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Design Week | News Analysis | 14 October 2010
British design groups can still see enough potential in the booming Indian economy to want to set up shop there, but the increasing maturity of local consultancies could soon lead to some stiff competition, finds Tom Banks

As both Interbrand and Conran & Partners prepare to set up permanent offices in India, industry observers suggest the country is on the cusp of developing its own much-anticipated indigenous design industry.

Interbrand last week announced that it was seeking to make a raft of appointments to its Mumbai office in order to strengthen its position in the country (News, DW 7 October). Meanwhile, Conran & Partners is looking to set up an office in the next few months to serve the hospitality and residential design markets, in a move first announced in March (News, DW 24 March).

While this suggests a consolidation of global networks in India, those with experience of working in the country say India’s own design industry is potentially at a tipping point in terms of growth and professionalism.

Saffron opened a Mumbai office in 2008 and is currently working on a branding project for the government of West Bengal. Saffron founder Wally Olins says that the consultancy is not meeting much competition from Indian groups. Most of it, he says, tends to stem from ’advertising groups that don’t really understand what branding is’.

Olins says this ignorance also extends to many clients, adding, ’Most companies are clear about the benefits of advertising, but not branding.’ However, he says the potential for branding is huge in a ’quickly growing market’, with many Indian companies now making a decision on ’whether to grow the brand globally’. Olins says these are ’classic issues’ in emerging economies, similar to the ones tackled recently in China and in Spain 30 years ago.

Sudhir Sharma, founder of Indian design consultancies Elephant and Indi Design, says, ’There are many Indian design consultancies that now offer very rounded services in innovation.’ He is involved in the launch of an embryonic design trade organisation in India, which will work alongside the government-backed India Design Council. A design business body is also expected.

UK groups operating in India are now being challenged, says Sharma, by Indian groups which had previously concentrated on the industrial, digital and gaming sectors. However, he says there is still a lot of potential – particularly in the industrial and social impact design sectors – for UK groups, whose strength lies in their strategic and international experience.

Sharma, who has been linked with a move to Interbrand’s nascent office in India, says he believes Fitch is currently winning some of the biggest contracts in the country, while its sister WPP consultancy The Brand Union, which he sees as ’Indianised’ and possessing ’a good understanding of the Indian market’, is the most prolific UK consultancy. As for Landor, Sharma says that while its identity for Air India ’bombed’, this consultancy is now ’churning out reasonably visible work’.

Rajesh Kerjiwal, who founded and runs the international design conference Design Yatra, thinks that those UK consultancies most likely to succeed in India are those which lay down strong roots. He says, ’While a few jobs here and there will go to [foreign] companies that come in, meet clients and walk away with the job, this scenario will peter out in the next few years. The time is ripe for those who believe in India and its people, and are willing to make long-term commitments.’

Moving away specifically from the branding sector, Conran & Partners is hoping to set up in India with its new Delhi office, and to eventually expand to satellite offices throughout the country.

Conran & Partners managing director Tim Bowder-Ridger says the consultancy has been working on projects in India remotely for some years, primarily in the architecture and interior design sectors. Conran & Partners is currently winning most of its work in the hotel sector and is now working on the refurbishment of Park Hotel’s Delhi building.

Bowder-Ridger says that after initially encountering some ’quality control’ problems with local workers, the consultancy is learning to play to the strengths of these craftsmen. He says, ’In a Hyderabad restaurant we’ve had beautiful wrought-iron screens made, but added modern lighting and colours.’

Conran & Partners has set its sights on ’large-scale malls’ and government-backed social housing projects, says Bowder-Ridger. He says Calcutta and Hyderabad, in particular, suffer from an excess of high-rise, high-density housing, so Conran & Partners will look to develop large-scale affordable housing solutions ’which a middle-class family could buy for $40 000 [£25 000].’

Ambitiously, Bowder-Ridger says Conran & Partners would also look to liaise with the Indian government over contracts such as ’accommodation for soldiers’, as ’the size of the army is astronomical and its accommodation outdated’.

BOX:

UK groups setting up shop in India
Interbrand is looking for a permanent Mumbai office to consolidate its position in India

Conran & Partners aims to open an office in Delhi in the next few months with 12 staff

Saffron, Fitch and Landor already have offices in Mumbai, and The Brand Union has an office in Bangalore

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