Michael Bierut | Essays

India Switches Brands

Like many other insular Americans, I was only vaguely aware that India was holding elections this past week. Listening to an account of the historic upset via BBC World Service on my car radio on Friday morning, I found myself a bit confused by an interviewer's question: What role did India Shining play in the election? Did India Shining have more appeal in progressive urban areas? Did India Shining alienate less affluent people?

What? India Shining? Was this some kind of political movement? A new party? Some kind of special government program? Some kind of insurgent group? I had never heard of it before.

This was not true for the citizens of the world's biggest democracy, who had not only heard of India Shining, but had found it an inescapable part of their lives for the weeks leading up to the election. Until last Thursday, that is, when the voters decided to escape it.

India Shining, I know now, is not a movement or political party, but that even more important holy grail sought after by institutions around the world: a brand. Created by Grey Advertising's India division for the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), "India Shining" was the tagline for a $100 million media campaign intended to emphasize the role the popular BJP had played in India's economic upswing. The campaign was so dominant, according to the Wall Street Journal, that it "worked its way into daily life, headlines, and even other ads." The BJP, in effect, attempted to consolidate its power in India by rebranding the country itself, and it seems to have come pretty close. The ubiquitous slogan made its way to Indians not only through television, radio and print ads, but through screensavers, cellphone ring tones, unsolicited mass text messages and of course a (now shut down) website.

Rebranding a country can be seen as the ultimate challenge for design consultants. (Landor, for instance, takes credit for Jordan, as well as Hong Kong and Pittsburgh.) And what some marketers excitedly call "360 degree branding" - integrated messages that come at you from all directions - must seem truly relentless when the subject is your nation rather than a mere beverage or a lowly sneaker.

These kind of efforts invariably evoke, for me at least, the tragic huckster in Michael Moore's documentary "Roger and Me" who, given the charge to sex up the image of bleak, post-industrial Flint, Michigan, comes up with a goofy logo and maniacally cheerful slogan ("Flint: You'll Love Our New Spark!"). These delusional communication tools, predictably, have as much effect on the city's sagging fortunes as would sacrificing a goat. I watched that sequence in the film with a queasy sense of self-recognition: how many times have we designers been asked to reposition the image of a reality whose substance had proven impervious to change?

As it turned out, the heavily-favored BJP made some key miscalculations. India Shining was designed to appeal to an urban, affluent constituency. But television ads - never mind websites - don't count for much in a country of over one billion where not even 90 million households own television sets. And, according to the New York Times, India is a country where the voting pattern of the United States is reversed. In the U.S., the more rich and educated you are, the more likely you are to vote; in India it's the opposite.

Sonia Gandhi's underdog Congress Party seems to have taken advantage of the BJP's hubris, carefully crafting appeals to India's "common man," complete with gritty, cinema-verite style testimonials. And, lest brandmongers lose heart, Congress's victory was achieved with the active assistance of their own consultants: a wholly owned local subsidiary of Leo Burnett, the agency best remembered for concocting, in simpler times, the Jolly Green Giant and the Marlboro Man.

Perhaps, in the end, the voters of India were not rejecting a brand but picking one more to their liking.

Posted in: Business, Politics

Comments [20]

Good interpretive synopsis. Any sense of how the Congress Party distributed their message? The "cinema-verite" testimonials sound like TV ads; were they augmented by, say, people traveling to rural districts?
matt f

Good question. According to the Wall Street Journal, Leo Burnett spent just $6.5 million on, among other things, television and print ads asking "What didn't the common man get?" And, to your point, the agency also "trained hundreds of local representatives on how to make a party pitch, just like a store salesman. It helped shape the Congress Party manifesto and produced all the party briefing material and posters. The ad team even polished Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi's aloof image by carefully staging her public appearances."

Sounds like the victors got their $6.5 million worth, and then some. Some commentators have pointed out that India's electoral system, which involves voting for local representatives who in turn elect the prime minister, may make the country a bit impervious to something like a national brand campaign, no matter how much is spent on it.
Michael Bierut

Your reference to Flint by way of Michael Moore is apt, but you forgot the most classic example of misguided municipal rebranding: in 1986 the city council of Hamilton, Ohio voted 5-1 to change the town's name to Hamilton! Ohio. Supposedly the idea was inspired by the musical Oklahoma! and its exclamation point, apparently added when the play was in need of a catchier name. Hamilton! never reaped much benefit from the new punctuation, mostly because they were never able to get Rand McNally to use the new name on their maps.
Scott Stowell

I share Michael's chagrin at sexing up an image. Judging the success of the projects, I wonder if the problem is putting the cart before the horse. In these situations the brand represents an idealized or future version of a population that is very slow to change. The brand is supposed to signal change, and guide the population to the aims of the brand creator. I have all sorts of objections to this in principle, but my point is that the brand doesn't reflect the population it manufactures an ideal version of it. I doubt its possible to direct a population through advertising.
I question the effectiveness of advertising in this instance. Is the message weakened simply by being presented as a corporate brand, and not as a political movement?
India Shining was presented to the public in media sources that present products for consumption, and the public watches them with this understanding. Maybe the BJP should have directed their efforts toward mediums that have a greater ability to change people (without knowing anything about Indian culture I'll suggest a few) like literature, cinema, fine art and music. Mediums that communicate between people, and not between a company and a person on behalf of their product.


