When political, business and NGO leaders arrived at Zurich airport on their way to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, they were greeted by large blue and white billboards, proclaiming India as “the world’s fastest-growing free market democracy.” When they checked into their hotels in the Swiss resort town, they received gift baskets containing a pashmina scarf, an Apple iPod loaded with Indian music, medicinal oils, and a CD providing economic and cultural information about India.
During the conference, guests could relax at India-themed events at most of the major hotels, enjoying Indian beer and wines, and food prepared by the famous Indian chef Hemant Oberoi. At the close of the conference, a four-hour gala dinner attended by about 650 guests featured Bollywood choreography and music presented by one of India’s most popular DJs.
It was a remarkable branding effort, made all the more so by the fact that India had long allowed its international image to languish.
“India’s showy debut at Davos is yet another sign that this newly confident country is ready to strut its stuff on the world stage,” wrote Business Week’s Mumbai bureau chief Manjeet Kripalani before the event. “Branding and marketing itself hasn’t come easily to India, a culture where the preferred path is understated and unspoken. But some of India’s most prominent native sons thought the time has come to raise India’s profile in the global community.”
A principal architect of the “India Everywhere” strategy was Ajay Khanna, chief executive of the India Brand Equity Foundation, a public-private partnership between the Indian government and some of the country’s largest corporations. Working with leading Indian public relations firm Genesis Burson-Marsteller, and with Burson-Marsteller offices around the world, Khanna set out to ensure that India’s message was ubiquitous during the five-day meeting.
“The World Economic Forum was an important platform for us,” says Khanna. “In one place, we had direct access to 3,000 of the top decision makers in the world today.”
The January meeting of the WEF coincided with an upsurge of interest in the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and the emergence of India and China was one of eight “sub-themes” of the meeting, which also focused on creating future jobs, building trust in public and private institutions, and innovation, creativity and design strategy.
Still, it would have been easy for the Indian message to get lost. The fact that it was so visible and so consistent was no accident. It was the culmination of an initiative that began two years ago, after another World Economic Forum meeting during which the only substantive discussion of India revolved around the issue of outsourcing. In the wake of that meeting, business and government leaders came together, determined to tell a fuller, richer story about India’s emergence as an economic power.
India had participated at World Economic Forum meetings for more than two decades. But in previous years it was more of a passive observer than an active participant. Before 1991, when then-prime minister Narasimha Rao initiated economic reforms designed to open up a previously closed and insular economy to more foreign investment, the country had little interest in attracting western business. But those reforms and the technology boom of the late 90s generated new levels of interest in the Indian market.
Still, as recently as 2004, any discussion of India at Davos focused on outsourcing—the fear (or in some cases hope) that western jobs could be done as effectively and at far lower cost in India. But at that summit, some Indian business leaders, including Nilekani, began to talk about the emphasis on European issues and western thinking and the growing profile of China, and put together a plan for India to play a more prominent role at future events.
The plan involved four strategies: first, to secure more Indian speakers at WEF forums; second, to put together a “dream team” including top government officials to support this exercise; third, to create a brand image for India through billboards, banners and literature; and finally, to spotlight Indian culture and entertainment at the summit.
The India Brand Equity Foundation was formed as a partnership between the Indian Ministry of Commerce and the Confederation of Indian Industry, the country’s most prominent business advocacy group. It was to provide a forum for developing a brand vision for India, and to serve as a coordinator of strategic marketing initiatives as well as a resource center for information about the Indian market.
From the beginning, the branding of India was led by public relations.
The giant billboard at Zurich airport notwithstanding, “advertising has not been a major priority for us,” says Khanna. “We don’t have a great amount of money. But anyone can advertise who has the money. Our approach has been based around business storytelling. We have created a repository of great stories about India, about the different companies and the different sectors, and we are focused on telling those stories, in the media and on the web.”
The IBEF website, which generated about 5 million hits a month, features dozens of those stories, focusing on companies from a variety of different countries—Germany’s automotive and industrial manufacturer Bosch; the U.K.’s IT services and wireless telecommunications company Logica CMQ; Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corporation—and a range of sectors: aviation, banking, biotech, financial services, food, healthcare, IT, media and entertainment, oil and gas, real estate and retail.
