Running a tight ship: Despite Godhra, Narendra Modi is acknowledged to be a good administrator.
An analysis of a person seen both as an efficient administrator and as a politician with a stain that doesn't wash away
I am normally not a diffident writer, it is only my readers who tend to be cautious lest they get mired in my confusion, but when I do write or attempt to write about political leaders, I realise that I am as comfortable as the Indian team currently is on the bouncier Australian pitches. Nevertheless, the show must go on, as M. S. Dhoni says, and like the solitary win in the “hit and giggle”, as T20 is often derisively referred to, I too shall take heart from the fact that I am going to focus on an area that I have relatively more knowledge about, that is branding, and examine the credentials of Narendra Modi as a personal brand. I am not as concerned about his credentials as a Prime Ministerial candidate as I am about his commonality or differences with other leaders who have established themselves as personal brands.
Leadership is about results
Leadership is not easily attained unless you happen to be Bailey who, suddenly, is Captain of the Australian T20 team. But most political leaders believe that the easiest route to visibility and recall is release of large, badly-designed, full-page ads in the local media extolling their achievements after 100 days of (mis)rule! These are supplemented by posters, plastered all over the city's already dirty walls and I am sure only the boys who put them up and hungry cows look forward to them.
Of course, now, many political leaders own media themselves which makes the task of depicting them as the answer to all of India's problems even easier! But the real leaders are those who bring in results consistently, while some others can certainly bring in votes with their oratory. This is actually the case with corporate leaders as well, some of whom break into the media because they have positioned themselves uniquely or have an intelligent PR partner that spins their reputation. But if their companies don't continue to perform, then you will find them relegated to the back pages and soon will be out of the very newspaper that craved their time and attention. And this is probably Narendra Modi's greatest claim to fame.
Gujarat has been performing under his regime and if the Congress party is to be believed, even before him. But there is no denying that the State is an oasis of orderliness and smooth functioning in a country largely characterised by disarray and a complete lack of progress. I live in Karnataka which, to my eyes at least, seems the worst-managed State in a country where there are probably several contenders for the same dubious rank. So aspiring personal brands, kindly note that the future will only belong to those who perform.
Brands and associations
Brand managers and advertising agencies are constantly striving to build positive associations for their brands that, if consistently followed and strategically executed, have a strong chance of becoming brand properties. The one-time leading textile brand sang, hummed and set to tune the “Only Vimal” tagline in different music genres for over a decade. Titan has used the same signature tune for a small matter of 24 years and still there seems little sign of weariness. Britannia has its “tin-tin da din” and the list rolls on. When these associations become entrenched over a period in time, they become properties. To extend the analogy, brands try to own words in consumers' minds. And let me tell you, that is not easy.
I am reasonably sure that internationally, Volvo owns the word “safety” in the consumers' mind. (Associations in India might not be all that clear thanks to the highways being littered with their buses.) This is not to suggest that the other cars are any less safe. But consistency in communication strategy and execution has made it possible for this brand to stand out. Similarly, Coke owns the colour red, Pepsi blue and advertising strengthens these associations over time.
So to get back to our association game in the context of personal brands N. R. Narayana Murthy's associations, when consumers were asked, were with words such as “humble”, “simple” and “ethical”, to name a few. Brand associations are recorded when you ask the consumer questions like “What comes to your mind when I say Narayana Murthy” and let me tell you, consumers can play that game quite well.
We need to remember that the consumer in the case of political brands is ordinary citizens like you and me. Gandhi stood for “non-violence” and this was probably the strongest association with that immortal leader. Churchill stood for defiance in the face of defeat and an indomitable spirit embodied in statements like “England expects every man to do his duty''. (I am sure the anxious English cricket fan must be hoping that Kevin Pietersen reads this or better still, follows this dictum.) Margaret Thatcher, who was often described as the “only man” in the British cabinet, was branded the “Iron Lady”. Yet, it is important to not lose focus. Anna Hazare, for whom I have the highest regard, was fairly clear in his fight against corruption, but I feel he runs the risk of losing this strong platform as he is being pushed in different directions.
Back to Modi. To my mind his strongest association might well be “performance”. In a country starved of any degree of accountability and responsibility for results, he and his State stand out. Testimony to it is that corporate India continues to sing his praises and feels he should lead the country too. While corporate India might have an axe to grind, there is no denying the fact that the man on the street in Gujarat is not complaining.
Brands in crisis
Yet Brand Modi is not without blemish. His action (or inaction) during the Godhra riots is constantly brought under focus. The world of politics is different and most politicians take relief under the “public memory is short” umbrella. (And it indeed can be.) Though I believe Modi has a better understanding of the issues and is likely to approach it more strategically than other political leaders. His opponents seem to focus more on the past than on the future. But then that is how the political game is played out and there is no point in squealing like Virat Kohli about how the opponents are sledging when he and his own team mates are no slouches in the sledging game.
What does the future hold for Narendra Modi as a brand? That might be easier to predict than whether he will be Prime Minister of the country in the near future. I really do not know enough about politics as this is a game without rules. But the rules of branding say:
Stick to your core competency.
Do not lose focus.
Strengthen your associations so that they become properties.
Build a dialogue with the actual consumer and that is the voter, not the intellectual armchair expert, who might not even go to the polling booth.
The country deserves people who perform and I hope that India's future charts at least have a performer at the helm.
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