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A lesson in product and employer branding from India's Hidesign

Employer Brand, Global Brand, Inspiration, Product BrandellispinesComment

The latest issue (September 29, 2012) of the The Economist has a 16-page report on "India: In search of a dream." One article discusses the unusual business practices of Hidesign, a leather goods manufactuer. The article notes that on the surface Hidesign looks like a probable failure: bags hand-stitched by educated Indian women in blue saris, who take an average of 13 hours to complete a bag, i.e. three times as long as a typical Chinese worker.

Yet when asked about this seeming lack of productivity, founder-owner Dilip Kapur comments that when he tried to speed things up, he saw naught but downsides. He risked disengagement with his employees, whose wages have been rising by 13 to 14 percent a year and whose skills are valued.

"Worse," he says, "“we lost the core strength, a product that spoke of uniqueness. I lost the ability to brand.”

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(Wiki image of successful rebel brander, Dilip Kapur)

Hidesign offers an example of the integral nature of a product and employer brand. Kapur sees manufacturing as essential to the Hidesign brand. With 3,000 employees, which he sees expanding to 5,000, Hidesign is the largest employer in the Union Territory of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry). A onetime French colony, known as the "French Riviera of the East" (La Côte d'Azur de l'Est), the territory retains this French influence. This continental flavor extends to distribution of Hidesign's "affordable luxury goods." Today the company has stores around the world (the USA one is in fashionable Carmel by the Sea, California) as well as deep ties in the global design world (Louis Vitton has been an investor and partner).

Kapur, however, credits his own independent way of thinking as the heart of the brand, a manner forged in institutions as diverse as Pondicherry's Sri Aurobindo Ashram School, Phillips Academy (Andover, MA), Princeton University and the University of Denver (Ph. D. in International Affairs). In an interview with India's The Economic Timesthis past May, Kapur elaborated on what he called a "rebel brand" that accidentally became a global brand.

Growing up in the Aurobindo Ashram School, Kapur says that he "was very independent minded." While studying in the USA he realized that he wanted more than the typical Ph. D. job for which he had been groomed. When he returned to India in the late 1970s, he joined the Auroville experimental community, a "universal town in South India," founded by Mirra Alfassa, the Paris-born spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo and previously creator of the Ashram School.

In Auroville,  Kapur says, "I had this hobby of leather-crafting and people seemed to like what I made. I set up a workshop with one worker and did not have any definite plans. When I started making leather goods, other rebels travelling to Pondicherry would discover us and take our products back to where they came from. So entrepreneurs took our bags to England, San Francisco and Australia and we became hits in the alternative fashion scene. My niche was that I fit in the rebel scene."

Later Kapur discovered a high-end market within India for his "affordable luxury goods," and with over 70 company-owned, in-country stores, this domestic business now counts for 65 percent of his revenue. Meanwhile what we would term the "emotional brand attributes" of the closely related product and employer brands seem applicable internationally.

The U.S.A. site for Hidesignarticulates this value proposition in a way that is reminiscent of an earlier American focus on authentic entrepreneurial brands. After carefully detailing the process that goes into each bag, the overview says, "Our traditional methods allow us to produce a product which is rich in character, texture and individuality. Hidesign knows no other way of making bags which will give years of pleasure."