“There are several pillars on which our storytelling is based,” Khanna says. “We tell stories about how companies have made money in India. We look for existing platforms, credible and influential platforms, which we can use to tell stories about democratic, modern, contemporary India. We provide accurate and up-to-date information that gives our stories credibility. And we bring people into India.”
The externally oriented India Everywhere campaign is supplemented by something IBEC calls Experience India. “People come here and experience India for a week,” says Khanna. “Then they go back and talk and right about it, and become brand ambassadors. Not everyone has positive things to say, of course, but that’s fine. We welcome different opinions. We want people to talk about India.”
The Experience India initiative has been particularly useful in defusing some of the negative perceptions about India.
“We still have to be sensitive to the outsourcing issue,” says Khanna. “We have to understand the political pressures that it creates.” To ensure greater understanding, IBEF has arranged visits for western journalists—most notably, perhaps, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—to call centers, and has sought to explain the benefits to American companies.
But the group has also sought to tell a different story, of Indian companies creating jobs in the United States and other major western markets. “Indian companies are buying companies in the U.S., they have American employees doing high-paying jobs, and we have to talk about that as part of the overall picture.” He cites companies such as Infosys, Mittal and Tata, all of which have made headlines with their expansion into western markets, but says many small and midsized companies are expanding globally also.
“Our outbound investment is now equal to our inbound investment,” Khanna says. “India is now the third largest investor in the U.K.”
Taking those messages to Davos, the world’s largest gathering of opinion leaders and decision makers, was the culmination of the IBEF’s efforts to “influence the influencers,” as Khanna puts it. The India Everywhere initiative was funded on a budget of around $4 million—not a huge amount for a major branding campaign—including up to $150,000 each from 22 major Indian companies and $2 million from the government.
More than 110 Indian business leaders and government officials attended the summit, participating in more than 200 meetings and speaking in 60 of the 300 sessions. The Indian business community was represented by Mukesh Ambani of petrochemicals giant Reliance Industries (who co-chaired the event with Nestle chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe) and Nandan Nilekani, chief executive of Infosys Technologies and one of the driving forces behind the India Everywhere initiative. Public sector representation included the country’s finance and commerce ministers and representatives of top tourism and investment areas. Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen discussed his new book and environmentalist Pheroza Godrej and actress and activist Shabana Azmi were also in attendance.
“We put together a dream team of speakers from India, including business and government leaders,” says Khanna. “There was a huge media contingent from India.” There were also entertainers and chefs and others who would help communicate the country’s cultural riches.
The public relations team worked closely with the global media covering the conference to suggest story ideas. “We talked about India the economist’s dream, India the democracy, India the consumer’s delight. We talked about food and film and music as well as the business story.” One powerful—but implicit rather than explicit—message was the contrast between India and its great rival China, which was also vying for attention at the summit.
“One of the things that makes us different from the other BRIC countries is that India is a private sector driven economy,” says Khanna. “And we have a consumption-driven economy. Car sales are up. People are now buying their own homes at a much younger age.” Demographics also appear to be working in India’s favor: more than 50 percent of its population is under the age of 25.
“China will be older before it gets richer,” says Khanna. “China is a much bigger economy, but we have a better brand.”
The message that India was “the world’s fastest-growing free market democracy” permeated the media coverage, in western publications such as The Economist, the Financial Times, Time magazine and the Washington Post. For an investment of about $4 million, the campaign generated publicity that Khanna says was worth in excess of $100 million.
But while India’s campaign at Davos was both impressive and effective, the country must now deliver on the promises it made at the summit, says Stephen Kobrin, a professor of management at the Wharton School of Business. He says outside investors looking at India still have concerns about “a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of controls, a lot of restraints, a lot of difficulty in establishing an enterprise and barriers in the way of entrepreneurship.”
Labor reforms in India were another major area of concern among many delegates: there is a feeling that organized labor wields too much influence. Participants also questioned the pace at which government-owned companies are being privatized.
Nilekani says the success of the India Everywhere campaign will ultimately be measured in two ways: by the pace of continued economic and social reforms in India and by increased foreign investment.
But there is optimism among Indian business leaders that the company can live up to the promise of its Davos campaign.
“If we had done all this five years ago, people would have laughed,” said Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto, who has attended Davos summits for 21 years. “You can’t advertise or promote a product that has bad quality, but in the last few years, Indian industry has come of age.”