August has been a good month for Delhi-based fashion designer Manish Arora. He's just heard that celebrities like Keira Knightley, Kate Bosworth and Alicia Keyes had picked up shoes designed by him from the Fred Segal store in California.
"We sell in only one store in Los Angeles and the fact that our shoes caught their attention was good news," says Arora, who designs the Fish Fry range of shoes for global sports and apparel giant Reebok.
The timing couldn't have been better, although Arora insists that "such news is perfect anytime". But it must be especially welcome just now since the 33-year-old designer is working on the new Fish Fry collection for Reebok, set to retail in November, exactly a year after his first collection hit international stores.
Sports brands and designer collaborations aren't unusual - Stella McCartney designs for Adidas while Puma is associated with Alexander McQueen. But Fish Fry is the first couture collection from Reebok, and Arora the first designer (Indian or otherwise) to work with the brand.
But this story isn't about just Arora, Fish Fry or even Reebok. It's about not-so-big Indian brands that are making their presence felt in the international arena. There's Amrut, a single malt whisky by Bangalore's Amrut Distilleries, that's selling well in Scotland. Or Urvashi, a sandalwood-based perfume that sells in France and is a documented case study on branding success.
What's interesting about these brands isn't their chutzpah, although their style of carrying coals to Newcastle is almost outrageous.
Instead, chew on this: at a time when big Indian business houses like the Tata Group, Mahindra & Mahindra and Godrej are trying to make a mark on the global scene either through big-ticket acquisitions or by positioning themselves as value-for-money brands, these much-smaller Indian companies are carving out spaces for themselves in upscale consumers' minds and wallets.
Needless to say, these brands don't boast of pockets that are as deep as their bigger cousins, or even a widely recognised national presence.
But brands like Amrut whisky; Urvashi, the perfume brand from Mumbai-based Gandh Sugandh; shoemaker Gaitonde from Chennai; and Arora's label, Fish Fry, are attracting consumer attention in some of the world's toughest markets.
Will these brands become global heavyweights and spawn desi versions of Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Johnnie Walker? Ask us again in, say, 15 years' time, and we could give you a better answer.
Building an international brand can be a painfully slow process, unless you are fortunate enough to find an angel investor who pumps in millions of dollars for marketing the brand, or you sell an innovation like the iPod and polevault into the big league.
But even without these obvious advantages, the little Indian warriors have made an interesting start. That too with a strategy that's different - distinctly different - from the bigger Indian companies.
"We want to create an international luxury brand from India," says Deepak Bhagwani, director, Three Clothing Co (the company owns the Manish Arora and Fish Fry labels). If you have been tracking what the leading Indian companies have been saying on their own globalisation plans ("value for money" for the world), this is a completely opposite take. And a brave one at that.
Quite a task
To put it very mildly, the task of building global brands (premium or otherwise) is difficult. First, products going global need to tackle strong country-of-origin perceptions. That CoO matters when customers interact with top brands is no secret.
The recent BusinessWeek and Interbrand study of the top 100 valuable brands reveals that 51 per cent (that's right, 51 per cent) of top global brands originate from one country, the US.
The other countries from where valuable brands emerge are Japan, Germany and France. So, do countries with a strong image have a better chance to create globally successful brands?
"Definitely," says Simon Anholt, author of Brand New Justice: the Upside of Global Branding, and adds, "If Nike, Coke, Microsoft and Apple weren't American, or if Mercedes, BMW and Porsche weren't German, they would have been far less valuable brands."
Anholt is in a position to know because, apart from being public diplomacy advisor to the British government and advising countries on building their images, he also ranks the power of nation brands and top cities through the Anholt Nation Brands Index and City Brands Index.
To some extent, the general perception about India as a low-cost (not the lowest cost, though) outsourcing base could hamper brands from India - and this would include Fish Fry, Urvashi and the others - that want to target the luxury segment. But Anholt is encouraging. He prescribes a strategy that smaller brands could follow globally, even as the big companies slug it out for their place under the sun.
"There is room in the marketplace for small brands as well as giants. The smaller brands just have to work out what their particular genius is, and make sure the world gets to know about it." How? "The smaller players must recognise that they are niche brands and play on their particular strengths," he adds.
As it happens, the brands we mentioned earlier are doing just that.
Seen where it matters
Rather than be tempted to go all out and grab market shares, the smaller Indian brands are using pricing as a key differentiator.
