Branding/Marketing, India, Writing

Constructing brand India

ONE of the recurring questions asked with great anxiety during the Great CWG Debate was: What effect would the debacle have on Brand India? Would the Indian boast of being an emerging superpower be revealed as no more than a hollow claim? Would the Indian inability to clean up its toilets in time and to prevent bridges from crumbling hurt the brand it has so carefully nurtured for so many years? It was a question often asked in India and one that the educated middle class took very seriously, as indeed it has every time this question has been posed. Brand India has now been naturalized into our vocabulary, used as shorthand for the country’s reputation in the world. Its progress is monitored, not through precise science but through fierce anecdote, as every instance of perceived success or failure is anxiously recorded in the emotional ledger of this new entity.

Brand India gets a boost every time an Indian company acquires another, an Indian designer stitches some part of an Oscar attendee’s dress, someone of Indian origin comes to prominence in the West (even if that someone is Bobby Jindal), an Indian industrialist features in the list of the richest men in the world and a film about India wins awards. It suffers every time something goes wrong in India – whether it is a corporate scandal like Satyam or the 26/11 attacks; in both instances, there is great anxiety about what this would mean for Brand India. Like the blood pressure count or cholesterol score, Brand India is an instant report card on the health of the nation that is monitored with great interest, if not with pinpoint accuracy.

At one level, this heightened interest in this new formulation called Brand India is easy to explain. It points to a desire to engage with the outside world, shedding the insularity of an earlier time and signalling an openness to being evaluated. The interest in India as a brand allows us to move past one strain of descriptions about the country – the exoticisation of India as a land which could not be spoken of without indulging in adjectival excess. It also marks a change from the relentless self-righteousness with which the Indian state engaged with the rest of the world and shows that is recognizes a need to understand and acknowledge what other parts of the world think of it.

For the middle class, the idea of Brand India becomes a vehicle of participation and acts as a sign that the country has more active and articulate stakeholders who espouse its cause aggressively. It allows for the translation of a large, abstract concept into an ownable and easy-to-consume confection. Brand India as an idea adds velocity to the vocabulary that surrounds India, enabling it to be characterized by using a set of verbs than the abstract nouns of old.

But in the manner in which it gets framed and used currently, the formulation called Brand India works at many more levels. By separating itself from the amorphousness of all of India and creating boundaries around this new entity, Brand India becomes shorthand for the ‘material parts of India.’ It also locates itself in a perpetual present, as the idea of India being a brand allows its past to become shrivelled into a statistic at best and a burden at worst. It promotes the notion that this is an idea that is under active construction and that everything that we do today is intensely relevant to how this idea will eventually pan out.

Brand India allows its users the advantage of simultaneously privileging certain aspects of India while staking a claim to all of it. It seems to be an act of underlining, when it is, in fact, an act of extraction. In a certain sense, Brand India is not the same as Brand ‘India’, in that what is being branded is not India but a dotted line apparition that consists of only the ‘marketable’ bits of India. The movement from India as a brand to Brand India is a sleight-of-tongue that converts what was a qualifier of the primary entity into the entity itself.

Brand India does not owe a responsibility to all the realities that make up India but focuses on only those that make it desirable in the eyes of the class that owns it as well as to the eventual consumer, the outside world. Its residents are the people who can participate in the New India growth story, its spokespersons are those who bring it external glory. In essence, it measures itself on aggregate scores of growth and external validation. Brand India in many ways is Market India wearing national colours and its citizens are those who are part of the world of consumption. Its ownership rests with those who can influence it, trade in it and benefit from it.

But the real advantage of this formulation is that Brand India by virtue of its linguistic proximity to its more complex parent, is seen as an approximate summary of the country itself. So the device of Brand India allows its claimants to simultaneously shed all that is undesirable or burdensome about India and yet continue to speak as if they were representing the whole and not a part. The rest of India then gets marked out as the additional weight to be carried by the newer, more productive part of India.

Brand India allows the concerns of the urban middle class to effortlessly get reflected as the imperatives that are needed if the brand is to be done justice to. This imbues all conversation about Brand India with a sense of legitimate righteousness. In an artful inversion, the more privileged also become marked with a sense of victimhood, as they carry this weight and pull along the other more recalcitrant parts of India. What might otherwise have been seen as a limited and self-serving agenda, now gets a sheen of patriotic urgency.

