Thursday, March 26, 2009

Who will win the battle of the ballot?

As politicians get down to branding, what does this mean for the average Indian voter?

Of symbols, signs and slogans: Political advertising and branding is nothing new, but what will really catch the voter’s eye?

India is a country divided by differences of language, race, caste, colour of skin, religion, sub-sects, dialects and just about anything, And yet this divided country has common interests that strangely end up creating further differences.
Indians as a race are interested in politics, cricket, films and music, not necessarily in that order, and that applies through the length and breadth of the country. And yet these interests too continue to divide. Shah Rukh vs Aamir, Tendulkar vs Dravid and now Rajasthan Royals vs Chennai Super Kings … you get the picture.

Now, in the middle of the summer, two of India’s major passions will captivate the imagination of a poverty-stricken nation starved of entertainment. Yes, Sir! The controversial second version of the IPL and the general elections will simultaneously jostle each other for eyeballs and action.

Even as we get ready for the midsummer days and ‘nights’ madness that will be upon us almost immediately, I need to confess (with considerable regret, though) that a cricket fanatic like me is not going to talk about IPL, but stay with the elections. One aspect of it that I am perhaps in a position to talk about is the political advertising that is likely to come on air, print or be plastered on every piece of available space in this vast country. I will also talk about how political parties have used branding over the years and what one might well expect in the forthcoming elections.

We smart, politicians smarter

Many of us have an exaggerated sense of our own importance and intelligence. We simultaneously have a poor opinion of politicians promptly classifying them as ‘dumbos’ who do not deserve the level of success that they seem to enjoy. After all, we have been to IIT and IIM, hold majors in marketing and can tell the world a thing or two about strategy, or so we think, even as we chafe about the quality of people who are governing us. And yet, I think we are making the mistake of slotting them, wrongly.

Let me explain. I grew up in Tamil Nadu, which is a State that understands politics. In a sense that is a misleading euphemism and a statement similar to other obvious ones like ‘Australia plays cricket’ and ‘Chennai is hot in April’. While today’s political leaders seem quite unimpressive, to us at least, they actually have a greater understanding of strategy than we realise. I am now able to see the value of what I observed as a child, several years later, so much for my intelligence and my management education!

The political leaders of my time knew the value of branding long before I knew what the term meant. Branding is about symbols, and political parties like the DMK knew this long before people like you and I did. The DMK, for instance, has the symbol of the ‘rising sun’ which it kept repeating visually and orally and kept reiterating to the politically aware State.

Similarly, branding is about colours and this is something that politicians knew then and realise the value of now, perhaps more than ever. The DMK’s strong colour sense manifested itself in the usage of red and black which extended to the designs of the dhotis and even the towels those politicians and party members wore. I also used to smile at MGR’s dress sense. He would invariably wear a black shirt and lie down on a red carpet as he sang and I would wince. But the people behind this knew something that I did not know at that time. They were not bothered too much about aesthetics or dress sense but were subtly and overtly reinstating the brands, read the party’s colours.

Yes, political parties have always realised the value of branding and continue to invest in symbols, colours and slogans. The AIADMK has its twin leaves, the BJP its lotus, and the Congress a hand and so on. Symbols become even more critical in a country that has a high level of illiteracy and we need to remember that people cast their votes on these very symbols that are there on the ballot papers.

Still on the subject of branding, I would as a child fret about why MGR’s films scripts used to be so predictable. He would not smoke or drink in films, would not chase women (women chased him), he was a friend of the poor, he would give donations to the poor both in his films and in real life, he would do every film with the same story-line. But he had an agenda. He was subtly but surely telling his voting populace that this was the real MGR. He probably was, but there is no doubting the precision of his strategy or the methodical manner in which it was executed. Tamil Nadu loved him, voted for him and still continues to vote for his party.

Political advertising in the past

Traditionally, other countries have had greater reliance on advertising and one remembers Saatchi and Saatchi’s powerful campaign for the Conservatives with the line ‘Labour isn’t working’, taking a direct swipe at the increasing unemployment under Labour rule. Even more recently, Obama, in his high-profile election campaign, ran a 30-minute infomercial on major television networks. Speak of media muscle! India too has had its share of political advertising that has been high-decibel, if a bit low on creativity, as specialised agencies have worked on them generally, who probably knew the ropes and had access to the political leadership. In a sense all that changed when Rajiv Gandhi entrusted the task of the campaign to his Doon school friends who were running Rediffusion, the advertising agency. The campaign was a standout and a clearly different one from what the average Indian voter had been exposed to. Maybe the only hint of criticism that I can offer now, several years later, is that it perhaps came with an urban bias.

The other campaign which was quite visible was BJP’s ‘India Shining’ campaign which too had its fair share of visibility and did get some acclaim when it was launched. However, everything took on a different hue once the elections were lost and the campaign was unfairly (in my opinion, at least) made the scapegoat for the party’s fiasco in the elections.

This time around, the advertising budgets for the elections are slated to be Rs 500 crore; another estimate puts it at Rs 1, 000 crore making sure the troubled advertising industry least has something to look forward to.

