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Bad Design, my Goodness!

In the beginning was Ayurveda. Then came Baba Ramdev, and all Things were made by him. And begat he a shampoo-to-noodles empire, and all around him were vanquished.

Patanjali Ayurveda (Rs 4000+ crore) is FMCG’s most salient brand, and the most analysed. A spectrum of theories tracks its rocket-like rise—a branded-house architecture, its distribution model, low cost structure, its promoter’s charisma. But most intriguing is the explanation that one of the boosters of the Patanjali rocket is: bad design.

one of the boosters of the Patanjali rocket is: bad design.

Patanjali’s packaging, advertising imagery and point-of-sale presence could be called dismal. One of packaging’s key jobs is to signal quality. But Patanjali’s sloppy, nondescript typography, garish colour palettes and crude Illustrations bring to mind ‘cheap’ rather than inexpensive.

No Unilever manager would pass this packaging; but Patanjali grew 100% last year, Unilever at 4%. What’s going on?

Patanjali grew 100% last year, Unilever at 4%. What’s going on?

I talked to a range of consumers and non-consumers, from those who read the Business Standard (or ought to!) to citizens of Delhi’s lower middle class. No fans of Mr Ramdev; mainly agnostics, un-believers and a couple unaware (yes!) of his connection with Patanjali.

Most see this crudity as a marker of genuineness and quality, (some said they wouldn’t buy it, but could see why others would). It casts Patanjali in a ‘rural’ persona, too artless to access design. This chain of meanings links to purity and an untouched-by-progress quality that account for the ‘true’ flavour of its ghee and the efficacy of its toothpaste. Just ask around.

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PHOTO CREDITS: KSHITIJ TEMBE | ICD

Indeed this yearning for the ‘remembered village’ lies at the root of all ‘goodness’ products. It can also be seen as part of a worldwide, visceral distrust of the modern corporation and the city. The late Wally Olins, the influential British observer and practitioner of branding called it the ‘new authenticity’. It drives people to organic and ethical brands, no-label labels, rooted in place and made by people. At a higher level, it fuels Occupy Wall Street on the left, and on the right, a demand for a plain speaking ‘authentic’ Erdogan or Trump.

“actually very good design with an Ayurvedic feel, as deliberate as Baba Ramdev’s clothes and hair”.

Is this ‘bad’ design deliberate? Sumit Roy, a well known brand coach told me it was “actually very good design with an Ayurvedic feel, as deliberate as Baba Ramdev’s clothes and hair”.

But deliberate? Not unless you see Mr Ramdev’s kesh and vesh as pure brand projection rather than lifestyle choice. And not unless Patanjali actually instructs its designers to stumble, like the circus joker adept at circus arts who clumsily ‘falls’ from the trapeze, losing his pyjamas on the way.

(An interesting side question: is deliberate still authentic? Dabur, a leading Ayurveda brand that must be feeling the heat, proposes a science-based Ayurveda, and cultivates an Ayurvedic feel, designed with the acumen expected of a modern marketer. Home assignment: compare Dabur with Patanjali on the dimension of authenticity. Who wins?)

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PHOTO CREDITS: KSHITIJ TEMBE| ICD

Notice that Patanjali’s designs are not simply earthy, or with a culturally specific or kitschy charm, like Rooh Afza is. Nor do they project a lack of means: their packs are well made, of expensive material. Patanjali’s design intent appears to be to emulate the ‘enemy’s’ visual style, in much the same way that urban ugliness is often an awful homage to international architecture. So bad, that they’re good?

Patanjali’s design intent appears to be to emulate the ‘enemy’s’ visual style

To say that specifically low-quality cues signal authenticity flies in face of evidence. Or is it that packaging doesn’t count for Patanjali? The mechanism at work is ‘judgement by priors’ or a form of confirmation bias. Since Mr Ramdev guarantees authenticity (prior fact), all later stimuli are seen as evidence of it; this is intelligence in its role as a rationalising machine.

The lessons for, and from, design are several.

