Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What it takes to Build Brand India

Four credits and four discredits that profoundly impact Brand India

As per the Brand Finance Report released in November 2015, India figures as the seventh most valuable Nation Brand. Only three Asian nations - China, India and South Korea - figure among the top 20 most valuable nation brands. What stood out was that India's rate of increase has been the highest among the top 10 by brand value. Apart from the ‘Incredible India’ campaign aimed at encouraging tourism, there has been little concerted effort to build Brand India. So it’s worth exploring what can be behind this rise in the chart.

Every brand needs to have some inalienable features that define its identity. In Melissa Aronczyk’s book Branding the Nation, she defined nation branding as

“the result of the interpenetration of commercial and public sector interests to communicate priorities among domestic and international populations for a variety of different reasons”.

Nation brand building uses multiple different mediums (such as advertisement, public relations and public diplomacy campaigns) to achieve many different goals, whether it’s to encourage tourism or increase trading/ business. Here’s exploring four brand attributes that are defining today’s Brand India.

Talent Factory: India’s growing acceptance as a source of exceptional talent was first openly acknowledged in the 2011 article by Time magazine titled India’s Leading Export: CEOs, followed by many other pieces over the years including the BloombergView story titled Why Microsoft and Everyone Else Loves Indian CEOs. A big factor for the rise of Indians to head global companies is rooted in their multi-cultural upbringing. As an example, most Indian schools follow the three-language formula where every child is taught a minimum of three languages (Hindi, English and one more Indian or foreign language) in elementary school. This has a huge influence in a child’s formative years. Personally, I found it quite odd that most of my friends educated in the West would speak just one language fluently while I could speak three with equal ease. With language comes the ability to understand cultural nuances and different ways of thinking, dealing with people. Moreover, the stiff competition for limited seats at the top Indian colleges means that students have to try that much harder. New York Times carried a story titled Squeezed Out in India, Students Turn to U.S. on how it’s often easier to get into the Ivies than into India’s top institutes.

Technology and Space Research: As any headhunter looking for technology-related talent anywhere in the world would vouch, quite a few of the resumes shortlisted would belong to people of Indian origin. Another reason may be that most Indian engineers and scientists prefer working for global technology brands. The Indian companies that have gained global recognition are IT services firms. It begs the question - when will Indian entrepreneurs build a product brand like Samsung that can challenge the dominance of established players with cutting–edge technology or Tesla that can redefine the market? Most Indian unicorns are e-commerce companies that mirror the business models of successful American brands. Many argue that this isn’t real innovation. Indians have to move from technology services to building technology products. This is beginning to happen but the pace certainly needs to pick-up.

The one recent incident that brought India’s technology product capability in global view was India’s Mars Orbitor Project – Mangalyaan – which was executed at a fraction of the cost of similar projects by NASA. It made the global scientific community sit up. That’s what India needs to do more of to make a lasting impression.  This sort of frugal innovation needs a strong local ecosystem that encourages scientific research. The process has begun to gain momentum.

Costs of the Mars Missions by various countries & agencies 

 Indian Space Research Organization: Mission Control Centre for Mars Orbitor Mission

Brand Modi: Nations are known for their leaders. One can’t help but talk about the undeniable brand that Prime Minister Modi has built within India and more outside India. While Mahatma Gandhi is the most widely referenced Indian leader in diplomacy, Prime Minister Modi has also built a strong recall among the international audiences, fanned by the Indian diaspora. There is a definite rub-off of Brand Modi on Brand India. The lion mascot for ‘Make in India’ campaign, a brainchild of the PM, is gradually helping to move India’s brand persona away from a slow-moving elephant (often rebuked as symbolizing India’s slow bureaucratic processes). In international diplomatic circles, it had often been said that India talks but China delivers. With Indian government taking an active role at multilateral events and not shying from making commitments at key international forums, that perception is gradually changing.

Some say that it is by sheer luck that Modi is in power when India’s economy seems relatively bright in comparison to a grim global outlook. Even if we were to buy that argument, the fact is that the crucial steps have been taken towards enhancing the ease of doing business, helping re-invigorate India’s struggling infrastructure sectors and moving to meet fairly aggressive targets for building India’s energy security. It’s fair to say here that fortune favours the brave.

