Branding & Identity

The Kallu shops of Kerala

I like to believe that most of what I have learned in design is through observation. The same goes for how I have began to notice the power of branding. (Well, I guess when I put it that way, I tend to sound very capitalist. But you have agree a good amount of design done today is capitalist. I am deviating from my intended message. I will address this on another post.)

Anyway, this particular post is not meant for those who are knee deep in the design industry but for folks living in India and more specifically in Kerala. People who are in fields that have nothing to with brand management or design. When they ask me what I do, I find myself taking a very long time in explaining what graphic design is and then, what designing for brands is all about. What I have began to understand is, people lack basic knowledge about branding.

So I found an example that should not (cannot) be strange to anyone who has lived in Kerala for at least a month. This sign (pointing at the photograph below) is one the most familiar sights that you will find either as a permanent resident or as a visitor to Kerala. The large, bold black text reads as Kallu, the local name of the locally brewed palm toddy. In some places, the Kallu written in Malayalam is accompanied by Toddy written in a large, bold, black sans serif type. I wouldn’t really call any of this a typeface, they are almost calligraphic in style as they are painted on with a brush. The point is, this has become almost iconic as a symbol. Even if you can’t read the Malayalam script, its form gets ingrained in our minds.

Kallu Shop sign, Mararikulam, Kerala.

Unconsciously or consciously, this form has gotten painted in the same manner at all the Toddy shops that has opened across the state (Kerala). But this ‘brand’ if you may want to call it, is not a mere form. It is representation of of local brewing tradition, its history, local/street cuisine that one can eat at a Kallu shop along with a bottle of toddy, palm trees of Kerala and so on. It is an integral part of the larger identity of Kerala. Even though, over the years, alcohol has been portrayed as a negative social element, we can’t deny how distinct the identity of a Kallu shop in Kerala is.

This is a simple example for understanding what a brand is. It might mean different things to different people. But the fact is that it has certain characteristics that makes it stand apart. Even if you don’t fall within the target group of this so-called brand, it has managed to find a place in your head. From a designer’s point of view, the purpose of a brand’s identity is to offer the brand a visual that is easy for people to retain in their minds. The Kallu shops in Kerala has managed to do this by repeatedly copying the same form over and over at all the toddy shop signs. These sign will also have the toddy license number and sometime, the name of the place.

This is an example of an identity that has become familiar because of its extensive presence in the region. Additionally, all the signs look the same (except for the license number and other details, but the format remains the same), making it easy to recognize. This system of signage making could be beneficial for some brands and this is an interesting case study to look into.

(Personal Project Idea: If you are interested in collecting images of toddy shop signs in Kerala, leave me a message. Thank you!)

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