The power of the slogan

Advertising is often reduced to slogans or tag lines and their recall. This is perhaps most true for political advertising. Perhaps a few we can recall are Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan and Garibi Hatao. Given the vast and diverse nature of the country and the fact that many of the people who vote are below the poverty line, the value of a slogan that is memorable need hardly be emphasised. The Congress probably said “why reinvent the wheel?” and just took over the Oscar winning Jai Ho.

I think there is a basic principle in advertising and that is great advertising is just not the ‘lowest common denominator’. You just cannot afford to talk down to the consumer. The greatest ideas are simple and powerful and make a profound impact on the target audience, however limited their education might be and that is the challenge that has to be addressed in this election. Throw in also the challenges of a metropolitan audience that is Net-savvy – then we have an indication of the complexity of the task that awaits the advertising agency.

What about the voter?

While we talk about all this, we just cannot afford to forget one important reality. The urban voter seems to live in a different world, particularly the educated one. He is generally apathetic to politics, politicians and his own responsibilities when it comes to choosing the right people. So, advertising is likely to be even lower in his priorities. It matters nothing to the voter that the people who are governing him and in effect leading his destiny are criminals. It is in this context that initiatives like ‘No criminals in politics’, which is just gathering momentum, are indications that the number of people who care about the future of the country and are actually putting their money where their mouth is.

As an advertising professional, I would like to see some great advertising for the next election. But as a citizen of India, I can only hope and pray that the Indian voter will have the sense to get the right people in and that will be the greatest news that India can get amidst all the doom and gloom that seems to be surrounding us just now.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

10 comments:

Venky Mysore said...

Very good sir. Your observations on MGR resonates very much. I think in one movie he called himself MG Red!! I suppose also the symbols were very important for a voter community which was substantially illiterate. having said this, I think there is so much clutter even in politics now that I am not sure how effective the branding is. Keep up the good work sir.

Sridhar said...

Yes Venky like in the real word of brands there are too many players jostling for attention. May the best person win!

Vaishali said...

Very interesting analysis. Especially the one on MGR – never thought of it like that.
There is one thing that I would like to watch closely – something you’ve mentioned in your article about removing criminals from politics. And when I say that, the first thing that comes to mind is Varun Gandhi. Sure he is not a criminal, but look at what all he is saying. And he will still contest the elections – no one has the power to stop him. If they do, they are not testing or utilizing it.
We are probably still, somewhere not getting something right.
Many thanks for sharing the article, it made good reading.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Vaishali, I agree with you and I feel that Varun and his like should not be allowed anywhere near the electoral process.
But did you know that one fourth of the MPs are convicted for criminal offenses like rape, murder, extortion, kidnapping and have signed the affidavit saying that they are convicted and yet they keep coming back.
I hope people vote and vote correctly this time around.

Vijay Raghavan said...

Dear Sridhar,

Quite liked the article. Doesn't talk down and connects well !

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Vijay, keep reading and giving feedback.

Surya said...

It’s been a while since I've read such a good piece of writing that plays off both my passion areas cricket and politics, rightfully the national hobbies as you accurately describe. That being said, my response was triggered in disagreement with your exuberant upholding of the politicians being smart branders than what people give them credit for. Successful political campaigns in India have been more happenstance as opposed to a culmination of superior thought.


Branding basics prescribe consumer relevance and consistency as the two key ingredients of any successful campaign. What the political parties have done well is consistency both in their actions and the symbols that represent them. This has happened though more because of the fear of change especially in trying to be top of mind at the moment of truth – the voting booth. What exactly does that “hand” or the “lotus” represent from the standpoint of voter relevance, well your guess is as good as mine. You can play an armchair quarterback and backtrack into their conception as a stroke of genius but I can assure you that was not the thought process embedded in the mind of its creators.

As I look at the campaign ideas that typically manifest themselves as slogans, they have been detrimental to most unsuccessful campaigns with the most common mistake being the lack of consumer relevance. You can’t go out shouting “India Shining!” at the top of your lungs when 70 to 80% of your demographic see nothing bright about their present or future. You can’t rest on the laurels of urban development like Mr. Naidu did, when rural voters still represent a majority of your voter base. DMK in Tamil Nadu has primarily been the beneficiary of its opposition’s screw ups, consistency of its own leadership (as crooked and immoral as it might be) and the political savvy in creating the right alliances that enabled progress – its middle name. The only branding that ever happened with DMK was popularizing the anti-Hindi tide in 1965 via a fantastic brand ambassador at the time MGR.

Looking ahead to the elections this summer, neither the UPA nor the NDA seems to have done their homework. “Jai Ho” while being simple and populist has the same ingredients for disaster as the “India Shining” campaign did in the last general election and has the potential to suffer the wrath of an anti-incumbency wave. Instead they would have been well served with an “Aage Badho” campaign seeking the voter’s alignment to the country’s continued progress while highlighting specific action items that the government seeks to accomplish in its next term. The NDA on the other hand is really, really missing the boat with its “Kushal Neta, Nirnayak Sarkaar” campaign. Apart from the slogan itself being a mouthful, projecting, L.K Advani as an able leader is the last thing I would do. I would have instead capitalized on the patriotic wave post the Mumbai terror-attacks and campaign to fulfill the promise of a safe and prosperous India while fueling the populist national spirit that embodies the BJP brand. The Obama campaign is a great example of powerful branding that both parties could learn from, not because of its powerful infomercial on prime time TV, but because it triggered the message of change riding on the backs of an unpopular war and president, while rekindling the spirit of unity and belief that is buried in the roots of the country’s evolution.

