PHOTO CREDITS: JASVINDER SINGH| ICD

We, the Undersigned

 

“The trouble with you creative fellows,” said VSOP (Very Superior Old Person), “is that you think brand only means advertising, or synthesising emotions to sell your widgets.”

I’d sought advice on Brand India for an article, and sat across chutney sandwiches and coffee in the understated lounge of the lushly landscaped International Information Centre. I protested that no, I didn’t think so, and wasn’t in advertising. But VSOP, a retired bureaucrat of Great Standing, and known to be “an acquired taste”, was in spate.

My colleagues in government, VSOP went on, weren’t, or aren’t, so different from you. For them too, branding means campaigns for some Yojana or other, but nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

Like Brand India, I said brightly, hoping to get him back on subject.

Brand India, said VSOP, is all very well as an externally directed concept to drive investment, exports and tourism, but what about its citizen-facing form? It should be not about advertisements, but about advertising product excellence through government. And rational.

I interrupted him to reveal my confusion. Not advertisements, but advertising? About product?

Consider, said VSOP, India as a very large service brand, with three service verticals: legislative, judiciary and executive, and with subsidiary brands known as states. This brand’s, or organisation’s goals are cohesion, competence and assurance. Assurance implies that functioning well includes being seen to do so.

A uniform is functional, symbolic and emotional at once

Being seen to do so, repeated VSOP, holding a sandwich like a triangular icon, is branding, in its most fundamental sense. It flows from the concept of kingdoms, through their armies and monopoly of power, muted into modern executive authority, including central banks and mints.

An army’s systems of visible marking—signs, ranks, uniforms—are not separate from its operative processes and culture. Each enables the other. It’s the ultimate branded organisation. A uniform is functional, symbolic and emotional at once: an officer is said to disgrace or honour his vardi.

Not quite uniforms, said VSOP, but similar in effect would be a visual identity and communications standard, for governmental Brand India, and all its organisations and services. Citizens should know who is in charge, with certainty, and what they can expect.

Suppose, said VSOP patiently, you were to implement such a standard, what would you see?

PHOTO CREDITS: JASVINDER SINGH| ICD
PHOTO CREDITS: JASVINDER SINGH| ICD

An authentic sign makes its owner more visible, and thus accountable.

Small, everyday examples would be proof of percolation. The hand-painted ‘On Government Duty’, sign on a government vehicle conveys improvisation, not competence. So is the sign bearing my MP’s name, on the street outside my residence: is it mandated, or is this my MP’s legislative impunity? Parliamentary branding would make it clear. An unmistakable and unfakeable sign, or none.

Subtle effects flow from this. An authentic sign makes its owner more visible, and thus accountable. Isn’t this basic to branding? VSOP looked up, waiting for me to disagree, and continued.

Courts would have standardised, distinct, high quality identification signs outside, and inside, standardised directional signage. Airports rely on standard “walkthroughs” and signage, so why not all government offices that deal with public traffic?A system of visual identity needs logic and consistency to be read and function better.

All ministries use the Ashokan four-lion national symbol, but look at the meaningless variations in lettering, proportion and arrangement! Ministries would have one identity, as would their organisations. All their publications would fall under a typology, with systematised design and content guidelines, suited to each purpose. They would be appealing, bright, illustrated, plentiful and recognisable.

My colleague TN Seshan once compared an election to a disorderly wedding hall. Ministry websites too—where do I begin? And each one needs to be learnt like a new language.

State symbols use the national emblem idiosyncratically

Ministry websites would have clear zones, such as for the ministry’s priorities (under the government of the day), citizen services, and for businesses and other audiences. So too for programmes, departments, and organisations. How to get an appointment, where to park. They would have an identical architecture. And look approachable and be mobile friendly.

The best part would be, said VSOP dropping his voice conspiratorially, that some missing pieces would get implemented just because they were required to be communicated.

State symbols use the national emblem idiosyncratically. Some look like ministries, some dispense with the emblem, and some look like royal crests. My symbols would follow a scheme that allows for regional expression within a national structure. A federal design! (this made VSOP chuckle at his own words).

Forms would be simplified, standardised and made usable. Software would automate their production for those not yet online. Why not allow downloads or even sell them in post offices or shops till then? Symmetrical to the Right to Information, is the government’s Duty to Communicate as a part of its definition of excellence. It takes, and shows, commitment, and the ability to conceive, plan and orchestrate.  Government excels at these—when it wants to.

