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Brands swing to the national tune

A more aggressive brand of nationalism is playing out in a bunch of new advertisements. Do brands gain from the strong desi pitch?

Patanjali Pahwa & Urvi Malvania  |  Mumbai 

Be it on television, over the radio or on digital media - it is impossible to miss the mad scramble among brands to paint themselves in the brightest national colours. Patanjali Ayurved, exhorting consumers to burn down the products of multinational companies. Or Micromax, asking consumers to prove their Indian-ness by giving the thumbs down to English in an ad, which ironically has a group of girls learning ballet, a dance form that originated in France. A number of start-ups are playing their Indian cards with gusto too, riding what advertising experts term, a wave of populist nationalism. But not all brands can make it work. Brands following a fad without aligning the advertising with their core identity are sure to fumble, they say. "The only one whose campaign makes any sense is Patanjali," says Sandeep Goyal, former group chairman at Dentsu India. "And it works only because Ramdev's imagery makes it a success," he adds. Following a trend Many believe that the ads are merely following a social trend. There is a growing desire among people to be seen as proud nationals and it was only a matter of time before companies latched on to this phenomenon. However, there is a danger of overkill. There is a problem when brands overstate the message, especially when they are unable to create an identity for the brand that matches its image. M G (Ambi) Parameswaran, author and advertising veteran, says, "If you want to call yourself Indian, you need to unpack it a little. You can't just call yourself swadesi and cross your fingers. It just doesn't cut ice," he says. Jagdip Kapoor, founder of Samsika, a marketing and branding consultancy, says, "Globally, the spirit of nationalism is on the rise whether it is in the form of the US elections, or through what is happening in Europe or Brexit." He sees the ads on Indian screens as an extension of this global phenomenon. He also believes that the conversation around national pride has been on a high in recent times. "Over the past few years, the trend has been leaning towards desi, ethnic and 'back to our roots' ideology. It was always there latently, but now there is the wish to be blatant about it. Whether it is the service staff dressed in ethnic wear at five-stars or the use of ayurvedic products, people are increasingly finding desi cool and this will reflect in advertising," he adds Consistency first A few months ago, taxi aggregator Ola held a press conference to promote an operator app. On the right hand bottom corner of some of its presentation slides was the Indian flag. There were other subtle messages of patriotism and nationalism throughout the presentation. A few weeks later, the Bengaluru-based cab aggregator filed a petition at the Karnataka high court calling itself an indigenous start-up.

It wrote that Uber did not value the laws of the land and hinted that this could be because it was an American (read non-Indian) brand. For many there is a dissonance in the message. Ola's biggest investor is Japan-based Softbank. The US-based Tiger Global and Chinese cab giant Didi Chuxing are other major players in the company. The Indian founders hold less than 10 per cent stake in the company. Over time, consumers are bound to note the disconnect between what the brand says and what it does, which could backfire. Consider Micromax, which has been advertising its Indian roots in recent months. In one ad, it had all the global brands being crushed under a road roller and another has a group of dancers turning up their noses at one of their group who does not use the English language typeface on her phone. Shubhajit Sen, chief marketing officer, Micromax Informatics had said about the campaign, "The brand leaves behind a beautiful message with the viewers - it is not about communicating in English but the snob value created by English-ism." But the brand, many believe, is sending out a mixed signal and it is a matter of time until they move on. "Were they not trying to be an international brand by getting Hugh Jackman to be their brand ambassadors? And now they are Indian," says Goyal. Defining Indian-ness "Just telling people a product is manufactured in India doesn't matter. A customer will ask, 'So what? Even Hondas are manufactured in India. What's your point'," quips Parameswaran. Goyal and Parameswaran argue that there have been several brands, which have played on their 'Indianness' in the past. Amul, Dabur, Himalaya and Bajaj have all tried to play it in a certain way. But none slammed down competitors that were not Indian. "In fact, when Tata launched Indica, they didn't try to shout we are Indian from the rooftops. The car was called Indica because it was India's car," says Parameswaran. Tata Salt's Desh Ka Namak and Hero's Desh ki Dhadkan campaign are also held up as examples of smart branding; these used the nationalist platform without running a smear campaign on non-Indian brands. "The trick is to polish the communication and communicate the message 'Indian beyond compare'," says Kapoor. Many recent ads have also successfully conveyed 'national pride' or, 'pride in being Indian' without being too aggressive. For example, the Lufthansa ad which laughs at its German idiosyncrasies and the Amazon campaign that uses insights about Indian consumers to present itself as a brand that cares about the country. As more and more brands rush to wear the national flag on their sleeves, it may do well to take lessons from some of these campaigns and define what nationalism means in the context of their brand identity.

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First Published: Mon, August 29 2016. 21:10 IST
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