Repositioning the India Brand

The Economic Times - 14- August- 2001

Here we are, 54 years old and a decade after liberalization  fighting for our 'rightful' place in the world, distressed with the world's perception of the India brand. Sure there are a lot of things wrong with us, but there is enough right with us that we are not getting credit for. Our hypothesis is that this is because we have not proactively managed our brand perception, in a scientific and focused manner. Our brand speaks in many voices, sending out mixed messages, suffering from not being anchored around a clearly articulated brand vision or positioning statement that all spokespersons of the brand have internalized.

Worse still, we think about and talk about our brand using a set of descriptors that are obsessively 'inside - out' and 'product centric', like "the world's largest democracy", "a billion people", "a functioning anarchy", "unity in diversity", "having an ancient heritage" etc. If this were a company brand, we would ask "So how does this benefit your potential customers or investors or employees"? "What are they looking for and what are the benefits to them that you have on offer"? "What is your "why buy me" brand proposition? Ideally we'd like the India brand to stand for "great place to do business in", "rich in history and culture, a tourism delight", "has considerable geo -political value, a 'useful friend' for any political regime". Alas, we also know that brands cannot be built on untruths! But while we are far from the ideal, the dominant images the world has of us is not the whole truth about us, either - "a frustrating place to do business in"; "spirituality, snake charmers and travel hardships", " a squabbling nuclear hazard".

Our cup is half empty or half full depending on how you look at it, and there are hard facts and numbers to support both the positive and the negative view. The percentages and the per capita numbers don't look good but the absolute numbers do. We are a large economy, with a large talent pool, members of which have proven themselves on the world stage, from Nobel prize winners to global corporate chiefs to Silicon Valley successes. Can we not build our brand around the "half full" merits that we have and use it to gradually fill the rest of the cup? P Chidambaram, in a speech titled "Of elephants and tigers: India's place in the 'Asian century", talked of the "two faces of India". "One that is vibrant, full of entrepreneurial and managerial energy, and eager to generate wealth through the use of technology, trade, finance and markets... eager to compete, win and join hands with the best and the brightest in the global market place. It is keen on both learning and teaching, and dealing with the world on its own terms. But there is another India that is lonesome, sad and sunk.... unfortunately many times bigger than the first.... I have no doubt that the first India will participate in and gain from the forthcoming Asian century...." We definitely have an internal task to bridge what he called the 'disconnect' between the two Indias. But we need to build the India brand, the external face, around the strong India, which, despite being small in number compared to the totality of India, is still large relative to many other countries, to merit standing up and being counted.

Let's vision and define this India brand more clearly. Why should the world bother with India? Because the 'strong India' is adequately large, rich and growing to be a good market to invest in for the future, and to sustain large growth aspirations of those who come in to do business. It is here to stay with no danger of going bust either economically or politically in the long term. Yes the short term can be trying but it is a pain that is worth the long term gain. Because it can supply large amounts of talent and intellectual resources as well as harness less skilled, lower cost manpower in abundance to make economic good sense for world buyers.

Within what frame of reference should we position India? As a universe of one, in a category by itself, where no comparisons make sense, because it has a bundle of features that makes it unique. What's the rivalry proposition? Strong India is smaller than China. But unlike China, it is not about command and control capitalism, but about free market capitalism. It has a strong legal system and an independent judiciary which does not hesitate to rule against the Government in favour of a foreign company when it sees fit. Equally it has a vibrant media that is not afraid to speak its mind. It is the logical place for free minded companies and Governments to do business with, in a manner that they are used to. No fine print or latent surprises here. It is an assimilative culture, and does not demand Herculean adjustments in terms of world view or business practices. It accepts, it learns, it internalizes. It has a large, world class talent pool that is English speaking. All this makes it an attractive and comfortable place for business.

In terms of brand personality, India needs to be positioned as modern and contemporary, with its ancientness as an interesting sidelight and not a core value, relevant only in terms of tourist interest.

There are three keys to successful brand building: communicate its strengths rather than apologise for its weaknesses. Have totally consistent communication, no matter where, and by whom. Most important, the brand owner must passionately believe in the brand's capability. The Bhagvad Gita says "Let a man lift himself by himself; for the self alone is the enemy of the self". Closer to today, Azim Premji says "if you don't have self confidence, how can anyone else repose confidence in you"?

Let us believe that Strong India offers a compelling "why buy me" proposition to the world, and let us establish it so well that the benefits that accrue to it can drive the rest of India to prosperity too.

Co-authored with
Ashok Bijapur