John makes an interesting point, but I'm not sure that the BJP would have met with any greater success using "higher" forms of cultural communication. Remember the article's statistic: if not even nine per cent of the population own televisions, what percentage are going to be influenced by fine art and cinema?

All that for nine per cent, leaving only ninety-one to go...

Sonia Ghandi declines prime minister post.

I fully understand the value of good design, even more so the value of useful design, but I'm sure that $6.5m could have been better spent resolving some of India's real problems.
Christopher Skinner

A clairification. The (winning) Congress Party spent $6.5 million. The (losing) BJP spent $100 million.
These figures were identified as total advertising spends, some fraction of which may have been design, or even "good design."

The budgets of America's two political parties will dwarf those of India's in this presidential year. Many people have observed what other useful things could be done with that money, but the vicious circle seems inescapable.
Michael Bierut

Since Design Observer is about commentary and "historical perspective," it seems appropriate to remind us that the advertising positioning of political candidates did not start with George Bush or Sonia Ghandi. The first time an advertising campaign is credited with changing the outcome of a national election is Saatchi & Saatchi's campaign for Margaret Thatcher in 1976 under the theme "Labour Isn't Working."

This history is from the Center for Interactive Advertising at the University of Texas at Austin: "In 1976, Saatchi and Saatchi merged with Compton (of America) and, by doing so, acquired Proctor and Gamble as a client. The ad for Margaret Thatcher in 1978, then the Conservative Party's candidate for prime minister of Britain, catapulted the agency to worldwide notice. Saatchi & Saatchi created a print ad showing a long, winding line outside an unemployment office. The headline, "Labour Isn't Working," was a direct attack on the Conservative Party's opposition. After Thatcher's victory, many credited the thought-provoking ad campaign as a major factor in her electoral win. The Prime Minister remained close to the agency throughout the life of her political career."
William Drenttel

Although I largely agree with the original post, id like to add my two cents from the perspective of a Canadian living in India.

Although the BJP's campaign was glossy and superficially convincing, i think it failed because it was completely unrepresentative of the reality facing most Indians. The middle class has prospered under the BJP, but 70% of india lives below the poverty line and the same proportion is rural. It is the rural poor that have seen their share in India's 'shine' getting smaller, so rather than endorsing the slogan 'india shining', they are more likely to be offended by it: to a poor farmer, the slogan suggests that although the poor are no better off (in fact, they have suffered three years of consecutive drought where the regional BJP allies provided little relief), india is shining according to the BJP. Clearly, the BJP doesn't see the continuing poverty as dulling india's shine in any way.

Moreover, Indian politics is now dominated by regional issues, so a national campaign will be ineffective in many states.

I think the failure of the 'india shining' campaign reveals the limitations of marketing: no matter how glossy the advertising, a crappy product won't sell. Moreover, Sonia Ghandi did not win because of her public image and marketing campaign, but despite it. In fact, her foreign origin (Italian) and un-Indian mannerisms were the major strike against the Congress party.
Aziz Sunderji

I agree with Aziz, it is interesting to see the effects of branding a population. Earlier Michael mentioned other failed attempts at branding a population. But you have ads by Saatchi like William mentioned that do have an effect on a large group of people.
The difference is not so much in the placement fo the media, but in the approach to it. Does the media assume too much, as in the case of India Shining or is it more of a statement based in the postion of the client as with the Conservative parties ad in '76.
John Gordon

The Times has repeatedly referred to the new prime minister Manmohan Singh as a "Sikh who has made a powder-blue turban his trademark." This turban has stuck with me more than anything I've read about his policies. And I haven't seen an explanation about what the powder blue turban might symbolize to his culture or country, and whether this is seen as a transgression or "sexing up" of image. But it seems to work as a brand...