Arora's Swarovski crystal-studded footwear carry price tags ranging from $100 to $550 (Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000). At euro 50 (about Rs 3,000) for a 60-ml bottle, the French can't seem to get enough of the sandalwood fragrance of Urvashi. And each bottle of single malt whisky Amrut retails at £21.49 (roughly Rs 1,900) in the UK, on par with Scottish malts.
None of these brands has opted for a high-profile launch. Instead, each one started by being seen in all the right places. And they are equally careful not to be seen in the wrong places. That means the distribution strategy has to be carefully executed.
According to executives at Three Clothing Co, both the Manish Arora and Fish Fry labels retail only through 85 upscale outlets globally, including big stores such as Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Dubai and so on.
"If we retail at top stores, our brands are kept alongside names like Givenchy and YSL. It automatically puts our brand at that level," explains Bhagwani.
That's the same reason Amrut decided to enter the malt whisky segment through Scotland in end-2004.
"Our malt whisky had to be accepted where it truly matters. Which is why we chose Scotland," says Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, managing director, Amrut Distilleries.
The gamble paid off - the company claims to have sold 25,000 bottles in the past 18 months. Selling India-made whisky in Scotland may seem audacious, but blind tasting tests proved Amrut was virtually indistinguishable from good Scotch single malts. And well-known whisky writer Jim Murray, who publishes the annual Whisky Bible, a ranking and tasting guide of whiskies from across the world, gave Amrut a rank of 82 (on a scale of 100).
"That ranking put us in the category of brands worth trying," says Jagdale. Amrut is available at the Pot Still Bar, a 19th century watering hole in Glasgow, Scotland, which stocks 500 varieties of whisky from across the world. "That store is a great tourist destination. Seeing Amrut there makes me happy," beams Jagdale.
Selling to tourists has also prompted Chennai-based shoemaker Gaitonde to now take its range of leather shoes (which sell between Rs 500 and Rs 2,700) to Sri Lanka.
"We have chosen Sri Lanka because it's a big tourist destination," explains Sateesh Jadhav, president, Gaitonde. Selling Gaitonde products globally is not a new game for the company.
But selling branded footwear is. Until about a year ago, Gaitonde focused on exports to Europe - even now, close to 90 per cent of the company's sales are to international markets, from France to Austria. But Gaitonde is only a supplier to other brands in these countries.
When it decided to build up its home brand, the company needed to be careful not to alienate its existing buyers. So Gaitonde decided to play it safe - it stuck to Asia, especially West Asia.
"The region has a sizeable population of NRIs (non resident Indians) who are already familiar with the brand," explains Jadhav.
The company is also exploring other areas like women's formal footwear and niches like specialised patented footwear for diabetics, which is being developed in partnership with the Sundaram Medical Foundation and the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai.
It's all in the name
While the name is the only strong Indian connection for Gaitonde (a Maharashtrian family name), others are selling their brands on what the world describes as "the Indian mystique".
Amrut, for instance, brands itself as "whisky that's made from Indian barley grown at the foot of the Himalayas and matured in oak barrels in unique tropical conditions, 3,000 feet above sea level at Bangalore, the garden city of India".
Urvashi sells in real silver flacons that are fashioned by artisans in Rajasthan, while Fish Fry claims that its name reflects Indianness even as its label reflects a "European sense of style fused with contemporary Indian chic".
"Fish fry [as the name of a delicacy] is Indian in every sense. In Europe, they call it fried fish," laughs Bhagwani.
Arora adds that the apparel range of Fish Fry for Reebok will be launched by the summer of 2007. After all, the future for these brands might not be a case of small fish in a big pond.
In a nutshell
Sell the essence of India to the West: Amrut weaves the story of its brand origin to the Puranic tale of the churning of the ocean of milk by the gods and demons, from which the nectar of life emerged.
Premium pack: The French classify the manufacturer of Urvashi as a Perfumer-Silversmith since the perfume is contained in real silver flacons.
PR and events: Both Three Clothing Co and Amrut have PR agents based in the UK. Arora has shown his collections twice at the premium London Fashion Week - a third is slotted for next month - earning himself huge media attention. Amrut, on the other hand, has participated in Whisky Live events in London and Paris.Selective retailing: When it first launched in the UK, Amrut tied up with Indian restaurants in the country. But it soon found that curry mixes well with beer, not whisky. Accordingly, the company refocused its marketing strategy and is now creating a place for itself along with the whiskies of the world.