My geek grandson, calls this UX (user experience) for government. I like that: citizen experience, however partial. And software can enable, centralise and even fool-proof a lot of this. Political will, do you say? We have a strong PM, an enthusiastic and skilled communicator, which is perhaps his strongest suit(VSOP said it like this). A small department under the PMO would cover every limb of government, and three years would be enough to make a huge dent.

And what about officers and their behaviour towards the public, I asked. Codes, and training?

At this, VSOP turned his gaze to the fountains playing outside, and a long silence followed.

This article first appeared in the 16th July issue of Business Standard under the column ‘Deep Design’ by Itu Chaudhuri.

7 Comments

  • Sudhir Tiwari

    July 19, 2016

    Read and connected with your article in Business Standard over the weekend. As a brief introduction, I am the MD of ThoughtWorks India, based out of Bangalore. We are a technology firm , delivering a combination of services of Strategy, Design, Product and Software.

    I personally feel we need to leap frog as a nation on the design elements . And overall software accessibility of the highest standards should be available to people in India. Would be good to meet sometime to catchup on this area (I assume an area of interest for you and ICD :)).

    Reply
  • Jawhar Sircar

    July 19, 2016

    I enjoyed your jibe at VIPs or VSOPs in the BS Weekend of 16th and your wry sense of humour.

    I am working for the last 41 years in the IAS but, I could somehow never accept the pomposity and humbug that surrounds the bureaucracy.

    It may have been initiated by the ICS but was certainly aggravated by Stephanians and Presidencians later on. Over the last four decades, I have sadly witnessed how it has been taken to such ludicrous levels by small town engineers who managed to cram some silly GK books and after qualifying for the civil services, and then strutted around with such despicable airs. The hard fact is that most of them would not even get a class 2 service if they had to appear at the UPSC a second time. I am dead sure of that and the luck factor applies to me as well.

    Consequentially, I have almost no friend in the services and I am so glad about that. I survive on the oxygen that my other friends in the crazy real world provide.

    I must share a copyright joke of mine. Do you know what the four lions on the Ashokan symbol mean? Well, each guy in government thinks he is a lion, but each guy looks in a different direction !

    Carry on with your creativity while I suffer my last few months in this stuffy vain tribe, as I head to 65 and gasp towards freedom.

    All the best !

    Reply
  • Parshu

    July 19, 2016

    Great article – witty and light – yet incisive

    Reply
  • Paula Sengupta

    August 5, 2016

    Itu pertinent pointers crafted so well Its time Brand India cuts down the fat and shines out hope the PM’s office is following your blog : standardise, simplify & be user friendly : imperative for a clutter free & fuss free image for a dynamic nation.

    Reply
  • Adam Kallish

    August 8, 2016

    Interesting post. Governments have been branded for centuries. The Romans were geniuses at the physical manifestations of brand.

    We need to separate the brand promise from the brand expression. A brand promise is why a brand exists and what benefit or performance it claims to differentiate itself and for users to commit to. A promise is based on belief and values – which is very hard to implement because most people within government just see a bunch of written words and do not know (or are not motivated) how to link it to their everyday actions.

    In terms of brand expression, the four sided lion that all states integrate into their identity is what binds them together to the federal government. The question that each state faces is how to differentiate themselves to their electorate while at the same time having consistency from state to state. It is here that most of the problems you stated in your blog post happens.

    Designers tend to look at visual consistency, and not at the service design aspects that give greater meaning to the visual manifestations of brand. Creating meaningful and beneficial transactions between people and government is the goal and requires that employees understand the purpose and goals of government and deliver value everyday to citizens.

    This is a very large challenge and is this something that design can address? I say yes, but sadly most designers do not have the skills or interest to address these larger problems. As long as this happens, your VSOP conversation will continue . . .

    Reply
  • Avijit

    August 12, 2016

    Itu congratulations on this wry comment on Brand and Branding. Wish the over-arching design awareness could be concretised in the Indian way of life and the designer tribe.
    Loved Jawahar S’ comment on your article. Strength to your arm.

    Reply
  • Aditya Arya

    September 12, 2016

    Love the BLOG and Love what Jawahar Sircar had to say ……

    Reply

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