Rescripting the India Brand

The Economic Times - August 2000

The image of the India brand in the eyes of the outside world is poor, and like everything else about India, fragmented. The 'Political India' variant of the brand is not powerful enough to get us our security council seat, or brand Pakistan a rogue state. The 'Economic India' variant is not powerful enough to be the unquestioned destination for global investment, or be unequivocally acknowledged as a future engine of world business growth. A few infotech entrepreneurs are improving the image of "Economic India', but the world seems to perceive 'Infotech India' as yet another variant, and is not transferring its goodwill on to the parent brand. Similarly the 'Well Educated Indian' brand has an image that we can be proud of, but as Swaminathan Aiyer wrote, Indians win, but India loses.

The sadness is that anybody else having the 'product features' that we do (large chunks of the world's young, a proven high calibre talent pool, an unshakeable tradition of democracy and the fourth largest GDP in PPP terms) would have had a far more powerful and esteemed brand than we do. And this is not due to lack of trying, or absence of 'world class front faces' to represent us. Any other country front faced by people like Manmohan Singh or Vajpayee or P.Chidambaram would enjoy better brand image ratings.

The problem is with our brand Script. Psychoanalysts say that every individual lives his life according to a script, a sort of psychological life pattern or programming, which he carries in his head, which governs his important behaviour. Written in the early stages of his life, it is shaped by external shocks and internal responses. To change an individual's life course, often a change in script is necessary, because "the destiny of every human being is decided by what goes on inside his skull when he is confronted by what goes on outside his skull".

We have found, in the course of our work, that the script theory applies to the way brands and organisations live and act too. This has disastrous consequences when the world around them changes, and only reprogramming the script will yield lasting change (and often, that calls for a new CEO and radical organisation restructuring). Consider this irony. The Congress brand script is that of 'the default-option ruler', while the BJP's is "Be the opposite of Congress", a bit like Pepsi's script has always been Coke determined! Today both of them are in roles which demand exactly the opposite of their scripts, making both ineffective, and in urgent need of re scripting. The BJP brand will be far more powerful, if it adopts a new script which is about itself and not the Congress.

The script that the India Brand lives by is that of "Frog Princess". She thinks, in fact knows, that she is a princess, and behaves accordingly. Unfortunately what the world sees is the frog. And that leads to their bewilderment and her heartache. She has been, for a while, in active search of a prince who will kiss her, liberating her from the spell, revealing her to the world in all her resplendent glory. Liberalisation has not attracted enough FDI princes to break the spell. Most don't want to kiss the frog, and do not share the national belief that there is a beautiful princess that will emerge.

The India Brand needs a fundamental change in script to enable it to transact better with the world, and get its due recognition. To quote Eric Berne, "It's time to close this show and put a better one on the road".

To rescript the India brand we need to change two other national scripts that govern this script - "Plurality" and "Outside in". Shashi Tharoor describes the plurality script very eloquently "Any truism about India can immediately be contradicted by another truism about India. The country's national motto emblazoned on its government's crest is 'Satyameva Jayate'. Truth always triumphs. The question remains however "whose truth"? Sunil Khilnani writes " An Irishman when asked whether trousers were singular or plural replied "Singular at the top and plural at the bottom". Indian nationalism is plural even at the top, a dhoti with endless folds". Plurality at all levels of the organisation, especially at the top, makes a brand's behaviour very unfocussed, and confusing to the outside world. The frog princess is always dithering about which prince she needs to be kissed by, with each part of the polity shouting different instructions. Predictably, not much real kissing gets done. "Common minimum program", and proud of it! Never mind thoughts of maximisation or even optimisation.

"Outside in" is a script shaped by several founders of Independent India, who spent their formative years abroad, and then decided which interpretation of the outside world India should have. We act only according to the world that we see reflected in our internal mirrors, a warped worldview distorted by diverse attitudes, beliefs and dogmas. We are totally preoccupied by how much and which part of the outside world to let in, than about going 'inside out' and grabbing the goodies that the world outside has on offer. The origin of this script can be found in our schools' history text books which describe at length the economic exploitation by the outsiders, leading to the first war of independence in 1857. This chapter could have been written by the Bombay Club. This 'outside in' 'foil the plunderers' script has made our frog princess retreat to a deep, deep well, accessible only to those princes who fall right in, by accident or courage, but often too stunned to kiss the frog and release the princess. Yes, insurance is open but there are some 72 clauses to comply with.

How do we change the India brand script from frog princess to princess? Neither the Congress nor the BJP seems equipped to do it, because they have to rescript themselves first. As in the case of organisations, a strong CEO with a different script is needed. Chandrababu Naidu seems to fit. Should we give him a chance?

The 'outside in' script needs to change to 'inside out', which is not a totally alien script for us. It is the script of successful traditional business communities like Marwaris (who incidentally dominate the Indian dot com space!) and Kutchis, and of the newer parts of India Inc and the large NRI community. Let us encourage them to achieve critical mass quickly and lift the frog princess out of the well and into the prince's home.

Co-authoured with
Ashok Jain, MD,