An Ever Surprising Brand

India’s contradictions and contrasts make it a tough branding challenge to crack. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.

If we have to pin down the single most image defining event for the country in recent months, it would have to be the 2014 elections and Narendra Modi taking over as Prime Minister. Suddenly, the narrative has shifted from that of a country floundering and losing its grip on growth to one that now had a strong, determined leader at the helm. Any lingering concerns regarding Modi’s party ties and past record were quickly washed away by the wave of optimism and hope that spread across the country.

As with most narratives involving political leadership, this one can turn quickly based on what he does or doesn’t accomplish during his term as Prime Minister. However, no novice to public relations, Modi has made the right pronouncements and gestures to show he is committed to transforming India into a business-friendly nation. With his first big campaign in office, Make in India, he is attempting to shed the qualifiers that have weighed down all previous administrations – bureaucratic, corrupt, inefficient.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that Brand India and Brand Modi are one and the same thing. There are so many other dimensions to the country’s image that span cultural, spiritual and everyday experiences.

Viewed from any angle, India defies categorization. The world’s most expensive home in the same city as one of the world’s largest slums; an old civilization rubbing shoulders with a modern young culture; high levels of education and deep pockets of social stagnation sitting side by side. How is it conceivable to have a Brand that applies to the whole?

Tourism is one area where a clear selling proposition is possible. India’s celebrated history and culture have formed the centerpiece of its tourism campaigns and continue to be a draw for people from around the world. Yet, this part of its image has been dented in recent months in the midst of concerns regarding the safety of lone female tourists, among other issues.

This is a difficult challenge to tackle given all the factors involved in changing this scenario. Still, it is possible for those in charge of India’s tourism brand to do more to uncover hidden stories, unheralded heroes and unexplored trails. Offbeat tours that celebrate village living, sari making, the great Indian outdoors, and even examples of enterprise within slums, can be interesting and stimulating for those who want to experience an India beyond temples and palaces. With tours built around faith and devotion, music, photography, film, fashion, food, and rural life, there is much to showcase and talk about in the New India.

It is encouraging to see that there are now many niche travel groups and sites catering to this need. None of these, however, are part of the official Brand India plot which tends to be dominated by clichés. The challenge lies in building stories around these fresh themes to parallel the ‘traditional’ India of forts, villages, and scenery. New ideas call for new packaging to drive recognition and easy communication. When they are combined with better infrastructure – in terms of food, lodging, highways and acceptable public toilet facilities – travelers to the country will be able to pick from a diverse set of immersive experiences.

And then there is the spiritual side of India, consisting of yoga, vedic philosophy and holistic healing, among other things. The 70s brought many people, including the Beatles, to the country in search of a higher purpose and greater meaning in life. Modern day spiritual travelers are looking for more tangible results – physical fitness and restoration from yoga, healing and well-being through Ayurveda, the calming influence of meditation. Bhutan has been very adept at packaging its ‘Gross National Happiness’ model for the rest of the world. In the process, it has emerged as the contemplative destination of choice for people suffering from stress and burnout. India can similarly boost its spiritual credentials by adapting and growing those aspects of it that appeal to a global audience.
There are other things that are spreading organically and without too much in the way of focused investment or efforts. Globalisation and a growing receptiveness to different cultural experiences are helping this trend. Indian cuisine, for example, has become increasingly mainstream in different parts of the world. There are many who have even cultivated a deeper appreciation for regional variations outside the ‘Naan and Butter Chicken’ category.

Aravind Adiga, Jhumpa Lahiri and others of their ilk have helped garner widespread respect for Indian writers and their work. Bollywood is now a dance category in shows such as ‘Dancing With the Stars’. Even its critics will acknowledge that this lively by-product of one of the biggest film industries of the world has had tremendous influence on everything from music to fashion. Along with lavish weddings and colourful festivals, it shows a fun-loving side of Indians that is not tempered by rules or restraint.

It is enough to make a branding strategist’s head spin. It is not easy to pin down a brand that has so many facets to it. But bucketing and labeling is not the point of the exercise. The point is to understand everything that makes India tick and see if we are doing all we can to help, rather than hinder, its multidimensional growth.

In the end, the many dichotomies of India may serve to create the ultimate Brand – a land where you embrace being surprised, thrill at the contradictions, learn from the experience, and leave with a new understanding of the world around you.