One, personality matters in packaging, beyond personalities. Even Patanjali buyers who didn’t know Mr Ramdev was behind Patanjali, couldn’t help forming these impressions from the packaging:’economical’, ‘genuine’ ‘closest to fresh’. Clearly, these packs seem to tellingly convey Patanjali’s personality traits. Revealing Mr Ramdev’s role did not reverse their impressions of Patanjali, even when they were not approving of Mr Ramdev’s public persona. Clearly, some ethical perceptions trump others.

But would Patanjali fly higher with well-designed packaging that cues quality, reliability and trust? Anant Rangaswami, editor of the TV program Storyboard, says that Patanjali’s noodles would give Nestle a bigger fright if they were better designed.

Yes, with a caveat. Taste is a slippery guide to good design—it is a cultural phenomenon, dependant on class. There are no universals. Audience specific cues need to be understood and engineered.

A good story like Mr Ramdev may survive bad design, but good design, correctly defined, can further it.

Even Patanjali’s packaging holds some valuable clues, available to the interpreter. If it can extract its particular brand of ayurvedic appeal, and apply it to packaging and beyond, Patanjali can enlarge its audience to take in affluent doubters and earn a better price. It can do this without losing its grip on the imaginations of the millions who are driving its rise. Earthy, rural or authentic don’t need ‘bad’ design. A good story like Mr Ramdev may survive bad design, but good design, correctly defined, can further it.

This article first appeared in the 18th June issue of Business Standard under the column ‘Deep Design’ by Itu Chaudhuri.

23 Comments

  • Atulit

    June 27, 2016

    Patanjali is now evidently disliked & dear to all professionals for & against its idea and language. It is a trademark from a modern marketer’s lens and at best a nascent brand in its infancy. Regardless of label or trademark or brand differences, it is an idea evangelized by Ramdev for a decade plus before productizing & monetizing it. So it is consumed as an idea first with all the ‘Pran’ of Yoga and not necessarily a modern packaged product.

    I thought the piece is judgmental and not deeply analytical. From a design pro, one would like to learn how to decode the hidden meaning of what’s working and what’s not. And of course, what’s not working, if professionally cured, could further its appeal as concluded in the end. However, what’s working needs to be appreciated in its crude Stone Age or Jurassic or Vedanta mythical form.

    It may be interesting to continue the discussion in part 2 of this piece that helps readers (beyond BS) to learn how to decode good or bad design and then leave it open for the audience to judge.

    Reply
  • anil kumar bose

    June 27, 2016

    very insightful and a good read

    Reply
  • Manu Joseph

    June 27, 2016

    Enjoyed this piece. I too don’t buy the ‘deliberate bad design’ hypothesis. I see that you used an exclamation mark, that too in the headline. I will deal with you later. Lucky for Business Standard to have this column on design.

    Reply
  • Saurabh Tewari

    June 27, 2016

    We have been a victim of ‘Bad Design’ in our everyday life, from mediocre architecture to ‘jugaadu’ artifacts, from copied products to kitschy branding, we are okay with ‘Bad Design’. Even in Bollywood’s soundscape, we have accepted Himesh Reshammiya’s nasal howls and Silver Stars’ autotunes over many more accomplished playback voices. We love ‘Bad Design’.

    Reply
  • Ash Nallawalla

    June 27, 2016

    This has always been the case. Through design, or economics, or happenstance, there were popular domestic brands with packaging as ugly as hell. In the 1960s, I cleaned my teeth with my finger and a charcoal-based “Monkey Chaap” powder that had a crudely printed label and not the striped Pepsodent I would have preferred. Near my home in Thakurdwar was a “Waman Gopal Sarsaparilla” advertised with a faded 1880s photo of the founder on the bottle. No, I had no desire to find out what was sarsaparilla. In my current (web) industry, there is a school of thought that says, “Ugly sells”. We can all think of a site that we use that has no evidence of best-practice UX or SEO principles.

    Reply
  • Myrah

    June 28, 2016

    Rooh Afza is Hamdard product not Dabur’s.

