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.