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.)


Freebird said...

Spot on! And the only way to make the outreach programs succeed is to have the government structure and provide the platform, but have it funded and run as a private initiative.

Sridhar, IDEAS-RS said...

I like concept the concept of 'Soft Pwer' and the definition you have referred to.

I was talking to Chetan Bhagat the hotselling author and it is obvious he is using 'soft power' and becoming a role model. (you will the complete interview in in the forthcoming week).

Anonymous said...

Nice thought Jessie. Loved it..

Javed Ahmad said...

"no money marketing" is a good collecion of ideas which may work for large service oriented companies. but there is nothing "frugal" about it.
I was very much enthused by the books review in the week magazine.
Bought it immediately. read it from cover to cover.
but it was disappointing to know that the examples given by author are only for service industries and that tooo for biggies only. like Infosys, wipro and the ilk. how their marketing budgets can be said "frugal"?
and certainly the price is on steep side. i.e. Rs. 395 for 186 pages. certainly it is not frugal again.
the word "flat world" has been overkilled.

warm regards,
new delhi

Phantom Brain said...

Hello Jessie,

While I agree there is always room to do it better, to say "India, for its wealth of marketing assets, hasn’t really put together a marketing plan." is a bit unfair. I think the Incredible India and India Everywhere (in Davos) were pretty well conceived and well executed.

But your point it well taken - we need to do a better job.

(btw: I read the book - you have shared some very useful insights - Thanks!)


Anonymous said...

Fantastic article!

But we are already doing a lot.
India is being promoted as an investment destination. Its huge population is attracting lot of MNC's in Telecom, Banking, PE, Media and entertainment.
We have world famous tourist destinations like Goa, Kerala, Agra, Rajastan, Assam etc.
Asianet has captured a lot of viewers at Middle-east, with their global brand.
Mahatma Gandhiji and Mother Teresa has promoted brand India in terms of peace and so does a lot of spiritual leaders like Osho foundation, The Art of Living foundation, Iskon etc.
A lot of artist like paintings of Raja Ravi Verma, MF Hussain did catch a lot of eye in the west.
Bank like OBC, SBI, HDFC, ICICI etc have presence abroad.
Your own industry IT did wonders for our economy.
Dabbawala is a popular case study in most leading management institutions.
IPL has promoted cricket as a whole in a big way. Sports personals like Vishwanath Anand, Dyanchand, Sachin Tendulkar, Premchand Degra, Prakash Pudukone, Vishwanath Anand, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupati, Saina Naiwal, and Sania Mirza etc...
Bollywood numbers are popular.
We have a huge population of NRI's who are knowingly or unknowingly promoting our brand.
India is slowly emerging as a destination for medical tourism.
The list is endless.
Although there has been a lot of unwanted attention and negative publicity because of terror attacks, but that’s a global phenomena. Such event instills fear. But it does also show our resiliency.

We have done so much to promote our brand. But we need to promote it still more. Why just the govt, it for everybody. Corporate citizens, universities, doctors, people etc.

Bharath said...

We Indians need to kick ourselves hard for not having recognized the soft power a long long time ago.

One of the essentials of soft power as well as non money marketing is what I call the concept of free agents. Who is to sell brand India? Is it just Indian businesses that have something to gain directly from it? I would argue that it's mainly the Indian population that needs to do the selling, regardless of direct, immediate benefits. Look at some of the ideas that have spread online virally - Facebook, Youtube, Twitter ..... Their users were not incentivized (at least not explicitly) to market these properties. But the users did. Why?

1) They felt there was incremental benefit to themselves, if their friends started using these services too.

2) They attached importance to the fact that they were users of these properties. They either felt proud or good being part of these cool things.

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether Indians feel that the their Indianness is important, something to be proud of, something to feel good about. Don't get me wrong I'm not saying Indians are not patriotic. Indians do love India - the cricket team, the parathas, the movies. But, beyond that, do Indians feel their Indianness is valuable enough? Given a chance to be Americans or Europeans, would they still choose to be Indians? Doubtful. Would Indians ever start respecting the law of their own land as religiously as they would abroad. Would Indians even stop valuing their own mother tongue beyond English? Would Indians ever stop queuing up outside the immigration offices happily swallowing insults?

When these questions can get an answer in the affirmative, I guess, soft power can starting working for India.

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