Sunday, December 13, 2009

Soft power: Why India needs a Brand Plan

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. And this was also the topic of the TED Talk given by Shashi Tharoor (@shashitharoor) India’s Minister of State for External Affairs.


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?” In my book I talk about how complete strangers in the US now approach me with “You’re an Indian? In IT? You must be smart!” This, when just a decade ago, even Indian-origin in the US cabbies sweetly declined tips from me because they felt I wouldn’t be able to afford it.

The above two examples show the symbiotic relationship between country brand and seller power - 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. The TATA Nano did wonders for India’s automotive industry, again by raising the world’s awareness that we possessed engineering excellence.

Undoubtedly soft power helps with political influence, but it also helps with economics. People pay a premium for stuff from countries that they admire or aspire to belong to. The US is of course a leader in soft power - Apple says “designed in California” because across the world this connotes hipness, tech-savviness. American movies are big cultural ambassadors - many of us know a lot about US though movies, serials etc. When we go into a McDonald’s we’re going in for a taste of that culture, not just the food.

You might argue that US is not just a soft power, but also political and economic. True. But what about little (pop. 300,000), bankrupt Iceland? I was recently there for a vacation, and they did a fantastic job of marketing their culture, green credentials - geo-thermal power, green data centers, design excellence and natural attractions. Right from the moment you got on the plane there was a not-so-subtle message of “Iceland isn’t that cold - we just got misnamed. New York in mid-winter is colder!” Right. In a country where at -2C they are still waiting for winter. Whatever. The marketing push appears to be working - Reva has begun marketing its electric car in Iceland and is exploring opening a plant there. Oh, and they have an IT product firm LS Retail that looks like it is doing pretty well in India.

In the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index (NBI) of 2008, India came in at 26 - one step ahead of China and below Brazil (20) and Russia (21). This is a survey of 20,000+ interviews across 20 countries including India. We didn’t make the top 10 in 2009 either. The release cites improvement in the rankings of US (possibly due to the election of Mr Obama) and China (possibly due to the Olympics).

India, for its wealth of marketing assets, hasn’t really put together a marketing plan. I have a lot of respect for our ministry of external affairs (my father was in the Indian Foreign Service) but I think we are letting Bollywood and private business shape our external perception way too much. They are doing a good job within their limits and commercial ambitions, but it is tactical and not held together by a common theme or plan.

The criteria used by the NBI rankings are:

People: Measures the population's reputation for competence, education, openness and friendliness and other qualities, as well as perceived levels of potential hostility and discrimination.

Governance: Measures public opinion regarding the level of national government competency and fairness and describes individuals' beliefs about each country's government, as well as its perceived commitment to global issues such as democracy, justice, poverty and the environment.

Exports: Determines the public's image of products and services from each country and the extent to which consumers proactively seek or avoid products from each country-of-origin.

Tourism: Captures the level of interest in visiting a country and the draw of natural and man-made tourist attractions.

Culture & Heritage: Reveals global perceptions of each nation's heritage and appreciation for its contemporary culture, including film, music, art, sport and literature.

Investment & Immigration: Determines the power to attract people to live, work or study in each country and reveals how people perceive a country's economic and social situation

Those of you familiar with India 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Create a vibrate 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. We can also tap into our highly-skilled graduate pool to run a great twitter presence and blog.
  • 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. Currently, neither is easy, but it should be as this fosters the right kind of immigration.
  • While, yes, televised proceedings of Parliament are a PR-disaster, we do have some very articulate, sophisticated politicians. We should get them out in front of the right audience through, well, a GOI Speaker Bureau. The MEA website lists the PM’s visits but just 14 of them. A little known fact is that India’s big IT CEOs spend upwards of 200 days outside the country at meetings and events. Sure, one doesn’t expect the PM to do that, but surely the others can chip in?
  • Lastly, promote India as a Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Events (MICE) destination. This will help bring in prospective business investors as well as tourism.


This isn’t a comprehensive list. I am hoping that if more people raise the need for India’s soft power to be built in a more structured manner the current government, which has very brand savvy folks like S M Krishna and Shashi Tharoor in a position to make a difference, will do something. It could be their lasting contribution to India, one that will outlive them.

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