-Rajesh K. Jha
It is commonplace these days to talk about ‘Brand India’. Indeed, most of the government departments have started looking at their own roles and responsibilities in terms of enhancing the brand image of India. We are all aware of the highly visible and probably successful Incredible India campaign. Surely, it is a catchy idea to look at India as a brand. Once we have internalised this conceptualisation, we can easily pitch for the preservation of the brand value, its enhancement and building of brand loyalty and so on. In our age when the perceived image of a commodity as symbolised by the brand is considered far more important than the actual content, it is understandable that we as a nation also look at branding of the country as a positive step forward.
Brand is associated with certain qualities which could be partly tangible but mostly perceptual. Putting on a Gucci shoe or carrying an Armani bag or wearing a Chanel 5 perfume may not be so fundamentally different from wearing a shoe made by the street corner Mochi or a locally tailored bag or an Itra (scent) produced in the dark and dingy bye-lanes of Chandni Chowk. Yet the consumer of the branded items gets associated, in his own mind and possibly in other’s eyes too, with certain mysterious qualities that boost his self-confidence and puts him in a different league altogether. The entire world of advertising creates an eco-system of a fabricated sublimity, a web of mystifying emotions around a particular brand by making it aspirational worth living or dying for. It is no surprise that, in a survey conducted by Harley lovers, a large percentage of people had shown their willingness to give up their family, kids or even chop off their right hands for owning the imaginary last piece of Harley Davidson. This mystery, this ethereal quality of straddling the world of reality and imagination makes brands so alluring, so dangerous too.
Why can’t we think of nation as a brand? What is the problem in looking at our country in this way? I argue there are some significant problems involved in this conceptualisation about which we need to be aware.
When we speak of India as a brand, what are we referring to? Is it the state or the people which constitutes the entity called India? Often, in the branding exercise, we look at the country in terms of state and ignore that it is the people who constitute the real soul of the nation. It is true that the branding exercise for the country does bring in people also but they serve as props to provide a justification for the state. No brand can accommodate the range of reality in its relentless pursuit for captivating the minds of the people. The great Apple, now the most valued brand in the world and known for its path breaking advertisements, can’t talk about the inhuman conditions of work in its assembly plants in China. World leader in e-commerce Amazon and Flipkart, the trail blazer in this sector in India can’t talk about the meagre salary of its staff, back breaking schedule of the delivery boys and the non-existent lunch time for them when it seeks to establish Amazon or Flipkart as efficient, aspirational brands in India or abroad. Indeed, it would be foolish and contradictory to do so. Branding exercise is inherently simplifying and cosmetic. It camouflages the reality much more than it reveals. It is a trap, however alluring.
The branding exercise is concerned with managing the perception, creating a perceived value. It hardly ever gets into the core of the content. Have we ever heard of a branding exercise seeking to change the content of the product? When we look at nation as a brand, I am afraid, we get into this trap. We tend to ignore what is wrong with the content. We fail to recognise the deeper conflicts, deficiencies, imbalances and structures of power and resources that shape the nation. We start looking at the problem as simply that of managing the perception. It is like putting an attractive wrapper on a product whose validity and utility itself are out of date. A nation is constantly changing, evolving. Not only our expectations but the material reality is also changing. Can a branding exercise take into account these factors? The symbol of brand fails to take in these complexities. I would say it is intended to gloss over these and create a chimera of sorts for temporary consumption for the people.
In the branding exercise for the nation, voice of the people finds no place. They are the objects of the advertisement but never the voice that speaks through the branding exercise. We must ask the question when we try to look at India as a brand as to who owns this brand called India? Whose voice does the advertisement speak with? Where will a Rohith Vemula stand on the wrapper of brand India? How would the brand India capture the agony of the farmer committing suicides in Vidarbha, Bundelkhand and across the country? Would brand India have a heart big enough to accommodate the muffled cry of a labourer working in a Manesar factory and living in nearly inhuman conditions? Can one imagine India achieving a GDP growth rate of 7.5 percent and above without his contribution despite an environment where labour laws mean unbridled freedom to the owner to force workers to toil 12 hours a day or more? He certainly deserves a place in the brand India story whenever it projects India’s sterling achievements. Doesn’t he? Can we think of a campaign for brand India that includes the sight and sound of these people and not try to gloss over the unpalatable truth to come up with a glitzy, shiny fairy-tale called India?
Let us take a concrete example. We are at the ISB- Indian School of Business, Hyderabad which is a premier institute for business professionals in India. It fancies itself in league with Harvard and Kellogs Business School, and other such big names in management education in the world. There is no doubt that it is a big brand for which people are willing to pay upwards of 27 lakhs per year for enrolling into its programmes. The institute sprawls over 260 acres with great buildings for students, faculty and the impressive academic activities. I am deeply and truly impressed by the institute. Its building, faculty, library, cleanliness, food and stay, a general sense of happy surroundings everywhere is awe-inspiring.
However, early morning on Sunday, when Balachandar came to my room for cleaning I casually asked him how much he is paid and his working hours. He told me he comes at 7.30 in the morning and there is no fixed time for going. He gets 7.5 plus meals which I could not understand. After all, once you are in such a big and prestigious institute you start thinking in terms of packages in at least a couple of million rupees a year or so. Not for Balachandar. His package of 7.5 refers to a figure in thousands. Does brand ISB care to look into this aspect of reality? Obviously, the students and faculty who have invested so much in the branding of this place, who are actually brand ambassadors of this institution when the work in big business and financial institutions of the world would not like to get involved in the lives of the people here who toil daily to give a shine to the brand of this institute. On the contrary, any involvement with such issues by raising it with the management could potentially be fraught with diluting all that jazz and glitter of the place, if not having a direct impact on the future prospects of those who study or teach here in this institute.
So, the brand building exercise would strive not to get into these ugly and unpleasant realities and instead concentrate on drumming up fog, a resplendent fog rich in imagery, false associations and perceived connotations of being here. This is the reality of turning a place into brand. It requires us to cut out the unpleasant, painful. There is no place in the branding exercise to really strive to change the reality. That is exactly the same when it comes to nation which is far more complex an entity than an institution like ISB. When we start looking at India as a brand, our gaze moves from complexity to simplification of the reality. We focus on the perception management and lose sight of the fact that very often it is the reality which needs to be changed. We become part of the elaborate arrangement to put a gloss over the wall which is crumbling, peeling and waiting to crash as its foundations are being eaten away by forces of degeneration and decay.
Drawing from what Tom Paine said to Edmond Burke, I am uncomfortable when we ‘pity the plumage but forget the dying bird’. Looking at India as brand could be precisely that.