out in columns with no consistency or predictability (astonishingly, this is true even of media houses that own both English and non-English titles). This is compounded by the preponderance of ads that, in turn, use terrible design and aesthetics.

The poor newsprint and the lack of design in both the newspaper and a majority of ads combine to create a very unfriendly ambience for well-designed ads to reside in. Imagine a Lamborghini in a dirty parking lot, surrounded by battered auto-rickshaws and black-and-yellow Ambassador taxis. The Lamborghini would immediately look less cool and less premium.

Consumers automatically gravitate to good design and are put off by bad design — without being conscious of doing so. It’s not just the regional language publications that fail to become cool, thanks to their inability and reluctance to make investments in aesthetics and design. There are hundreds of FMCG brands that make the same mistake. Nirma and Ghadi detergents lose to Surf and Ariel, Vicco Vajradanti loses to Colgate or Pepsodent, and so on.

In a current context, even if Patanjali’s noodles are as good as Maggi, superior packaging design will help Maggi command a premium price because Baba Ramdev seems to attach no importance to focusing on how the product looks while Nestle certainly does.

It’s perplexing how so many entrepreneurs (including owners of newspapers) get so many elements of their product, including the conceptualisation, manufacture and distribution absolutely right but stumble when it comes to design.

It’s not just newspapers and FMCG products, design fails India in many other areas. It’s time for all of us to think more about design. We go through school and college with not a single lecture on design and, as a result, do not realise what good design can do.

Among other things, it can get Rajasthan Patrika’s advertisers to pay more than they do today.

(The writer is Editor, Storyboard)

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