Stanley Moss knows his brands. In India to be felicitated at the two-day World Brand Congress that starts in Mumbai on Wednesday, he says nothing bothers him more than insipid graphics and incongruous brand messages.

Expert view: Stanley Moss says the Mother Diary brand can only work in India, and the Taj Mahal is a huge branding opportunity going waste.

Moss is the CEO and general secretary of The Medinge Group—an elite, invite-only coterie of brand experts from around the world. Members of this Sweden-based non-profit think tank meet twice a year to discuss sophisticated marketing mechanisms, evoking semiotics and subliminal codes.

When Moss is not debating theory and trends in international branding, he runs diganzi, an international brand consultancy that he founded in 2001. In a career spanning over 40 years, the brand guru has helped shape several high-profile brands such as Coca-Cola, The New York Times and the University of California at Berkeley. His motto, he says, is to “influence businesses to become more human and humane".

Listen to an interview with brand guru Stanley Moss

Download here

Here, he shares his thoughts on a few trailblazing Indian brands. Edited excerpts:

Mother Dairy

“Regional sensitivity in brand naming often presents challenges. Mother Dairy, a government-sponsored initiative to bring nutrition to the masses, was a great success story. For many Indians, it connoted ideological associations with parental nurture, representing sociological implications which can’t be well translated across borders.

Its name has major significance in a place where the country is known as Mother India, river Ganges is known as Mother Ganges, and every cinema-goer knows the iconic line “Mere paas ma hai", the Bollywood equivalent of “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse".

But the strong cultural and family-centric values embedded in this name would barely resonate in countries such as the US, where family values have declined and “mother" is associated with a notion of weakness, and the first half of a popular ghetto epithet—the phrase “mother of all battles" uttered by Saddam Hussein, which became an object of popular ridicule.

Unlike India, where the word “mother" alludes to greatness, elsewhere a brand name containing “mother" would bring up associations with a homespun, organic, or small-scale enterprise."

Sulabh International Social Service Organisation

“An impressive NGO brand that India can be proud of. Sulabh brought forward the taboo subject of sanitation and waste management, and contributed to the ongoing dialogue about the caste system. In the course of its work, the NGO has had a multidimensional positive impact on society. There is enormous merit in installing over a million toilets and raising awareness about how to improve living standards. This is a magnificent NGO brand, and India should be proud of their work and the way they have consistently underlined their goals and missions with distinct brand purpose."

Reliance and Tata

“Both these organizations provoke thought about the difficulty of managing monolithic brands. By their sheer size and breadth they are, in effect, nation states within a nation. Both are so diverse and vast that no generic idea can encompass them. This is a question of brand architecture since both have attributes of monolithic brands, that is a host of sub-brands carrying the parent company name. Yet, there are some sub-brands under the parent which carry their own names and brand identities. That is where the dilemma lies.

The discussion centres on the conflict in understanding who the big brands are. Should we look at the smaller entities as parts of a House of Brands, meaning we may not even know the parent name and what it stands for, and only consider the stand-alone values each smaller player possesses? Or do we ask each sub-brand to adhere to the values statements of the parent, whether carrying their name or not?

In the case of Reliance, the reputation seems to be one of a monolithic company which puts its name on everything it owns. We see their visual branding everywhere in India, logos which when created were the most expensive Indian brand solution in history. I am not convinced it is a particularly good graphic solution for the money spent. I find the nesting triangles, one with curved edges and one with sharp edges, vague and ambiguous. One can attach some symbolic statement to the icon, but it seems contrived and far-fetched. Its only attribute is recognition by colour and shape. Reliance has a reputation for taking on projects, but only of a large scale. How ironic that they are also known as “unreliable" despite the fact that their name is Reliance. So, in my opinion, the brand aspect is a failure, although their business strategy seems to keep them operating.

Tata, on the other hand has a more westernized, globalized look, probably the result of a visual brand created by Wolff Olins. Visit Tata’s website and you find a slick, world-class presentation with a near-endless list of sub-brands. The parent company defines itself around the aspect of heritage. Ratan Tata is seen as a down-to-earth type, whose personal brand infuses the Tata brand with a great degree of goodwill. This is evidence that strong leadership can figure mightily in a monolithic brand’s reputation. Where would Virgin be without Richard Branson, or Apple without Steve Jobs?

Therein may lie the answer: A strong leader can often fill the perceptual gaps."

Taj Mahal

“So far a missed opportunity in place branding the greatest known symbol of India. This is the showpiece of brand India, equivalent to the pyramids of Egypt or the Eiffel Tower of France. Yet, little has been done to the actual monument to reflect India’s progress. In many symbolic ways, the Taj Mahal is still a celebration of the analog world, the old India. Its bullock-cart lawn mowers and kneeling labourers express the idea of cheap labour. Surely there is an Indian brand making modern, clean-fuelled electric lawn mowers which can be showcased to the world in this prime tourist destination? Is there no bar code scanner brand who would like to automate the ticketing? No bank that would like to sponsor a world-class graphic design?

The approach to the monument has no signage, and is filled with lanes of intrusive sellers of cheap mementoes. Ticketing is antiquarian, carrying a hand-stamped number with unsophisticated typography.

There is no online booking or computerized ticket available. Only the presence of a UN-sponsored digital display of daily pollution readings suggests any high-tech component. There is also no major corporate patronage for preservation indicated. There is no showcase of the new India. This is a project waiting to be done. For an instructive place branding model, consult the Eiffel Tower where all of the above can be found."