Let a thousand Indias bloom

Cover Story, The Week - 13 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"

So what and how should we write into the India file in peoples' minds, such the the resultant images and feelings are attractive and seductive enough for others to want to do business with us - be it George Bush, or tourists from afar, or Harvard University, or the naturalization office of the US or buyers of our outsourcing services? Here are some suggestions


  • Let a thousand Indias bloom. Incredible / industrious / innovative / scientific / mystic / ancient / modern etc India. But let us explicitly write into the India mind-file, what unites and harmonizes all of them. These are three things - the characteristics of the vessel or crucible that holds all these Indias, the personality or values of India's society and the collective traits of Indians, and these are what we need to propogate as Brand India; . The characteristics of the crucible are in the territory of 'open, inclusive , alwayS making space for the new alongside the old, plural, timeless, ever evolving and ever ready to change and adapt, millennia old yet always contemporary, a, knowledge giver to the rest of the world". The personality and values of our society include"peaceful, vibrant, embracing of change, negotiating, colourful, tolerant, hospitable, morally courageous" Indians are the most important aspect of India to be propogated as Brand India - after all we comprise one sixth of the world's population and a far greater proportion of the young. Expressive, intelligent, innovative , high on EQ, colourful, incredibly diverse and varied, globally adaptive not insular - we are collectively the multi hued bird that pleasantly surprises and takes your breath away. If we let the"ugly Indian" grow in size and influence, it will take all our credibility away - and we have a large ugly side to deal with as well. We can be very aggressive, gender biased, intolerant of each other, grabbing, greedy and uncaring of the world outside our homes.
  • The actual 'product experience' with India is the one thing , though, that can wipe out all the positives that we write in our brand file. Poor infrastructure, dirt, filth, poverty , crimes against women are rampant Unless we work on this, the rest of the things we write into our brand file will be squeezed to a little corner, while these occupy center stage and define Brand India. Before we collectively despair that this cannot be done, let us explore ways to mitigate it to some extent, or at least to contain it. Let us encourage tour groups and discourage individual tourists, encourage tourist police and helpful help desks, crowd touts out of the market with genuine tour operators and their staff; let us encourage certain destinations where we are sure we can deliver a pleasant experience and play down others where we are not so sure. As for business visitors, they usually come to meet someone here, and come through a visa process at an Indian embassy, so there are enough check points where each one of us can be India's brand ambassadors and ensure that our visitors have a pleasant experience and talk to their friends and colleagues about it. We are now confident enough to extend a high degree of hospitality and service without being obsequious, so we need not fear a weakening of our bargaining power, if we are extra nice. If each hotel can see helping Brand India through managing the product experience, as a part of its job, and each industry association too, then we can make huge progress on this front, and prevent our considerable 'product' shortcomings from derailing the potential of the India brand. What of our economic power ? That is but one aspect of us, and certainly should not be the main thing that defines us. It is the table stakes that makes people now interested in us; but the rest of the brand perceptions will clinch the deal, on our terms. That's what brands do - reduce friction to sales, and when needed, give you the benefit of the doubt.

I would like for us to think of our brand as unique and differentiated - like nowhere else on earth, "saare jahaan se alag". And of our brand essence as knowledge with wisdom, peace because of tolerance, energy with compassion, and forever timeless and evolving. Within this are nestled the many Indias that we have, all nurtured by these values.

More than external communication, we need internal communication to build Brand India - each one of us is a brand ambassador, our society is a brand ambassador, and we need to know who we are or can be or wish to be - before we tell others what we are all about.