Opinion

10 marketing lessons from the victory of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success is not just one of better politics but an exercise in brand building that marketers could learn a thing or two from, argues Dentsu’s Narayan Devanathan

If you’re an Indian, anywhere in the world (and especially if you’re in India), you’ll know what I mean when I speak of Brand Modi. If you’re not an Indian and anywhere in the world, Brand Modi will probably still wander across your timeline and your consciousness one of these days, if he hasn’t already done so.

Because right now, whether all 1.2 billion Indians agree or not, he represents the face of India — to its citizens and to the world.

After a bitterly-fought five-year battle waged over airwaves and fibre optic cables, on the ground and in people’s minds, Narendra Modi’s BJP returned to power for a second term, with an overwhelming majority in the just concluded 2019 parliamentary elections in India.

I, like many other Indians and non-Indians, turned the question of his triumphant return around in my head many times, to decode what lay beneath his success the second time around.

In fact, I semi-flippantly put this question on Twitter last week: “Has anybody penned down ‘10 Lessons for Marketers from Brand Modi yet?’” And in return, I was offered up a bait that I couldn’t resist: “Why don’t you give it a whirl yourself?” So, here it is:

1. Change the game: India constitutionally has parliamentary elections, but Modi changed this into a referendum about himself (recasting the opposition as a non-choice in the bargain) and turned it into a presidential-style election.

Lesson: Make the competition play your game, rather than the game everyone else plays.

2. Change the rules: By turning it into a referendum about himself, Modi also made these elections neither about issues nor about ideology but about personality. And if there’s one thing Modi has done all his life, it’s building a larger-than-life personality. The wonder of it — as demonstrated by the current election results — is that this doesn’t seem to be a balloon that can be pricked into nothingness.

There’s seemingly a force shield around Modi that neither his bluster nor his blunders (real or perceived), neither the opposition’s barbs nor the elite’s bombast can penetrate.

Lesson: Sometimes, people are attracted to brands neither by solutions nor purpose, but purely by personality.

3. Out-Tyrion Tyrion: Early on in The Game of Thrones series, Tyrion Lannister advises Jon Snow, the bastard child, to laugh with those throwing insults at him, thereby neutralising their insults. Modi went one better. He turned the epithets hurled against him into ammunition against the opposition itself.

That Teflon coating didn’t just resist or repel, it created a propulsionary force that the opposition couldn’t combat.

Lesson: Don’t duck the negative feedback on your brand. Use it to your advantage.

4. Find loopholes: Everybody plays by the rules. So did Modi – though, as the popular phrase goes, terms and conditions apply.

He took full advantage of the loopholes, side-stepping the un-partisan Election Commission’s model code of conduct several times.

For example: As the campaign period drew to a close and the Election Commission ordered a blanket ban on all campaigning, Modi went on a well-choreographed sojourn to one of Hinduism’s holiest pilgrimage sites at Kedarnath.Of course, it was just a coincidence that he went on his meditation trip at the exact time the constituency from where he was contesting elections — the eternal city of Varanasi, sacred for many reasons to Hindus — was going to vote.

Lesson: Plot every expected category play. Spot the loophole.

5. Don’t pander to everybody: Modi steadfastly refused to appeal to everybody. He knew his base, knew it was vast enough, knew what stoked their emotions, and was not swayed by the temptation of winning everyone over.

Being inclusive and giving a group hug to all 1.2 billion Indians of all hues, classes and religions could wait until after the elections.

Lesson: Define your audience really, really sharply. Especially when you first cast your net.

6. Let your fans do your work: Outside of religion and sport, politics is one space that inspires people to irrationally support their beliefs. Modi used this to his advantage and let his fans do the (heated) talking for him.

A successful strategy deployed by Modi’s BJP in the run-up to the 2014 election (which he won) was a series of shoot-and-scoot tactics to keep the then-government distracted, off-message and off-balance.

Through the current campaign, the legions of the BJP’s unofficial armies ensured endless and sapping debates on- and off-line. All the while, Modi himself deployed a shoot-and-scoot strategy on the election trail, targeting a weak opposition this time.

Lesson: Inspire the faithful to fight your battles.

7. Don’t leave the battle to communications: Modi’s oratory might have galvanised the faithful by the millions, but in BJP President Amit Shah, he had a marshalling-general par excellence at the ready to organise the foot-soldiers who converted the beliefs into votes.

Lesson: Inspire on air, organise on the ground.

8. Paint the alternative unflatteringly: By recasting the grand alliance of opposition leaders and parties as a mahamilavat, literally “grand adulteration,” Modi shrewdly spotlighted himself as the singularly pure choice.

Rahul Gandhi, the president of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress had, of course, been consigned to this bin five years earlier as Pappu (loosely, “the village idiot”). That narrative was kept up relentlessly this time around too.

Lesson: Show-up the competition’s failings.

9. Stoke insecurity: People react more strongly to perceived wrongs that affect them personally than to vague systemic failures. Perhaps Modi’s greatest persuasion was to convince a majority that their way of life was under threat.

While this seems like a strategy similar to what worked for Trump in the US, making this work for a diverse nation like India took some doing.

Lesson: People fear inadequacy. Fill the gaps.

10. You don’t have to win at all costs: The crucial difference between Brand Modi and commercial brands is that in politics, all is deemed fair. Victory must come at any cost. Not so in the world of commerce.

Lesson: For brands, doing the right thing is as key as not doing wrong.Narayan Devanathan is group executive and strategy officer for Dentsu Brand Agencies, South Asia but writes here in a personal capacity. He is based in Delhi NCR, India

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