Vocal for Local India needs a brand plan for soft power

There was a time when my mother coveted something called “Singapore Saris” – these were imported polyester items that were considered more fashionable than the Indian equivalent. We refer to cars as “German” and pay a premium even if they are manufactured in India. And it’s not just us – a global survey says that people feel good about buying stuff from Germany, Japan and US.

It isn’t just about having a great product it is also about how it makes us feel and whether we trust that country to produce things that are good in that dimension. Coca Cola sells not just a fizzy drink but the image of the Good American Life that it has assiduously built over years. Apple says “designed in California” because across the world California stands for “cool”. American movies are big cultural ambassadors – many of us know a lot about the US though movies and songs. When we go into a McDonald’s we’re going in for a taste of that culture, not just the food.

Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” back in the 1970s.  Nye defined soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.” He also noted that soft power “could be developed through relations with allies, economic assistance, and cultural exchanges.” Joseph Nye spoke about the impact of soft power on a nation’s political strength.

Vocal for Local needs more push on local branding. Businesses should want to make in India. And people should want to buy from India. We all want competence at a price, and we want to feel good about ourselves when we use that product or service. The narrative matters as much as the functional benefit.

Mind you these movements come in waves and if you’d like to test your knowledge of Indian brands with a twisty local history do try this tough quiz.

In 2009 I was privileged to attend the one and only TED conference that took place in India (not to be confused with the TEDx which proliferated literally to every street corner).  Shashi Tharoor India’s then Minister of State for External Affairs talked about India as a soft power and it is still relevant today. In his talk Mr Tharoor cites the example of the European racing towards an Indian in a foreign airport pleading “You’re an Indian, can you help me with my laptop?”

When Indian IT started out it was battling a negative country image which it overcame by sheer technical excellence and a dollop of savvy marketing. Now, anything IT from India benefits from the country’s reputation in this space.

India has steadily built its reputation in areas like pharma, IT services and tech, automobiles, and telecom. But even these industries could benefit from a stronger country brand.

Now US, Germany, Japan are also economic powerhouses and you could say that helps with their brand though it is of course a chicken and egg story. But what about tiny Faroe Island? They are using low cost techniques to build a brand. China struggles with soft power too. But they do have government resources working on it and may also start channeling their internet celebrities to achieve this.

There are a number of studies that rank countries on soft power. In the Future Brands version India ranks at 41. You can disagree with the ranking but it is good to look at the attributes that build a soft brand –

Dimensions of purpose

  1. Value System
  2. Quality of Life
  3. Business Potential

Dimensions of experience

4.Heritage & Culture
6.Made In (Products & Services)

You can decide for yourselves how we fare along each of these parameters. I think that there is sufficient content here to put together a very decent outreach program. And it must be an outreach program – not just an ad campaign.

Some of the obvious first-steps are:

  1. Set up a cultural outreach center like Alliance Francaise, USIS, British Library, Max Mueller in key countries ie our potential trading partners. This will help educate at least those who are interested in our culture, language, and educational opportunities.
  2. Either set up a world-class English-language media channel and take it global, or encourage the existing Indian media to do so. CNN, FOX News, Al-Jazeera, CCTV (China), BBC, Voice of America, all do their bit in promoting their country’s point of view to an international audience. This is a good channel for our thought leadership.
  3. Create a vibrant online presence to promote India’s interests. This is a modern tool and India, with its technological expertise should be able to leapfrog the others in savviness, relevance and content.
  4. India is seen among certain countries as a source of excellent education. Combine this with our technology brand and use this to push for international students to study in Indian institutes, and also for Indian centers of learning to set up shop outside the country. We can also look at a globally available and free online educational program that can be used both locally and overseas.
  5. We do have some very articulatepoliticians. We should get them out in front of the right audience through a GOI Speaker Bureau.
  6. Promote India’s heritage by standardising and franchising areas such as Yoga, Meditation, Nutrition, Art and Handicrafts. Today, these areas are already being monetised by other countries.

For those interested in knowing more on how country brand can be a marketing lever, there is a chapter on this in my 2009 book, No Money Marketing.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.