India has become the third largest Asian equities market. It is attracting investors from around the world. It houses more brands than any other Asian country and has the second largest number of brands in the world. But what is "brand India"?
I was recently invited to talk about "business and values" to a group of young Indians studying and working in my town, Melbourne, Australia. This group of around 30 people aged between 18 and 30 meets each week as part of its spiritual development. They had a variety of degrees, different jobs and carried themselves with a quiet confidence that I am sure draws from their ability to combine the spiritual and the commercial paths – I was learning from them.
Their experiences, as well as their looks, conveyed the fascinating diversity of India – no other country in the world has the type of diversity that India has. So, in one room looking a these young people I saw "brand India". Commercial and spiritual, confident but quiet, knowledgeable and learning, qualified and respectful, tolerant of others while being sure within themselves, true living diversity. And I hoped that brand India would tell this to the world, because the outside world does not know your story.
The Gallup Organisation is one of the global experts on "brands" and it believes that a brand reflects the nature of emotions and human relationships that underpin business. Powerful brands are derived from these, says Gallup, and "Great brands are able to capitalise on these fundamental truths, creating and sustaining vital emotional connections with their target constituencies".
Gallup claims there is "…conclusive evidence that organisations can only reach their full potential by emotionally engaging their employees and customers".
Gallup describes keeping customers as a "brand marriage" and it says creating this is not just a matter of products, low prices, great advertising, stunning packaging or a superb location – these must all work together, says Gallup, but the total brand experience involves adding to the experience of dealing with you so that "emotional connections" are made. "Emotions aren't merely warm and fuzzy concepts suitable mainly for greeting card poetry and Hollywood scripts. Emotions are both powerful and profitable."
Ramesh Narayan is the head of the Indian advertising firm, Canco Advertising, and he welcomes a debate on brand India. "The need for a good, positive, robust "brand India" cannot be overstated. It is also a fact that the image of a country is the sum total of a bewildering number of images the world is treated to and all these collectively form something that is greater than the sum of its parts."
Mr Narayan points to one key element of today's brand India: "the sight of ordinary Indians abroad as students, tourists or on business, self-assured and quietly confident of what they truly are and what they definitely will be. Too much to ask for? It's already happening my friends."
Infosys chairman and chief mentor, Narayana Murthy is not afraid of emotions when talking about business values. On a recent visit to Australia, making a call for ethical leadership he said, "It's time to rejuvenate faith in our tribe, the tribe of corporate leaders." In reflecting on the Infosys brand, Mr Murthy goes back to the beginnings of the business "We never dreamt about size, revenues and profits. Our dream, right from day one, was to build a corporation that was, above all things, respected."
Of course, Indian businesses face the challenge of how to operate in other countries, and Dr Jamshed Irani, director of Tata Sons, has a clear view: "To be global you have to act local. Work like a Brazilian in Brazil and work like the French in France."
A straight talker, Dr Irani tells businesses, "Don't make empty promises. If you give a message straight from the shoulder, people will come on board. I think the most important criteria in a leader is credibility". He urges leaders and potential leaders to "give people a reason to look up to you".
Mr Murthy and Dr Irani are strong communicators, but "brand India" is not. Relationships are built on good communication and right now the Indian story is not being well communicated outside of India, and too much of what is communicated lacks the emotion and personal connection to be good communication.
China works hard to send out "personality" type messages that have impact: massive scale combined with individual energy, the restless giant, and so on, while every Chinese business function I attend in the west has cultural impact; Chinese decorations, art forms, music and dress.
India collectively is sending messages that don't stick, lacking personality. Who cares about the statistics, where is the colour and life? Strange that perhaps the globe's most colourful and most lively country is so restrained in communicating with the West.
The answers for "brand India" are found not just in you but are also found in what the global markets are yearning for. Good marketing thinks more about the target audience than about itself.
The West, we know, yearns for understanding (the real meaning of life) and happiness ('how come I have everything, but still feel so empty?'). The Gallup Organisation has been researching western community happiness since the 1950's and has found that although the standard of living has more than doubled (larger houses, two cars, every electrical appliance and so on), the level of happiness in the West has stayed about the same.
Business leaders in the West feel under attack on ethics and corporate morality and only a few have the confidence to publicly grapple with these issues.
To portray "brand India" as encapsulating diversity, guidance on the meaning of life, happiness and an understanding of an ethical way to live is not to suggest that India is perfect; not that you should "preach" to the world. Rather, like my group of young people, just be yourselves.
An Indian journalist friend has rather strong views on the right of Indian business leaders to preach morality to western audiences in view of their own not totally blemish-free record. Here, I would like to say, that it was Mahatma Gandhi who exhorted us to "be the change you want to see in the world". And when it comes to corruption and to sinning, remember that Gandhi also urged us to "hate the sin, love the sinner".
So, it may be true that several "reputed" and established family businesses built their fortunes swallowing the savings of depositors, not repaying bank loans and managing to evade the penalties for it, conniving with politicians, relying on state patronage and a closed market, riding roughshod over workers, short-changing customers, and, most of all thriving on public subsidies. The point is that the strength and durability of "brand India" is about aspiring to better goals, not claiming perfection.
And it may also be factual that had India not been in deep financial distress on account of its foreign exchange in 1991, it is debatable whether control over business could have been prised out of the grip of the government through its restrictive manufacturing and licensing controls, denial of raw materials by denying licences to import them, the threat of imposition of more taxes, etc.
Some of you might think how can India talk values when there is still so much corruption, or when politically things have happened for the wrong reasons? My message is again that "brand India" should not claim perfection. Don't wait until you are perfect and totally corruption-free to talk values; the West is ready to listen now.
Remember, the first rule of good communication is to know what is of interest to your target audience – the West is interested in values and principles and does not know where to turn. It offers real differentiation, which is "gold" for brand marketers.
Trish Carroll is a director at Galt Advisory and an expert on professional services branding and she says "If you look at how firms try to differentiate themselves, they try to do so on the same things. They are doing it on service attributes such as excellence, which are really prerequisites." Right now "brand India" has fallen for the same marketing trap.
Finally, the words of Mahatma Gandhi can convey some of the elements of a future "brand India" when he said "Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and all will be well." This is the kind of thinking that can make a difference, and by making a difference you create an emotional connection. Wouldn't the world be different today if more global leaders listened to Gandhi: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind"?
*The author, a member of the committee of management of the Australia India Business Council, is a communications consultant, trainer and author of You Can Communicate (Pearson 2002).
also see : Should Indian
businesses become more western?
articles by Stephen Manallack