Timeless lessons from a Titan

HARISH BHAT | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 15, 2016

Xerxes Desai

What we can learn from Xerxes Desai, a remarkable marketer and visionary

Last month, Xerxes Desai, the man who created Titan, passed away. He was one of the most remarkable marketers of our age, having created hugely desirable brands such as Titan and Tanishq, which are amongst the best known Indian brand names today. His memorial service, held at the Titan watches factory located at Hosur in Tamil Nadu, was one of the most moving events I have ever participated in. As I sat listening to speakers who had worked closely with Xerxes Desai in the early days of Titan, one thing stood out for me — each of them described him as a visionary, and in the same breath, also as a great teacher.

What did Xerxes Desai teach them, and what indeed did he teach the marketers of India ? People of my generation will remember the extraordinary launch of Titan watches, which he scripted in the late 1980s. This was a transformational event in Indian marketing history. With a dazzling range of new timekeeping designs that Indians had never experienced before, and a new technology that accompanied them, Titan watches stormed the marketplace. Within a couple of years, Titan had established clear market leadership, and had won over the hearts and wrists of millions of Indians. At the core of this success was Xerxes Desai’s courageous vision for Titan, that every marketer can learn from.

Courage, clarity, simplicity

Marketers who wish to make great impact have to be bold. Xerxes Desai demonstrated such courage when he decided to launch only quartz wrist watches in a market that had been dominated by mechanical watches. In fact, the quartz wrist watch was an unknown entity in India at that time. Ignoring popular wisdom of the day, which stated that it would be safe to stay with mechanical watches, or at least launch a good proportion of these time-tested devices, Xerxes chose to launch Titan as a brand of quartz watches alone. Not a single mechanical watch was included in the range.

His reasons for this bold decision illustrate the clear insights and stark simplicity with which great marketers think. Here is what he said. Quartz was a superior technology for accurate timekeeping, an essential function of any watch. Quartz watches, which contained fewer components, could also be much slimmer than bulky mechanical watches, hence they were far more suited to sleek designs. And of course, quartz watches could be crafted very cost effectively, and were also more convenient to use because they needed no daily winding. In hindsight, all this appears like a glimpse of the obvious. In the mid-1980s, none of it was visible, really. Until Xerxes Desai saw it, and articulated it in such simple terms, for the first time.

Aesthetics & imagination

If courage and simplicity were a hallmark of Xerxes Desai, so were a heightened sense of aesthetics, and a grand imagination — these are also traits that great marketers inevitably possess and nurture, particularly in the lifestyle and fashion space. The designs of Titan watches that he launched were elegant, beautiful and breath taking. His love of beauty and craftsmanship reigned supreme, and he gathered around him a set of very talented designers, horologists and marketers who revelled in these playing fields. Xerxes, it is said, could spot a curve that was not perfect or a dot that was not in total harmony with its surroundings. He loved his products passionately and knew them intimately, as every marketer worth his salt should. This same heightened sense of aesthetics and beauty would resurface once again, when he launched Tanishq jewellery a decade later — and today (albeit after some early struggles) it is the most famous brand of jewellery in India.

Xerxes Desai’s grand imagination and creativity manifested itself in many ways. Perhaps the most visible of these was the very fertile partnership he built with his creative partner, the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. The early catalogue-type advertisements of Titan watches were imaginative in themselves, because such lush advertisements had never been seen in our country before. Then, he partnered the agency to take an astounding leap of creativity which has rarely been seen in India. In a country where virtually no one understands or follows Western classical music, he readily agreed to the use of Mozart’s twenty fifth symphony as the signature music for Titan.

Perhaps his marketers’ intuition told him that this most uplifting of musical scores would transcend culture and succeed against all odds. And astonishingly, it did. This unknown, un-Indian piece of music soon became as popular as Bollywood songs in many Indian households. A series of very creative and memorable Titan advertising campaigns followed, a clear sign of a rock-solid partnership between a marketer with imagination and an advertising agency with flair. That’s what great marketers do, they build strong creative partnerships, which soar on the back of imagination.

Review, course correction

Despite the early heady successes of Titan, Xerxes Desai also knew that marketers, however great they are made out to be, are never infallible. Sometimes, they make errors of judgement or strategy, and when this happens they need to quickly gather their wits about them, and course correct without much fuss. Xerxes made his big marketing error when he launched Tanishq in India with 18 karat gold jewellery, crafted to European inspired designs, sold in luxury boutiques. Neither the caratage nor the design inspiration nor the exclusive boutiques worked, and the jewellery business was soon in jeopardy.

Xerxes Desai stepped back, shut out the noise, and reviewed the agony. He concluded that a sharp course correction was essential — and soon, Tanishq was reborn in a new avatar, with the addition of pure 22 karat gold jewellery, crafted to Indian inspired yet contemporary designs, and sold in classy yet warm stores. This, combined with the introduction of the karatmeter — a master stroke which has few parallels in Indian marketing history — set in motion the momentum that has created India’s most sought after brand of jewellery. The lesson for many of us — marketers should be alert to the possibility of their own errors, and should have the maturity to ring in the required change without much demur.

Restlessness of this Titan

There is a restless quest for perfection, for getting it just right, that marks out many legendary marketers. Steve Jobs of Apple had this restlessness about him, and so does Howard Schultz of Starbucks. They seek perfection because they want to see their products and brand in perfect resonance with their consumers, the resonance that only arises when two objects vibrate in perfect harmony. Xerxes Desai exemplified this restlessness and quest for perfection. Ask anyone who has worked with him, and they will tell you that he was a stickler for getting things absolutely right, whether it be the exact design of a wrist watch, or the grammatical construct of a sentence in an advertising brief.

When I interviewed Xerxes Desai a few years ago, for a story on Tanishq in my book “Tata Log”, he agreed with me that Tanishq had now become a big commercial success. Immediately thereafter, his restlessness overtook him, even though he had retired from Titan several years earlier. He reminded me, in his slow and refined Oxford accent, that while Tanishq was a success, it could become an iconic brand only if it sharpened its appeal and regained the high ground on design. And he ended with the words — “Tanishq must go back to the design concept, the purity of a brilliant concept, as a sustainable differentiator. A work of art is known by its concept, and jewellery is such an expansive art form. Look at what Faberge did with just a blooming egg !”

These are timeless and inspiring words, from a marketer par excellence, a Titan of our time. Xerxes Desai, RIP.


Published on July 15, 2016
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