I’ll take the India Premier League over the elections this summer, thank you very much! The very fact that we can’t host the biggest revenue generating event that signature’s India’s international relevance in our own land because of security concerns speaks to this government’s lack of efficiency and foresight. I love Chidambaram, just not in this instance.

My sister Kalyani Menon, just started working at Brand-Comm this week. I’m glad she did since it introduced me to your blog. Here is wishing her and all of Brand-Comm the very best for a great future. Cheers!

Surya said...

It’s been a while since I've read such a good piece of writing that plays off both my passion areas cricket and politics, rightfully the national hobbies as you accurately describe. That being said, my response was triggered in disagreement with your exuberant upholding of the politicians being smart branders than what people give them credit for. Successful political campaigns in India have been more happenstance as opposed to a culmination of superior thought.


Branding basics prescribe consumer relevance and consistency as the two key ingredients of any successful campaign. What the political parties have done well is consistency both in their actions and the symbols that represent them. This has happened though more because of the fear of change especially in trying to be top of mind at the moment of truth – the voting booth. What exactly does that “hand” or the “lotus” represent from the standpoint of voter relevance, well your guess is as good as mine. You can play an armchair quarterback and backtrack into their conception as a stroke of genius but I can assure you that was not the thought process embedded in the mind of its creators.

As I look at the campaign ideas that typically manifest themselves as slogans, they have been detrimental to most unsuccessful campaigns with the most common mistake being the lack of consumer relevance. You can’t go out shouting “India Shining!” at the top of your lungs when 70 to 80% of your demographic see nothing bright about their present or future. You can’t rest on the laurels of urban development like Mr. Naidu did, when rural voters still represent a majority of your voter base. DMK in Tamil Nadu has primarily been the beneficiary of its opposition’s screw ups, consistency of its own leadership (as crooked and immoral as it might be) and the political savvy in creating the right alliances that enabled progress – its middle name. The only branding that ever happened with DMK was popularizing the anti-Hindi tide in 1965 via a fantastic brand ambassador at the time MGR.

Looking ahead to the elections this summer, neither the UPA nor the NDA seems to have done their homework. “Jai Ho” while being simple and populist has the same ingredients for disaster as the “India Shining” campaign did in the last general election and has the potential to suffer the wrath of an anti-incumbency wave. Instead they would have been well served with an “Aage Badho” campaign seeking the voter’s alignment to the country’s continued progress while highlighting specific action items that the government seeks to accomplish in its next term. The NDA on the other hand is really, really missing the boat with its “Kushal Neta, Nirnayak Sarkaar” campaign. Apart from the slogan itself being a mouthful, projecting, L.K Advani as an able leader is the last thing I would do. I would have instead capitalized on the patriotic wave post the Mumbai terror-attacks and campaign to fulfill the promise of a safe and prosperous India while fueling the populist national spirit that embodies the BJP brand. The Obama campaign is a great example of powerful branding that both parties could learn from, not because of its powerful infomercial on prime time TV, but because it triggered the message of change riding on the backs of an unpopular war and president, while rekindling the spirit of unity and belief that is buried in the roots of the country’s evolution.

I’ll take the India Premier League over the elections this summer, thank you very much! The very fact that we can’t host this big revenue generating event that signatures India’s international relevance in our own land because of security concerns speaks to this government’s lack of efficiency and foresight. I love Chidambaram, just not in this instance.

My sister Kalyani Menon, just started working at Brand-Comm this week. I’m glad she did since it introduced me to your blog. Here is wishing her and all of Brand-Comm the very best for a great future. Cheers!

Ram said...

That was great observation on your part on how these political thugs actually know more about branding that we would grant them prima facie. I once read an article on the great dhirubai ambani. Some one asked him how he mangaged to gain so much knowlege on various busineses. His reply was that he was always inquistive to know more and he would always keep asking people around him including his driver and servnats about various things. The point is people in the corporate sector can learn a lot just by observing and having a questioning mind rather than letting their own backgrounds and education making them hedonistic leading to a 'I know it all' attitude. It also empasises the fact that their is no substitute to native intelligence which explains why an MGR or a Karunanidhi could develop powerful brands out of their parties. As you said may the best man win( or should we say - let the less rotten apple survive.)

sundar said...

The lead paragraph touches on the country being "divided". This is kind of sad for our country of great and ancient heritage and lofty values, and more so for the citizens. Is this a problem of a superficial nature or does it reach and attack the core of the country and the individual person? Is this a phenomenon which is increasing in its damaging value? Can the author or other readers suggest further reading for those who may like to seek rigorous sources of information on this aspect. Thank you