Let a thousand Indias bloom
Cover Story, The Week - April 2008
Lots of debate is happening around how to build "Brand India". There are two commonly voiced dilemmas. One, that some of the harsh realities of India are so harsh (poor infrastructure, poor human development index, poor responsiveness from Government to potential investors, corruption etc.), that they will always appear as ugly black warts, marring the credibility of any 'beautiful India' or 'powerful India' branding that we do. The other dilemma is that there is no single India, and that it is impossible to reflect, under a single brand, the ancient heritage and the modern accomplishments, tourism's "incredible India" and ITES's 24x7 "industrious India", manufacturing's "innovative India" and the magic of handcrafted artisan India, the budhist stupas and Nehru's temples of modern India, yoga, medicine and the IITs. The answer to the first is simple - yes, we need to work on our warts, but even as we do so, we need to put our best face forward. The answer to the second is to pause and think of how pointless it is to try and portray a many splendoured beast in a simplistic, two dimensional, black and white image. Diversity is as much a hallmark of India as is our democracy and our demography. So let a thousand brand facets bloom, and let us not squabble over whether one facet or the other represents the real India, and the "official" brand India.
The mind baulks at that - If we ourselves just about understand the many paradoxes of India and the many centuries that India simultaneously lives in, how do we put forward a compelling brand to the rest of the world? Won't they get confused, and are we are going to spend all our time sorting out their confusion?
Before attempting to solve this, let's just step back and ask what is a brand? A brand is a space in the mind of the target - a sort of file in his mind with the label "India" - and into this mind-file is written data and perceptions about the product or company or country. Not just perceptions, but a collage of mental images (IT engineers, snake charmers, beautiful sari clad women), associations (shelter to the Dalai Lama or bomb blasts in Kashmir), values (secular or fundamentalist, peace loving, achievement oriented) , emotions and feelings(loveable, detestable), thoughts of personality and relationship perspectives (are you my best friend, my heavy teacher, are you friendly or forbidding, old fashioned or modern etc.). And it is this mind- file that determines how a person behaves with respect to India. So what George Bush has in his mind-space-file called "India", will influence the way he thinks and acts towards us, as will the next young tourist to Goa.
The challengge of brand building is, first of all, to decide what needs to be written into the India file in peoples' minds, based on what we believe will swing all their actions in our favour. The next step is to actually write it in, using a range of communication methods, and, along with that, to erase or fade the negatives that were already written in the file to begin with.
But how do these things - data, images, perceptions etc.- get written into the file in people's minds, in the first place? By user experience and direct contact with the country; through what they see and hear around them in various formal and informal ways which causes the general buzz around them; what they see and hear through designed communication from the brand owner. A major source of what they see and hear is increasingly being called "soft power". As Joseph Nye says in "The Rise of China's Soft Power" (Wall Street Journal, Asia, Dec 2005) , "success depends not only on whose army wins but also on whose story wins". "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", Gao XingJian winning the Nobel prize for literature in 2000, the 2008 summer Olympics being held in China, foreign tourists and students in China, all add to its positive perception via soft power - or so the theory goes. What all this has to do is to 'over write' or reduce in size and mind space what has already being written in people's minds about the authoritarian regime of China. The jury is still out on whether this is happening or not. India has considerable soft power too, which comes from many timeless sources like food, yoga, Budhism, Gandhi . But then, there are other images, directly contradicting these already existing in our files, that also need to be "over written"