PM Modi talking to Elon Musk at the Tesla Factory in Fremont, California in September 2015

Culture and Spirituality: The healing power of Ayurveda and Yoga continue to lure many to India. While most Indians tend to take culture for granted, for a global audience, the cultural richness and indeed its extremes and contrasts are intriguing. In the words of the economist, Joan Robinson "Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true". Indian food is relished by people around the world, almost becoming a fad. I’ve seen Indian restaurants in the remotest parts of the world. It’s a separate aspect that at some of these places, I’ve seen the weirdest of dishes being labelled as Indian – which to me bore not the faintest semblance to any Indian cuisine in taste or looks.

And yes, Bollywood is another one of the many manifestations of the culture. Not many nations can boast of a cultural ‘soft power’ that India exerts on the rest of the world so it is only fair that this is one of Brand India’s defining features.

What’s pulling Brand India down?

Sometimes, more than the credits, it’s the discredits that determine a nation brand. There must be a concerted effort to address these discredits lest they negate the positive features of the brand. Here are some that India must overcome.

Pollution: While Chinese cities have been notorious for their high level of pollution, Indian cities are fast gaining the dubious distinction. Delhi has been rated as having the poorest air quality in the world. There have been steps to curb pollution but the battle is long, very long. As India strives to create more manufacturing jobs and improve quality of life, the ghost of pollution comes with it. The setting of targets for renewable energy generation and curtailing vehicular traffic in metros such as Delhi is a good beginning. However, it’s not a war we can afford to lose sight of.

Women’s Safety Issues: The issue grabbed global headlines after the gruesome gang-rape incident of December 2012. The incident shook the consciousness of the nation and tarnished India’s image. Most of us believe that this is a self-inflicted wound. Safety for women is a key tenet of any society that believes in law and order. The increased sensitivity to the issue of women’s safety within every layer of society and the law enforcement agencies is now visible. It is a battle that is still being fought every day. However, we still have a long way to go. As per a recent study by World Economic Forum on cities that have the most dangerous transport systems for women, Delhi ranked at No. 4- certainly not the desired company to keep for the capital of a nation that aspires to be viewed as a rising power. Let’s begin with ensuring our public transport and roads are safer for women.

Compliance & Ethical Issues: In a classic case of how one company's mess can hurt a country, the recent crisis faced by automaker Volkswagen has not only affected Germany's brand value but also cost it its position as the world's strongest nation brand, according to the Brand Finance Report. Many Indian brands too are not viewed favorably on this aspect. It stems from lax compliance systems within many companies/ organizations and scant regard for its implementation. The longer-term impact of this oversight can be disastrous for Brand India. If we take the example of the Indian Premier League (a professional sports league bearing the country’s name), it has faced many ethical and conflict-of-interest issues in less than a decade of existence.

In an increasingly protectionist world, compliance loopholes are the easiest way to pin down any company or organization. Indian companies need to build their reputations on ethical practices if they want to stay competitive in the long run. And needless to say, it is upon Indian people, whether working in India or abroad to conduct themselves in an ethical manner that commands the trust of their fellow workers.

Racism: In a country where the fairness of one’s skin is advertised as a criterion for a prospective life partner, the obsession with skin colour couldn’t be more obvious. It's surprising that such notions continue to exist in as diverse a society as ours. Add to that a rapidly globalizing economy where people from many nationalities now come in search of education, livelihood and medical treatment. Recent incidents of racist attacks by Indians on other Indians belonging to different regions of the country (North-east) and on people from other countries have made headlines. It’s quite ironic that a nation whose freedom struggle owes its genesis to the racial discrimination borne by its founding father (Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa) is witnessing similar racist discrimination being conducted by its own people towards others. Some argue that these incidents are sporadic and dwarfed in comparison to what’s happening in other parts of the world. Such an argument is untenable. A strong public education drive on the issue is needed. Many in India have lived in denial on the subject. That’s beginning to change albeit slowly, very slowly. Unless we are waiting for a big incident to happen on our soil which can prove to be the next blot on our brand image (similar to the women’s safety issue), it’s important to nip the issue in the bud.

While the government led by the Prime Minister has an unmistakable role in shaping Brand India, at the end of the day, it is how the people behave within and outside the country that determines if the nation’s brand will rise or fall in the hall of nations.

Brand India has so far punched below its weight. It’s time to be more assertive, show an action-oriented approach to nation branding. If we don’t brand ourselves in the desired manner, rest assured that others will brand us in the manner that we may not like.

Quoting one of India's greatest thinkers and leaders, Swami Vivekananda who did not mince his words when he rightly said