The brands of politics

India Today - Issue date: 19 August, 2019

If brand-speak represents popular culture, we have less to worry about than some of us might think.

The brands of politics

Image credit: Siddhant Jumde

The good news is that Indian brands unequivocally live in the world of customers and the people of India, and not in the world of politicians. They speak to people, mindful of commercial good sense, by tapping into popular culture; adding to the good news is that they still see popular culture as being quite far removed from the patriotic jingoism of today's politics.

Every Independence Day and Republic Day, brands in India do special campaigns—citizen brands talking to citizen consumers—and the conversation is quite revealing of the way business thinks about the state of the nation.

We haven't yet seen what the brand-speak for Independence Day 2019 will be, but it is a very safe bet, based on recent trends, that most will neither echo nor argue against the present political discourse on patriotism.

The politics of patriotism that we saw during the recent elections was distressingly centre stage, and has been carried over into the post-election political space too. The BJP portrayed itself as standing for a very muscular and authoritarian patriotism, with aggressive images of military and disciplinarian force.

It chastised those who asked questions or expressed dissent, with labels of 'disrespectful to the country', 'anti-national', 'pessimist' and more. There has been no alternative sketch of patriotism offered by any other contestant in the political space, except for noisy quibbles about the use of military images in political campaigns and questioning the officially declared numbers of casualties during the cross-border surgical strikes conducted on terrorist camps.

Media brands quickly dove in to take positions on the level of patriotism of those referred to in the election campaign as the 'tukde tukde gang', the 'Khan Market gang' and the 'JNU gang', and also on the patriotism—or lack of it—of the 'kitne aadmi thhe (how many men were there)?' question, straight out of the movie Sholay, some political parties had asked.

In this fraught atmosphere, non-media brands have thankfully decided to stay out of this arena and this tonality.

No commercial brand can be authoritarian and survive in this new age of customer power, liberalisation and female empowerment. But is there no payoff for commercial brands that take a stand on societal and political issues? Recent research in more developed markets shows that customers want brands that share their beliefs.

Are there any brands in India that are taking a stand and pushing back against this version of patriotism?

Among the established brands that made a clear statement pushing back against the new politics of patriotism was one of the big four of India's business conglomerates.

Last year, for Independence Day, it ran a campaign showing India through the eyes of truck drivers. After talking of the varied sights, sounds and foods that they came across in their travels, one of the drivers says, "yeh jo ghar mein baithe television mein dikhate hain, usse bilkul alag hai mera desh (my country is different from what they show on TV)."

Another truck driver, from the northeast, says, "Kabhi kabhi bataana padta hai ki main yahaan ka hoon, par chalta hai, jaan boojh ke nahin poochhte hain (sometimes I have to tell people that I am from India, but that's ok, they aren't asking to offend)."

Yet another declares that "kuchh log ke chhote soch se desh chhota nahin hota (the small-mindedness of a few people doesn't make the country small)". The ad ends celebrating the truck drivers' perspective, and suggests that we emulate their way of thinking.

Change in India comes slowly, one drop at a time, until the tipping point of a pushback against the prevailing political discourse is reached. Recently, a food service delivery publicly denounced a customer's request for a Hindu delivery boy—there has also been a similar request and a not-so-public pushback from a cab service.

Perhaps this will give courage to younger, millennial andGen Z brands to stand up and say "we disagree with and disapprove of such talk".

How do Indian brands express patriotism, and how has this changed over time?

The safe, popular and uncomplicated space that many have chosen includes admiration for the country's achievements, recaps of past and recent milestones and salutes to the great scientists (while staying away from politically charged figures). An evergreen theme that many brands use to signal their identification with, and love for, the country is that of celebrating and recognising her unity in diversity.

Varieties of food, customs, traditions, festivals, sights, attire and musical instruments have been used compellingly. Interestingly, this used to be the official political discourse as well till not long ago, best captured in the wonderful, heart-warming, government-sponsored Doordarshan film Mile sur mera tumhaara (1988), involving leading musicians from around the country all singing differently but in harmony.

The film's predecessor, Spread the Light of Freedom, made around the same time, had sportsmen and women from across the country carrying a torch in relay-again, meant to celebrate diversity and honour achievement in sports.

There haven't been similar campaigns from the government since 1991, when the focus shifted from building society to building the nation's economy. 'Jai Jawan (hail the soldier)', saluting the armed forces is another popular theme that still prevails, perhaps the only area where political discourse and brand discourse overlap.

Post 1991, for the next two decades, as India went from strength to strength, the theme of 'nation building' became a favourite. Electrical brands, food brands, bank brands, business conglomerates and large companies all vied with each other to present their nation-building credentials.

The very old companies chronicled their contribution from Independence onward, while the new ones talked of their scope and scale and their recent achievements. Market leaders in every category tried to make themselves synonymous with India and to suggest that they fuelled the flame of India's diversity—'the taste of India', 'banker to every Indian', 'the nation's history is our history' and of course the most beloved 'buland Bharat ki buland tasveer (a bold image of bold India)'.

With the generational shift in companies and communicators, how does young India think about such things? Are we seeing changes in the way brands approach patriotism, their role as Indian citizens, or their Independence and Republic Day ads?

One segment of it—a large one—merely sees these 'special country days' as a marketing opportunity. A hotel room aggregator exhorts people to take advantage of the long Independence Day weekend and travel to various parts of the country; another lot announces mega sales; yet another segment takes 'freedom' and 'independence' literally, promising freedom from cuts and scratchy beards and slippery tyres and the like.

If we grant these businesses their perception of consumerism as the highest altar at which to worship, there is still a clear segment of others who are not content with a mere chronicling and celebration of diversity, but are using their brand platform to 'help build a better India'-taking the nation-building theme to the next level.

If earlier the theme translated into 'built factories, introduced new products, provided jobs, worked with all segments of society', it is now beginning to be interpreted as 'promoting desirable behaviours of a nation with a progressive society'.

There are ads around 'soch badalna hoga (ways of thinking need to change)', 'opportunity for everyone to rise', 'what has education done for you' and so on. Women's independence, safety and freedom from social restraints is a popular theme; environmental protection (not 'Swachh Bharat' slogans) and freedom from plastic is another; inclusion or the general 'freedom to be' and equal rights for under-privileged sections is another; and a gentle and positive comment on the move to a 'no bribery and corruption/fast transactions' environment from a digital payment brand are all welcome indicators of what we will see more of in the future.

Recent WhatsApp messages doing the rounds talk of 'swadeshi-videshi (domestic-foreign)' brands, bemoaning how the behemoths among US and Chinese brands are taking over the Indian market and blaming the government for not enabling the rise of Indian brands.

The Bombay Club of 1991 thinking back again? No, that ship of patriotism has sailed. The new theme around swadeshi-videshi is to get our fair share of our own market by competing fair and square and doing what China is doing—creating local beaters of global champs.

Nirma, and now Patanjali, rose on an anti-MNC platform. However, it is not patriotism but fair pricing that is their proposition. The 'made in country X or Y' national branding is now beginning to lose all its previous perceptions as supply chains have gone global. Orders from a website in Asia go to a US address; the shipping is from Europe, while the tag says 'Made in India'.

If brand-speak represents popular culture, we have less to worry about than some of us might think! The days when brands kowtowed to politicians are over. The days when they push back and take a stand if needed are yet to come, but there are definitely green shoots on the horizon.

Rama Bijapurkar is a leading Indian consultant on market strategy and consumer behaviour