(Jayachandran/Mint)
(Jayachandran/Mint)

Titan’s Revathi Kant on her watch

  • Titan’s chief design officer on taking the latest brands to greater heights despite not being a trained designer 
  • Titan has always followed the path of entering a market that is highly unorganized and consolidating it

Titan Co. Ltd’s new campus in Bengaluru’s Electronic City, six months old, is not only a strikingly pretty office, it is an ode to sustainable building design. Walk into the main lobby on a warm, sunny afternoon and you get the feeling of being inside an airy, subterranean cave: the temperature falls and the eye is immediately drawn to a large, curving water body around which the cello-shaped main building rises to a two-storey height. Walking around the lobby, one also notices large colourful posters with photographs of attractive couples; look closer and you realize that they are all same-sex couples—part of a campaign the company is creating in the wake of the repeal of Section 377 of the Constitution, which criminalized homosexuality. The campaign is for Titan’s youth-focused Fastrack brand, with the distinctive Fastrack logo filled in with rainbow colours.

The “biophilic" campus consists of three low-rise buildings surrounded by extensive water bodies that help keep temperatures low, both indoors and outdoors. This is important because none of the buildings on the campus has air-conditioning. The temperature is maintained at or around 27 degrees Celsius with the help of not just industrial-sized and regular fans, but also structurally, with the generous use of water features, greenery, the shape of the buildings, and the creation of wind tunnels.

Design is clearly important to Titan—and it informs everything that the company does, says Titan’s chief design officer Revathi Kant, 50, whom we are meeting today. Kant is an old hand at Titan—her official bio shared by the communications team prior to this interview said she has been with the company for 25 years. “It’s actually 29," says Kant with a laugh as we settle down in her spare, neat room on the second floor of the building. You don’t find too many people these days who have only worked with one company over the span of their career, but Kant is that rare exception. “It speaks a lot about the company itself—the culture, the freedom. Titan has always kept things exciting, fresh and challenging, otherwise can you imagine working with a company for 30 years and not feeling bored or tired? I am very excited about what I do every day," she says.

And indeed, her role within the company has changed quite dramatically from the time she joined as a fresh recruit in the market research department in 1990 after completing a master’s degree in operations research from Regional Engineering College (REC), Tiruchirappalli. A few years later she was heading marketing at the company’s fledgling operations in West Asia and Africa, based out of Dubai. “I moved fields every five years or so. My funda in life is when I get bored, I’ll quit," says Kant.

When she moved to Dubai, Titan was just one brand and one category, wristwatches, and the international market was dominated by Swiss and Japanese brands. Creating a market for an Indian brand—even in a demographic that had a strong Indian diaspora—was not easy. “It was not the India of today—it was not ‘India shining’. The locals would often say ‘al Hind ?’ in a derogatory tone," says Kant. Adding to the challenge was the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field. “In a market like Saudi Arabia, it’s difficult to travel on your own as a woman; even to get a visa was so tough. We had an influential distributor who managed to get me a visa and I wore my burqa and all and went to meet with this sheikh," recalls Kant. “Our ad agency guy who was present at the meeting later told me it was an unusual sight—me in a burqa with this sheikh in a huge conference room, discussing the media plan. It was such an experience, and so much learning. You learn to respect different cultures, and be mindful of everything. And the more you understand the culture, the better you understand your customer."

By the time she wound up her stint in West Asia in 2005, Titan was doing pretty well in the region—it was the No.1 brand in Oman and among the top 3 in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Despite being in marketing, Kant had always been closely involved with developing products specific to the market requirement. “I realized I was quite passionate about the product development side of it. When we were on the other side, we always relied on the design team to give us products and frankly I felt there was some gap, and I felt I could fill it," says Kant. “So when I came back to India, I told Bhaskar (Titan managing director Bhaskar Bhat), I wanted to do something different, like create products that made sense from a consumer point of view."