    Reply
    • Itu Chaudhuri Design

      Itu Chaudhuri Design

      June 28, 2016

      Yes, it is Hamdard’s. The article does compare Patanjali packaging with Dabur’s but it also compares with products of other brands. In the image accompanying the paragraph on Dabur there’s a Forest Essentials soap and a regionally produced bottle of carom seeds, in the same vein Rooh Afza has been mentioned and compared.

      Reply
  • Alternateme

    June 28, 2016

    Crappy read. Who decides what’s ugly? It’s an opinion. A lot of old kitsch designs are being re-adopted by people nowadays, including high end designers. I think patanjali hasn’t given too much importance to it… as long as it looks decent enough. & Honestly I don’t care that much. Aam khaao, guthliyon se kya matlab.
    Just coz label design has become a field demanding it’s own attention, just because everything nowadays is being “designed” & people proudly claim to be “designers” as if all this “designing” arrived only in this past egoistic & intellectual 150yrs. We (incl me) analyse every damn thing & express an opinion on every damn thing! If we relaxed more & let things be, we would be a much happier versions of our race.

    Reply
    • Itu Chaudhuri

      Itu Chaudhuri

      June 28, 2016

      You write:

      If we relaxed more & let things be, we would be a much happier versions of our race.

      I agree entirely.

      Reply
  • Ashwin

    June 28, 2016

    Poorly written article. Too long. Comments are Not objective. Lost interest reading it midway. Eye ball grabbing headline.

    Reply
  • Sunil Kumar

    June 28, 2016

    As if on cue and to support your point that “a good story like Mr Ramdev may survive bad design, but good design, correctly defined, can further it”, Marico launched its Parachute Ayurvedic Gold Hair Oil in an all new very desi but aesthetically appealing packaging. (HT, Delhi 28.06.16, Jacket Ad)

    Reply
  • SANGITA SHROFF

    June 28, 2016

    People buy branded products for the core value the merchandise projects. The projection of Ramdev’s Patanjali comes through various mediations- the implicit or explicit messaging, news surrounding the man, debates, packaging, promotions….. Buyers of Patanjali are ‘sold’ to the concept of good health, being one with self, natural, spiritual-all packaged within the ‘space’ of nationalism. Baba Ramdev is the brand, as also the clever inclusion of ‘Patanjali’. The ‘message’- Ramadev’s Patanjali, has prevailed over the past 2 decades – hence his products rule the market. Not the designed, undesigned or badly designed packaging. Perhaps good design in this case may usher in new segments, but may also escalate the cost which many of the current consumer segments may resent and withdraw!

    Reply
  • Debabrata Deb

    June 29, 2016

    Patanjali products work. 

    His shampoo, tooth paste and cow ghee are excellent. His diabetes control liquids and powders do actually pull down sugar levels. 

    People who migrate to Patanjali are running after solutions other products have not provided. If Sensodyne is not reducing pain, try Dantkanti. It works.

    The salary bill of Patanjali is very low compared to multinationals. Many R&D scientists are volunteers promoting the cause of Ayurveda and growing different plants.

    Patanjali has severe distribution issues. Many products are simply not available all the time. The multinationals have got Patanjali thrown out of some retail chains. Hence, their new launches have slowed down.

    I believe Patanjali will continue to grow in toothpaste, hair oil, cow ghee and Ayurveda. They will launch cow milk and cow milk powder and scale up rapidly. Atta and rice are facing supply constraints. It is tough to source consistently good quality.

    The multinationals have lost traction by charging too much and reducing quality. I recently took a bar of Cadbury Perk because my sugar levels had dropped. It was too sweet and felt like mud.

    Quality is the key. Performance is the key.

    Design is very important. Patanjali will have to address this in due course by selectively upgrading and standardising their packaging.

    Your article raises critical issues. I shall wait to read more.

    Reply
  • Raghav Bahl

    June 29, 2016

    Nice! I hope the good Baba, reads this and get sensitized to how they can multiply their earthy brand power.

    Reply
  • Aniruddha Banerjee

    June 29, 2016

    Excellent article/blog. Excellent point.

    I cringe at the packaging, but then, I cringe at the brand and its mnemonic, too.

    The point is that “bad” design cannot be a strategy. “Authenticity” could be, “untouched by marketing gimmicks” has worked for many global brands.