The narrowing of the idea of India into that of a brand creates an entity that has a much smaller surface area and one that is capable of moving much faster. By stripping India of historical context and cultural nuance, it gets dismantled into a set of attributes which are seen as either strengths that can be leveraged or weaknesses that must be overcome or hidden away. It gives its owners a sense of control and a feeling that there is a relationship between their actions and the brand. A sense of ‘nowness’ gets created around the brand, which is seen to need constant tending and management. The idea of a brand also universalizes the benchmarks by which it must be judged; the growing role of the GDP growth number is testimony to this. The uncritical acceptance of currencies that the developed world measures itself by, helps create an agenda that excludes other possible ways of imagining the Indian future.

The concern with Brand India also serves to focus more attention and energies on emitting the right signs about the country. The symbol overwhelms the fact, for communication becomes the priority. How things will appear take on greater importance than what they intrinsically are. The Commonwealth Games are a good example of this reordering of priorities. Putting on a good show, even if it is for the purposes of an almost defunct body, takes precedence over other needs. The energy is directed at spectacles of outwardliness; we were done in by hygiene standards and ‘rescued’ by putting on a good cultural show at the opening ceremony. The poor were removed from the city as were some hawkers and vendors, for they did not belong to Brand India. Of course, it is all right to think of this brand as a transient facade as long as its primary purpose – that of appearing bright and shiny – is achieved. Of course, no one will go back believing that poverty does not exist in India, but it is enough that is was not visible, that it did not rub its nose in the face of the visitor.

The re-ordering of development goals in defence of Brand India takes place without seeming to occur. It seems natural that airports, highways, flyovers and malls should become our key priorities. Seen through the brand lens it makes sense to focus on building those of India’s ‘strengths’ and removing those of the ‘weaknesses’ that most directly influence the brand. The deeper, more embedded problems, are far too complex and have no real impact on this.

The emotional world inhabited by Brand India resembles a rollercoaster ride which alternates between periods of plunging despair and ecstatic pride. The currency here consists of notions of pride and shame, and things that impact the brand fall neatly in these two piles. The media coverage of the Commonwealth Games was a dizzying switch from one to the other as humiliation gave way to jubilant pride. The use of emotionally charged vocabularies is a pointer to the real nature of the need fulfilled by this device.

While ostensibly Brand India needs to be nurtured because foreign investment is vital to India, this is at best a fuzzy objective, and is more often an alibi than a motivation. It is hardly as if we know and track the latest FDI inflow figures with an eagle eye; the need is principally an emotional one. The anguished response to the CWG before the games began and the exultant tone of celebration that followed its completion, points to a great desire to be found worthy by the developed world. Intense self-awareness and a sense of being under perpetual scrutiny by a world obsessed with India’s image magnifies every action taken, every infraction committed and every trespass imagined. The imagined audience, the determined spectator is the West, and all certificates need the signature of a Caucasian hand.

Brand India is in some ways a site of redemption, a reversal of the sense of shame felt at being subservient to one’s erstwhile colonial masters. Ironically, however, it continues to be inked in the language of shame, in its naked desire to win some validation from those it seeks to compete with. Nowhere is this more visible than in the debate around the ‘shameful’ auction of some personal effects of Gandhi (another born-again brand). The potential loss of Gandhi’s belongings was framed as an insult to the nation, and it needed a liquor baron to bring back his effects to India.

Of course, India is awash in Gandhian symbolism while being allergic to Gandhian ideas and some more Gandhian memorabilia is unlikely to alter that, Expectedly, the effects retrieved so heroically have not been heard of since. For Brand Gandhi, as for Brand India, the act of not letting Gandhi be sold in the open market ‘to them’ was the key signifier. The market here was seen as the arena and it needed a gladiator from this world to do what was deemed necessary. The idea of an auction, the neelami of what belongs here, strikes chords that are culturally resonant. The idea that Gandhi is Indian property was at the heart of the desire to stop the auction and the solution too was cast in material rather than ideological terms.

The India-as-superpower chant is rooted in an anxiety that thuds in middle class hearts about some intrinsic failing, a deep flaw in character that keeps betraying them in spite of changes at the surface level. Debates in India move very quickly from ‘who is to blame’ to ‘deep down, we are all to blame for we are like that only.’ The need for validation rests in neighbourly disquiet with the great anxiety about an underlying treacherous inadequacy, a leakage that will simply not stop dripping and one that eventually punctures pretensions to being at par with those that are benchmarks for emulation. The real audience for Brand India then is really not the outside world but the inner world of the Indian who has been shamed by encounters with the developed world and seeks therapeutic release from that anxiety.