Kant gives credit to the company for taking a “leap of faith" by making her the head of business of the design vertical at a time when Titan was expanding into different categories—especially jewellery, with its game-changing Tanishq brand. “Titan has always followed the path of entering a market that is highly unorganized and fragmented and consolidating that market. It has happened again and again—with jewellery, then bags and accessories and eyewear. We are quite a restless company," says Kant. In the late 1990s, when Tanishq launched, there were hardly any national players and each jewellery market had its local leaders. The first few years were tough for the brand, as most people perceived Tanishq as an upscale brand with expensive designs and high making charges. Turning that perception around and creating a brand image based on trust and dependability, as well as fresh and unique designs for the modern Indian woman, were instrumental to the brand’s later success, when it became one of the top 3 jewellery retailers in the country. “For me to head design innovation in jewellery was a gamble from both sides that paid off," she says.

It certainly was something of a gamble—Kant was not a trained designer and Titan had always been a design-led company with superstar designers like Michael and Neil Foley. “It certainly was a learning. For the first two years, I didn’t talk. I just listened and spent time getting to know and understand designers. It was important to me that before a thorough understanding of design, I should understand the people who created it," says Kant. She soon realized that there was a gap between the design and sales/marketing teams and set about filling this. And ultimately it paid off, she says, when products created by the creative team sold in huge numbers, became the focus of ad campaigns and “big stories within the company." “Then it started to flow back, and they realized that integrating the business aspect with design was important. Today, I’d say I understand design very well, but I started with the low-hanging fruit, which was bringing the business connect to designers," says Kant.

After heading the design, innovation, and development department at Titan, Kant was recently given the title of chief design officer—a pretty unusual designation for a non-designer and a testimony to Kant’s leadership of the design team. She counts the growth of the Titan Raga brand as one of her success stories. Under her watch, Raga underwent a transformation. “We said, let’s understand the Indian woman. We asked, ‘what should Raga stand for?’ Then, year after year we started coming up with a blockbuster collection. Every Diwali saw a huge Raga collection. Today, Raga is an almost 300 crore brand, and yes, I will take a little bit of credit for that," says Kant with a laugh. She’s visibly proud of Raga and says it’s unique, possibly in the world, by virtue of being a watch brand only for women. “If you look at Swiss watches for women, they are smaller counterparts of men’s watches. But Raga has no male counterpart," she says.

Initially, Raga was associated with terms like “sensuality" and “jewellery-like", but Kant says both the consumer and the design language have evolved over the years. Today the designs are more aligned with values like strength and capability. The same is true for Fastrack, Titan’s youth-focused brand in watches, accessories and eyewear, says Kant. For several years now, Fastrack has had a “bold", almost risque image—carefully developed by several advertising campaigns that aimed to represent a new, sex-positive Indian youth. Some of the ads even crossed the line and the company had to issue apologies—for instance, an ad that showed a female model wrapped in ribbon printed with the words “sale". But the image is again evolving, Kant says, with campaigns that are more socially conscious and in line with values that are dear to millennials rather than brash and rebellious.

Kant believes Indian design has come a long way and so has appreciation for design among Indian consumers. “Design starts off as nice-to-have and then it becomes mainstream, and in India we are somewhere in between at this point. Our spaces have become interesting—while our roads are terrible, look at the Metro in various cities, or Church Street in Bangalore, or F&B companies spending good money on restaurant design and that being used to differentiate the brand.... People do appreciate it. Design is not just about aesthetics—it’s about functionality. It has to be robust, it has to function well," says Kant.

Women in top corporate positions are always asked about how they “balance family and work" (in a way that male CXOs are not) and Kant says she is aware of this, but her take on work-life balance is different. “Sometimes it’s not possible to have that balance, and that’s okay! If I’m at home and there’s a lot of work to be done, I’d rather just sit and finish it off instead of feeling anxious, because of some rule that says work should not eat into my personal time," she says. As mother to a 19-year-old, she has faced her share of child-care challenges earlier in her career, and says it’s important to have a solid support system in place, be it family or employed help, while acknowledging that it’s not always easy for Indian women to have this support.

“For more and more women to come to the senior level, we have to drop the guilt," she says.

***

Weekend mantra

Alternative healing, meditation and Reiki practice.

One thing that you do every day that recharges you

Connecting and engaging with people, from colleagues to the security guard to the janitor.

Comfort food

A fistful of nuts.

Books that have influenced your thinking

‘The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up’ by Marie Kondo, and ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg.

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