The comments in this string regarding whether $6.5, $100, or $200mm could be better spent - whether or not it is spent on good design or not - raise an interesting question. However, while many humanitarian uses for such funds could be suggested, it is hard to argue that the use such dollars in funding the democratic process is not noble. In a western culture (like the U.S.), you have to think about mass media if you are going reach millions of people. And that means television and print, both of which cost dollars. As soon as you create such a message, you've represented a brand for yourself. Wouldn't you necessarily want your brand to be the best? BJP used this strategy. Their mistake it seems is that in a less-western society like India, mass media is not necessarily the way to create support numbering in the millions. Choosing a medium that reached people holding the currency - in this case votes - would have been more effective.

Branding can play a powerful role in an individual's decision-making process, if delivered in the right medium. Political dollars spent on messaging - whether advertising or speeches - is not by nature a bad thing if it is serving an inclusive democratic process.

Dear Mr Bierut:

The rout of the BJP also shows that you can't just "rebrand" and expect to "sell".

Anyway, as an Indian, I can tell you that the campaign had negligible impact by itself; it was all the talk that the campaign raised that led to a downfall.

And as for the politics, people voted with local issues in mind and the BJP switched local partners; Had they stuck to the last election combination/coalition, they'd have swept back to power.

Thank You.

To say that the branding was the precursor to the switch in the politics arena is far from the truth. The campaign had very little effect and by the time of the election was mostly a joke and an afterthought.

BJP has done well and really there is very little the Congress party will do differently. They will mostly continue with similar policies and programs. What the switch really means that in a democracy where local concerns are paramount, a national campaign is mostly useless. And this is especially so in a country with a multitude of cultures, languages, and needs.

BJP's fall can be mostly attested to their over-confidence in local allies who have failed to deliver in the states. Too bad for them that their national policy successes didn't pull them through at the end.

India is shining. It's just the NDA (BJP and its allies) that is not!

Trying to do a market research on the Indian population could get as complicated as learning to read the script found from the civilization of Harappa.

An interesting theory about the targeted Indian mass is that the population the conventional media could reach may be zero as per a process of approximation.

As mentioned above in some of the comments, the urban crowd who is within the reach of the media may prefer not to vote very often.

A typical sample Indian voter is influenced by rumors and very locally conveyed information, and the power that the media has to influence the decisions he makes based on these, is negligible.

I am a firm follower of this school of thought, that any centralized singular campaign to reach the ‘India Mass’ is pointless considering the diversity and complexity of the

To me, the failure of the India Shining campaign is just a convincing proof for this theory. Neither do I believe that the money that congress party spent on their campaign might be worth it.

Madhu Nair

"India shining" is a good example for bad advertising. Advertising should be human and when it comes to Indian politics it should be more than that. A thoughtless ad. No soul. No offer. Just blowing trumpet!.

" Advertising is an expensive wrapper covers an inexpensive thing". Now the word "shining" is been used by TV channels and shops to promote their programmes and products.
unnikrishna menon damodaran

"India shining" is a good example for bad advertising. Advertising should be human and when it comes to Indian politics it should be more than that. A thoughtless ad. No soul. No offer. Just blowing trumpet!.

" Advertising is an expensive wrapper covers an inexpensive thing". Now the word "shining" is been used by TV channels and shops to promote their programmes and products.
unnikrishna menon damodaran

i'm delighted to see that your horizon extends beyond the united states and its global obsessions - even more delighted to see you 'reading' the indian elections from the design angle (fairly accurately too!) - would love your response to the piece 'identity and politics' that i wrote when the bjp was seemingly unsurmountable - least of all by 'alien' sonia gandhi.

frankly, i expected the bjp to have read the nation right, given their history of doing so with an almost uncanny accuracy. already, they are analysing if they failed because they abandoned the hardline fascist-nationalist image that they rode into power with. i tend to agree: brand values wise, there is little difference between the bjp of today and the congress. however, i also feel that adopting a hardline tone would shrink their constituency to a tiny minority - at par with similar 'nationalists' in every other country.

since you mentioned landor, i'm sure the one branding job they DON'T want to talk about is the short-lived 'air-india' redesign - it was a disaster evident to any indian designer, but an expensive one for the taxpayers!

arvind lodaya

Shining India was not an internal branding exercise for Indians, It
wasnt targeted at indians at all. Ask anyone on the road if they
know what is shinning india and you are bound to draw a blank.

Elections need a strong internal result/performance linked
branding. A media oriented communication brand is too shallow to
convert into votes even amongst the indians.

i hear Narendra Modi has done a fabulous job for Gujarat, every
Gujarati will tell you that and back up his view of the development
that the state is seeing. irrespective of media painting him
negative nationally, modi govt and modi is bound to ride high on
this in elections. So much so that earlier in the week he was being
touted as Prime Ministrial candidate from BJP...and many would
welcome that.

Brand no.
Performance Yes.
sudhir sharma

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