    Reply
  • Manjeet Kriplani

    June 29, 2016

    Very interesting piece!

    Reply
  • Sraboni Bhaduri

    July 1, 2016

    I think the issue is not bad design. Patanjali designs are cheap knock offs. The question is why are we so comfortable with fakes.

    Reply
  • Vinayak

    July 1, 2016

    Owing to the connection with the “Baba”, professional amateurism is certainly a valid mode of appearance (not just visually) for the brand. One may even argue that it may well be the most apt one as Ramdev has to keep it aligned with his personal brand as a dissonance may do more harm than good. When Fabindia, Lush and L’Occitane do this, it does not seem authentic to me based on their store locations and price points.

    In my humble opinion, the reason why the brand simply works is because the rest of the market is saturated and bombarding the public with messaging of “buy me and I’ll change your life”. This usually creates a fantastic space for the “anti-hero” to flourish; we have observed this with the likes of Sprite “Bujhaye only pyaas, baaki all bakwaas”, FOGG (albeit with a “perceived” product innovation – loved how a cheap perfume was positioned as a non-gas deo and rose to market leader status). In the Spanish market, where I currently reside and work, I have also heard some customers, of the leading cheese brand here, say “I like this brand because it does not communicate and lets me decide without manipulation”… maybe a little far away for India at this point though.

    Personally, the brand seems not to convey an “ayurvedic” feel very well, but instead communicates naiveté – “I don’t know how to do this marketing-sharketing”. To an audience feeling invaded by communication all around, who do feel more and more manipulated into purchasing things (the big debate on Facebook ads), Patanjali (at the overall brand level) is playing the “no-ploy ploy”. As they expand their product portfolio to perceived non-ayurvedic products (if someone claims their noodles are ayurvedic… even if it were true, the Indian customer may subliminally disagree at some level – decoding the meaning of the word ayurvedic to the Indian customers would probably also show a strong link with Indian… noodles are not). Some products are sub-scripted as ayurvedic, made from ayurvedic ingredients. Loved Sangeeta’s reasons above from nationalism to health and wellness for the purchases and I suspect we may observe a few of those if we researched it.

    A question I find intriguing is if the majority of sales, which come from the non-Baba zealots, are repeat purchases or first time trials.

    My thanks to Itu for publishing the article that triggered the various points of view in the comments that were interesting to go through. Like Atulit, I would also love to hear more of Itu’s views on what they can do next to their design to further their domination.

    Reply
  • Shahana Chaudhury

    July 1, 2016

    Completely agree with you when you write – “There are no universals. Audience specific cues need to be understood and engineered.”

    Which is why, there is another framework within which you may want to evaluate the design:

    – The audience perceives Baba Ramdev as the brand and not Patanjali.
    – Patanjali is not competing with the MNCs but working to replace the vast unorganised sector that produces an impressive range of quality organic products from grains to cosmetics.

    If you visit any large Khadi outlet and pick up one of the many local brands that retail there, the Patanjali packaging appears to make sense.

    Having said that, Khadi’s house brands are quite sophisticated. It would be interesting to find out if they move more than other brands at the outlet and, if a different and a more urbane audience buys them.

    Reply
  • joydeep majumder

    July 14, 2016

    The no frills attached design ,sends these signals on the subconscious levels…

    teee teeeeee tooooooooooo teeeee…:)

    # the maker is more focused on the content
    # the maker has diverted the cost of design to content making it a better product .
    # the maker is so supremely confident about the content – that he cares a dime about the packaging.
    # the maker makes the product in a small pollution free organic town..where makers are seedha sadha..

    Its like you start doubting your thele wala subjiwala and the palak and dhaniya’s, the day he vacuum packs the greens for you..

    there is something about design..when the product is expected to be organic..

    Can we purposefully design bad design ??..difficult..against human nature..but then..if light can be bent..why not human nature..

    Reply
    • Jeanette

      January 5, 2017

      I can’t beeilve I’ve been going for years without knowing that.

      Reply
  • hpm

    November 30, 2016

    You might be called an anti-national for this critique!

    Reply

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