Guest Article: Anirban Roy: What brands can learn from Gandhi

By Anirban Roy , Law and Kenneth, Kolkata | In Advertising | August 19, 2011
Brands can adopt a few lessons from Gandhi's principles to make an impact in today's world.

Every year, around this time, we end up remembering the architects of our independence - among them stands a 'half-naked fakir' who always outshines the rest - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Ever wondered how much brands can learn from the greatest marketing campaign ever launched by an Indian?

Think about it - it was touted as a 'campaign' against the Raj and it drove them out of this country (and also brought about the timely demise of the British Empire!).

Here are a few lessons which we can learn from what Gandhi did and brands can adopt these principles to successfully make an impact in today's world:

1. Involve people - it's the participation economy honey!

Perhaps one of the things that Gandhi did remarkably well was that he mobilised the masses. At a time when there was no digital media, when television was a luxury which most of the country could not afford, and when literacy was a serious challenge, he made sure people did not passively receive his broadcasting, but reacted and participated in the movement. Everybody was urged to do their bit and participate in the cause.

Brands cannot afford to simply put themselves on a pedestal and broadcast messages. Brands need to involve consumers, like Pepsi did with The Game on television. For the first time in the history of Indian advertising, a series of television commercials were used to engage the consumer and get him to play the 'game'. It produced stunning results - millions participated in the gaming contest and it generated a phenomenal amount of word of mouth for the brand. Pepsi ranked as one of the top five in the Buzziest Brands that year.

2. Stand for an idea

Gandhi's idea was his greatest differentiator - his idea was the reason why he was loved, his idea was the reason he attracted millions, and his idea was the reason why the Independence movement gained momentum and peaked under his leadership. The idea of non-violence was 'clutter breaking'. It was a way of life - people adopted the idea. Even during Gandhi's times, there were many detractors. Today, too, there are plenty who swear at him for his political gaffe (walking into the Divide and Rule trap). However, people still admire his idea of non-violence.

Brands need to stand for an idea - a way of life. Iconic brands such as Apple have stood for one idea - 'Think different'. That singular idea has inspired their product lines, drove their expansion plans, and created the culture for the brand. Apple lovers will tell you that they don't love their Macbooks or their iPads simply because of their operational excellence - they are brand loyalists, advocates who swear by what Apple stands for.

3. Find a symbol for your belief

Gandhi the marketer found ace symbol(s) for his movement - the charkha and the khadi were symbolic of belonging to the Gandhian camp. Of course, it had a political and economic significance - we would produce our own goods, and boycott England's cotton mills. However, as a symbol, these captured the spirit of what Gandhi wanted - to drive out the British.

Brands need to either find a symbol or, better still, create a symbolic act to convey what they stand for. Nike's swoosh is symbolic of what the brand stands for. So much so that in the commercials that it launches these days, it doesn't even need to spell out the brand name. The symbol is good enough and widely known.

Another example of a brand that has intelligently created an act and interwoven its philosophy with it is Tata Tea. The on ground activation of urging young adults to sign up and participate in elections is symbolic of what it stands for - awakening (Jaago Re). Symbols/ symbolic acts stick on in the minds of consumers and produce a lasting memory, which often creates an affinity for the brand.

4. Simplicity rules

Gandhi embodied high thinking and simple living. Although he was ridiculed initially by the world media for the way he presented himself, barely covering his nether regions, his simplicity of attire and simplicity of thought, both caught the imagination of teeming millions across a nation that was grappling with the possibility of freedom.

Brands that have embraced simplicity - both in thought and in execution - have always attracted mindspace. WWF is a brand that comes to mind - here's what it did to stand for the cause of saving trees: it produced the greenest leaflet in the world. The idea was very simple: it printed ONE leaflet with the messaging and planted two volunteers at either end of escalators in malls. Shoppers getting on to the escalator were handed the leaflet, and they would hand it back to the volunteer upon alighting at the end of it.

Vodafone is an example which cannot be kept out of any brand discussion which revolves around simplicity. The brief was to tell Indians that it had the best network coverage, and thus was born the idea of the Pug. The thought is as simple as it gets: a dog will follow its master wherever he goes, and so did the network - 'Wherever you go, our network follows'.

Next time you remember Gandhi, it might not be 15th of August or 2nd of October - it could just be the date of your brand strategy presentation.

Anirban Roy is strategic planning director at Law and Kenneth.