Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Brand India needs a champion

It is common for products, services and even organizations to brand themselves. Very often these branding exercises are done after extensive research to understand what consumers want, followed by carefully crafted positioning and slick communication, all adding up to a coherent promotion for the brand. This coupled with a number of value propositions which the brand owners provide along with the service experience creates an image for brands in the minds and hearts of consumers. There is also another important aspect to successful brands. Brands have custodians who guide their destiny and constantly worry about the image of the brand and they keep pushing their teams to come up with activities that add to the image of the brand. Associations are carefully nurtured and those that might dilute the brand’s equity are quickly eliminated. Nothing is left to chance and the environment is carefully monitored for things that are unexpected. There is almost paranoia about what the competition does or even contemplates doing. Smart brand managers too know that branding is not only about identity and advertising, though they are important too, but about the whole customer experience connected with the brand. Experts on branding claim that any thing can and will become a brand - whether it is a product, a company, a service, a person or even a place. Right now all of us are in India, a country which has developed significantly over the six odd decades of its independence and yet
even the most ardent of its fans must confess that despite our progress there are “miles to go before India sleeps” when we evaluate India as a brand.

A brand called India

India might not have consciously attempted to brand itself, but it is still evoking reactions both within the country and in other parts of the world ever since its inception. In fact they do say that “perception is reality”, and in my view at least, the perceptions about India have probably harmed it more than they have helped it. Very simply put there are a few major stages in India’s brand history after independence which happened in 1947 as all of us know. In the early stages, India was a country of elephants and snake charmers, at least to the rest of the world, and one did not have to visit the country to subscribe to this point of view. Thankfully visitors to
India experienced different facets of the young nation’s diversity and beauty in each visit. They realized that there was more to India than the things that they already knew about like the Taj Mahal and yoga. They came back, again and again, their horizons widened and slowly their impressions about the country changed and the change was usually for the better. This was primarily the tourist, whose expectations were different and usually met on most counts, barring the infrastructure, the lack of which continues to fox everyone including the people who are responsible for creating the infrastructure. India ambled along placidly, dragged back by a large population below the poverty line while the rest of the world was galloping in economic terms. The business and financial world did not take too much interest in India and who could blame them? India’s liberalization changed many things not least of all, the world’s view of our country. Suddenly a new interest group emerged and that was the foreign institutional investor who immediately looked at India and the tremendous opportunity it provided. Things changed dramatically as investors came, if not in hordes but in reasonably large numbers, as the “vast
Indian middle class” which was only rivaled by China beckoned the rest of the world. More and more MNC brands entered the country. To evaluate their success or failure is not the purpose of this piece.

The world gets Bangalored

The next major facet of brand India has actually been a city which has almost overshadowed the country that it is part of, when it comes to the brand stakes. Let me start with a small anecdote. In September 2003 I went to South Africa to watch the cricket world cup. (India has its fair share of cricket crazy people like me who keep traveling around the world in the hope that their team wins!). I bumped into someone at the mall quite literally and instantly apologized, only to
be asked “Indian?” I said “yes”. (We Indians have a give away complexion even before one gets to hear us speak.) He then went on to ask “Which city?” I said “Bangalore” and his instant reaction was “Oh, software?” Mind you, he was just an ordinary citizen, not even someone from business. It’s amazing the way IT and IT enabled services have captured the image high ground in a manner in which no other industry has been able to do for India over the years and almost hijacked the India brand, so strong is the association with software and technology. In fact it has spawned new words in the lexicon like “Bangalored” and even today Barack Obama seems to have his sights on jobs in Bangalore and how there would be a different structure of
taxation to protect jobs in the US. Well we seem to have progressed rather dramatically from being seen as a nation of snake charmers to a nation of techies, and even people like me, who are probably best described as technophobes, are acquiring a degree of respectability.

Do people understand what branding means?

Yet even the greatest optimist must recognize that things do not happen the way it ought to in affairs which involve a city, a state or a nation even. Let me explain. I have already spoken about how Bangalore, thanks to its association with software and technology, has pole-vaulted to instant recognition across the world. And yet what do the people who run the state and the city do? They change the successful city’s name to Bengaluru. They were hardly the first as even earlier Madras had become Chennai, Calcutta had become Kolkata and even Bombay had become Mumbai. Clearly the people who run these cities have no clue about the sanctity of the brand name or how a brand name is forever, and are merely pursuing their own personal,
shortsighted agenda . Nor do they ask people like you and me to whom the city matters as to what we think of the proposed change. In fact most of these cities suffer from a lack of ownership for the brand, as people with a different agenda and with a very limited view of branding and its long term implications tamper with the brand.

On to India

Today India has a few people who realize what branding can do. {Thank God for small mercies!}. In fact in 2007 a major exercise was undertaken in New York when the UN was in session showcasing India’s achievements since the six decades of independence across a variety of verticals and dispelling the notion that India is more than a destination for tourists. It has the capability to be the destination for foreign capital and a provider of cheap, intelligent and efficient
manpower, the creator of films that the world watches, the manufacturer of the lowest priced car in the world … in short a brand with multi-faceted skills and achievements. All too often branding is seen as an exercise to build a brand for tourists and tourism. Malaysia did a highly visible campaign showcasing the country’s inherent beauty and the fact that it had so many sights worth seeing. India too has had its “discover India’ campaign. But branding a nation is far more complex. It needs to address several audiences many of whom are looking for different things and this nation offers it. Most critically India needs to position itself to the external world consciously and not leave it to accidents of chance or fate and that is the challenge we must face.
Mind you we have made a start. We are being noticed. Now all we need to do is ensure that we are being noticed for the right things and some of the earlier misconceptions are corrected.

But who will manage it?

The recent elections in India have thankfully thrown up results that indicate reasonable stability. Unless the current lot of elected people do something that is very dumb (which is not beyond them) they should stay in power for five years. Five years is a reasonable time frame in the context of a nation and almost “long term’ in the context of a brand. Traditionally government has a cabinet of ministers drawn from the length and breadth of this country who are allotted portfolios like health, education, home, defence to name just a few of the hordes of ministries that we have. But whose responsibility will be brand India? Who will agonize about the perceptions that continue to hurt it? What revisions in India’s image will be contemplated? What will be the desired personality? What are the recognition symbols of India? One of the things that we have realized over the years is that successful brands have senior people managing and guiding their destinies. CEOs of companies constantly worry about their brands and it is not only valuation that guides their thinking .In the case of a nation, particularly a developing nation like ours, which has aspirations that are sky high, the task of brand management becomes even more critical. It cannot be done piece meal as it is currently being done - with someone looking after tourism and someone else looking after Information and broadcasting. A brand cannot be fragmented. It needs to be looked at holistically. India more than ever needs a champion, both internally and externally. A champion who can win over the cynics and the disbelievers, both within the country and without. A champion who can communicate the brand’s achievements in a manner that is credible. It is not about spin, as much as it is about building and sustaining credibility. The time is now. India is ready for branding, but who is ready to don the mantle?

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO of brand-comm and the author of”Googly –
branding on Indian turf”.

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