Indian national pride influences brand opportunities, challenges
Trend shapes consumer expectations
India is experiencing a resurgence of national identity that perhaps has not been as fervent since before the nation won its independence from Great Britain in 1947. After almost 70 years as an independent state, India has assumed its stature as a global economic power and the world’s largest democracy. This new nationalism, expressed in the popularity of Indian foods and traditional flavors, and the emergence of strong local Indian brands, influences some of the greatest opportunities and challenges facing brands today.
India has been on an upward, if bumpy, trajectory at least since the early days of economic liberalization in the early 1990s. But a popular belief in national possibility surged with the change of government and the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. He has cultivated economic partnerships with world powers including the US, UK, China, and Russia, and has advocated strenuously for India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
The liberalization of Foreign Direct Investment in key sectors, such as aviation, defense, and media, reflects increased confidence about competing or cooperating with other nations. It also attracts foreign capital that can help finance expensive initiatives, such as the improvement of infrastructure nationwide and the expansion of digital networks, intended to raise living standards in rural India and promote greater economic equality.
The government’s initiatives have been both praised as ambitious and criticized as slow. But there is little disagreement that Modi’s agenda amounts to nothing less than the transformation of India into a more modern, prosperous, and equitable nation. Agriculture and services still drive India’s economy. But programs like “Make in India,” intended to attract foreign manufacturers, could potentially rebrand India as a center of manufacturing and innovation.
Emerging local brands
Indian nationalism typically does not drive purchase decisions. Value for money is more important than provenance to Indian consumers. And Indian brands do not usually market their “Indian-ness” as an advantage. However, pride in India may be an implicit consideration when purchasing. A consumer who chooses a local e-commerce brand like Flipkart over Amazon, or the Indian taxi service Ola over Uber, may be expressing pride in Indian technological entrepreneurship and the visibility of Indians in the C-suites of some of the world’s leading technology brands.
The best example of a brand that has benefited from an implicit connection with the new nationalism is Patanjali. Under the leadership of its founder, a yoga teacher named Baba Ramdev, the brand expanded in 10 years from its original narrow focus on Ayurvedic products to a wide FMCG range that challenges the brands of well-established multinationals and Indian conglomerates. Ramdev helped awaken a consumer desire for products with healthier and organic ingredients. He may have connected with a consumer counter reaction to the rush to modernity, and persuaded consumers that local brands have the quality and insight to better meet their particularly Indian preferences.
This acute sensitivity to religious and cultural proclivities resonates in a country with 22 official languages, where customers vary widely from north to south and east to west and even state to state. Kantar IMRB and Kantar Worldpanel have identified a new trend in which “hyperlocal” brands limit their presence to only one or two states. These brands serve consumers with similar values and preferences for foods and food preparations. The “hyperlocal” strategy works because it combines closeness to the consumer, and the consumer’s needs, with scale. India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, includes over 215 million residents, more than Brazil.
As Indian consumers become more discerning, and high-quality Indian brands are able to meet their particular needs, they challenge Indian conglomerate brands and multinational brands, some of which have been effectively marketed in India for so long that they are often perceived as Indian.
Multinationals are growing, but at a slower rate than local Indian brands. Over the past 10 years, local Indian brands grew net profits at a compounded annual growth rate of 24 percent, compared with 14 percent for multinationals, according to Kantar IMRB and Kantar Worldpanel. The research found that Indian brands are outperforming multinationals across categories such as personal care, food and beverage, and household goods
The new nationalism is also manifested in the government regulations that require certain companies, generally those with annual revenue of over 10 billion rupees ($150 million), to contribute 2 percent of net profit to charity. The corporate social action programs, in which many of the large Indian conglomerates and multinationals participate, also reflect sensitivity to the new nationalism.
While India’s more nationalistic mood may disadvantage multinationals, there could be some benefits to them. One of the key advantages local brands enjoy is their natural ability to understand and organize messages that resonate with the country’s many submarkets. If many of the submarkets share in a common sense of national identity, it may be possible for multinationals to leverage their size and infrastructure and deliver one message, related to nationalism, across the nation.
Drivers and counter trends
Many factors drive India’s new nationalism, including the country’s current nationalistic political orientation. Regardless of politics, however, national pride connects people with India’s long history and provides a sense of permanence and security for a nation undergoing fundamental economic and social change.
This mood is not without challenges. Nationalistic sentiment often is accompanied by exclusionary tendencies. In many ways India is an enviably inclusive conglomeration of religions and cultures, but India’s new nationalism is sometimes expressed in ways that appear to narrow the definition of being Indian.
The majority of Indians, 80 percent, are Hindu, a religion in which cows are revered as a symbol of sustenance and life. Prohibitions against slaughtering cows, which vary by state, recently have become the focus of contentious debate about how to best balance the prerogatives of the majority and the rights of the minority in a democratic society. In movie theaters in Mumbai, audiences stand-up and sing the national anthem before the program begins. Depending on one’s point of view, this ritual can be an expression of Indian pride or a test to prove one’s patriotism.
Narrow definitions of Indian identity seem antithetical to one of India’s fundamental characteristics – diversity. Indian culture is rooted in 5,000 of years of history: from early Dravidian migrations to the establishment of the Indus Valley Civilization; from the conquests by Alexander the Great and the Mughals of central Asia to British rule and political independence. The result is a country whose vibrant fabric is woven of multiple regional, religious, cultural, and linguistic strands.
Brand Building Action Points
Recognize and respect differences. Reject stereotypes. They are always offensive, and inaccurate by definition, and they are increasingly ineffectual for marketing, especially in a nation as diverse as India.
Market to the nation
Continue to market in the language and tone expected in various regions and states. At the same time, consider that a message of Indian pride may resonate across all of these divides.
Do your part
Engage in corporate social action that is relevant to the brand and helps efforts to build a more prosperous and equitable India, while simultaneously reinforcing corporate reputation.