The salience enjoyed by Brand India would not have been possible without the enthusiastic collaboration of the media which has undergone a fundamental change in character in the last few years. From a time when it defined its role in terms of society, today it sees itself increasingly in relation to its buyers. Media services its consumers by showing them a world they are interested in and by magnifying their interests and concerns. There has been a marked secularization of the vocabulary used by media, which is today more likely to debate ratings and valuations than questions of journalistic propriety. The alignment of interests between the media, wielders of political power and the world of business has made the Brand India project seem consensual and inevitable. The presence of annual conclaves where these groups converge, enabled by some celebrities, to discuss weighty matters concerning the brand are a sign of this alignment.

Brand India rests on another brand that has been built assiduously over the last few decades. Brand ‘middle class’ is by itself an interesting construction as it has evolved over the years. The idea of a self-conscious naming of one’s own class and its use to arrogate to itself representativeness that comes from its alleged ‘middle-ness’ has been developed gradually over many years. In the pre-economic reform era its use was defensive, as the idea of ‘middle class values’ was used as a protective shield to insulate it against the fear of change, seen by definition to be a disruptive force. Over the years, the idea of the middle class has come to mean an inclination to consume, and middleclassness is seen to confer legitimacy to this propulsive quest for progress marked by acts of consumption.

It is easy to see why the idea of the brand has been embraced with such enthusiasm by the educated class, not just in the case of Brand India, but in other parts of public life, where the idea of brand is now commonly used to describe political leaders, filmstars, sports and films. The idea of the brand allows for a compression of meaning into that which is most easily grasped by those consuming the idea and privileges over studied understanding. Big ideas get collapsed into catch-phrase understanding, which recirculate with greater velocity.

It is very difficult for a Vijay Mallya to own or even associate with a figure like Gandhi, but the device of turning him into a brand allows for anyone to ‘own’ the brand. When we think of Gandhi as a brand, we are spared the task of understanding him in any other way save that of how he is commonly remembered today. This allows for a new set of people to speak of big ideas with seeming authority. Similarly, when a city is thought of in terms of being a brand, prescriptions about its future tend to generate more flyovers than public sanitation facilities.

Of course, the use of the brand frame is less than accurate even when examined from a lens of marketing. New thinking on branding thinks of the brand in broader cultural terms, and sees the brand as an aura of predictable meaning that surrounds a product, idea or person. The meaning is generated through an interaction of the belief system that underpins the brand and which is made manifest in the product offer within a larger societal context. The mode of interaction is largely through a symbolic exchange of meaning that is subject to constant change. The brand is thus seen as an open cultural system producing meaning of some value in the consumer’s life.

This view of the brand moves away from the more classical approach which saw the brand as a bundle of attributes and benefits, both rational and emotional. By locating the idea of the brand in a larger systemic framework, and by integrating it with the context, it becomes possible for brands to be thought of in more substantive terms and acknowledges the increasing role that consumption plays in our lives. Of course, the framework is by itself not restricted to the world of business; seen this way, the idea of brands offers us a structure of analysis that is potentially useful across other arenas of life.

Examined through this lens of branding, the current discourse on Brand India is revealed as shallow and self-serving. In its current form, Brand India is really the name given to the panic attack that brand Middle Class goes through when it thinks of itself in relation to the developed world. It sanctifies fears and offers an easily consumable path for development. But in providing a vision for the country, it offers only stereo-typical answers. Ironically, this view of India is not even a particularly branded one for it erases India’s distinctiveness in order to ‘arrive’. To imagine India primarily in terms of a Shanghai, Singapore or Dubai, as is so often the case, is both unrealistic and shows a deep lack of ambition.

Even if we were to continue using the frame of the brand to describe India, it is possible to undertake a deeper enquiry and to ask what value could India provide to the world. The answers are unlikely to be merely cheap labour, a large market and a pool of English-speaking educated workers. In a world which is not short of intractable questions and entrenched conflicts, perhaps Brand India could offer a new mode of resolution and conflict management. Or it could show a way to reconcile a feeling of progress with frugal consumption.

But try as one might, by thinking of India in terms of a brand, inevitably one ends speaking to and performing for an implicit audience. There are enough pressing concerns that exist within India that need to be pursued with an honesty of intention. And this needs to be done because India needs them, not because of a construction called Brand India.

Seminar, February 2011