Aditya Mehendale
Guest Article

Viewing 'Bharat' through the lens of brands

Our guest author Aditya Mehendale wonders if brands have exhausted a creative reimagining of brand 'Bharat'.

Come Independence Day, our feeds are bombarded with brand-sponsored nation worship. Nothing really wrong with that, but I am always keen to investigate the label of patriotism that companies choose to go with for a particular year. They are telling of the larger brand narrative of the country that is currently in vogue and the type of national identity that resonates within certain cohorts that a brand may talk to.

There have been campaigns that have taken on a critical position on ‘Brand India’ in the past. The Hindu’s 2012 ‘Behave yourself, India. The youth are watching’ campaign, comes on top of mind. It spoke to The Hindu’s predominant left-of-centre readership and poignantly made a point by showing us a very real mirror.

Similarly, the India vs India spot back in 2007 by The Times of India Group for the India Poised initiative celebrated the country's recent successes and its growing importance on the global radar. It also conducted a critical assessment of sectors where India failed to deliver. The idealism juxtaposed against the hard truth narrated by none other than Amitabh Bachchan, doesn't fail to deliver chills even today.

“One India lies in the optimism of our hearts, the other lurks in the scepticism of our minds.” Words that even 15 years later, unfortunately, ring very true.

Cut to today, as a reflection of our current socio-political climate, brands speaking to mass India, tend to verve on the side of optimism. This is, at times, done with a great deal of taste, as was the recent #IndiaKiUdaan Google campaign. Captured in Google’s winning, and tried and tested ‘year in search’ storytelling format, this nearly two-minute-long narrative gracefully positions India’s eternal search for the best.

Listing some of India’s milestones, starting from the birth of our Independence, such as the first general election, the Five-Year Plan, the Green Revolution, the launch of the Indian Space Program, to more recent hallmarks like the Right to Education Act, the Section 377 verdict, the Made In India COVID-19 vaccine and India’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions. This spot captures a proud, but admittedly also a very tired narrative of “firsts”.

Likewise, Thumps Up’s #HarHaathToofan campaign also celebrates 75 years of India’s Independence and pays homage to sports personalities who have contributed to India’s success. Conceptualised as an animated feature, the campaign features stories of athletes like Avani Lekhara, the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Paralympics and Nikhat Zareen, IBA Women’s World Boxing 2022 gold medalist, among others.

The idea works strategically for Thums Up and fits as part of its macro Paalat De campaign that attacks naysayers with stories of heroes on the field. Yet, outside of that context, it does little to introduce a new national narrative and follows along with what brands like JSW Steel did years ago.

This brings us to whether we have exhausted a creative reimagining of ‘Brand Bharat’. A lot like myself would argue that we have. The fact of the matter is that very few Independence Day campaigns spark the same emotion as Mile Sur Mera Tumhara did when it first aired on Doordarshan on Independence Day, in 1988. Even fewer bring us to tears like the Silent National Anthem did when it was played before every movie at Big Cinemas in 2011.

And, it’s not just the exquisite treatments or storytelling of the above examples that make them stand out, it was the message. A message of pluralism, inclusivity and a together India.

Today, however, unity is at the risk of looking performative. The Ministry of Culture’s recent Har Ghar Tiranga campaign, though symbolically poignant and successful in painting the country in the colours of the Tricolour, does little beyond that. It doesn't deepen our relationship with either our country or our flag, and it doesn't decode what it means to be amongst the citizenry of this great nation.

The framing challenge of communicating who we are to be, as a nation, is not a government one alone, it’s an ‘us’ problem. It’s one that we, as storytellers and architects of the future, have to come up with.

The story of India needs to move beyond our past laurels and tokenised heroes. It needs to more truly represent a saga that is rife with conflict and contradictions, but is a spring song of a nation undergoing a rebirth.

(Aditya Mehendale is NCD at Schbang)

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