The Indian Century: How Advertising Affects National Identity


Indus River in Indian parts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a hot, sweltering Saturday afternoon in April 2012, a group of 200 carefully-selected Indian youth between the ages of 22 and 30 gathered at the United States Consulate in Mumbai to attend the 2nd Annual Young Changemakers’ Conclave, arranged in conjunction between the U.S. Consulate, the United Nations Information Center, and BinDass. [1] The conference lasted six hours. Actors, politicians, fashion designers, journalists, sports celebrities, winemakers, and human rights activists delivered speeches in fifteen-minute increments (well, some of them definitely took liberty with the time increments).

23 of the 26 speakers spoke of how India has reached new levels of confidence, and the future of the country lies with the youth gathered in the Bombay heat, selected from a pool of 5000 applicants.

The “cream of this new India,” as several speakers identified those sitting in the crowd, who were being made to endure the blistering heat of a soccer-field sized lawn in a space which is technically classifiable as U.S. territory on Indian soil, were actually being advised on how to challenge the status quo. The net result was by showcasing how India has truly triumphed and “arrived.” In this UN endorsed event, the attendees displayed shrewd self-awareness of the pitfalls of previous leadership in the Indian government, and how the current wave of youth, the future of the country, are willing to work against trends of corruption. Through the speeches and subsequent conversations, it became clear that this concept of a confident new India was being engaged by youth leaders, activists, politicians, and artists alike, all intent to showcase what they have accomplished for this new India. Amitabh Kant, one of the key architects of India’s nation branding suggests that:

“It must be emphasized that the ‘Incredible India’ campaign was more than just mere advertising, which in fact, played only a marginal role . . . In reality the ‘Incredible India’ campaign encompassed a new corporate culture, increased accountability, performance measurement with the industry through the Experience India Society . . . and a clear market focus.”[2]

In other words, whilst infrastructure, journalism, promotions and advertisements were a core element of Incredible India’s advertising activities, the campaign itself does not exist simply to attract foreign tourists, but in fact, through internalizing accountability, creating and improving on a product, a brand identity, a brand new India. Part of the ideology of nation branding is to inspire confidence, and through creating a national narrative, internalize, and execute the potential for change in the country’s economy. V. Sunil, the Executive Creative Director of many of Incredible India’s campaigns suggested to me during a three-hour interview, “The future of the world is with India, and India’s future is now,” and “We want everyone to know we’re more than a country of snake charmers and the Taj Mahal. We mean business.”[3]

Nation Branding, Incredible India, and “Atithi Devoh Bhavah” (“The Guest is God”)

Nadia Kaneva points out that even though The New York Times noted in its 2005 “Year in Ideas” issue that nation branding was among the year’s most important ideas, research in the field has yet to become more prominent. Sue Jansen adds to this statement with her striking comment, “this is puzzling since nation branding is an applied communications practice that is supported by public policy and funding and encouraged by international development and trade organizations including the United Nations, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and others.”[4] The linkages between global organizations involved in promoting fair trade, economic development and justice, with campaigns which promote the national identity, indeed, the national brand, of a country’s identity, is sufficient grounds to examine what the effects of the nation branding phenomenon actually accomplishes, and critically examine the implications of nation branding, bearing in mind both the target audiences, and the target population being portrayed, and imagined as being constituted by the nation in the campaigns.

India Incredible India! Agra Uttar Pradesh Agra

India Incredible India! Agra Uttar Pradesh Agra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

India’s branding campaign budget is much larger than other BRIC countries, and currently stands at US $ 200 million a year. Furthermore, of other BRIC nations, Brand Brazil only started in 2010, and Russia and China’s campaigns, although running since the mid-2000s, focus primarily on city branding.

Just how much business nation branding can mean to a nation as diverse as India is easily understood by seeing the extent to which India’s nation branding campaign tries to touch the lives of “all” the people of India. Nation branding involves projecting a specific image of a nation, one that is increasingly projected through a combination of public-private partnerships. Globally, branding a nation can operate as a strategic tool to garner attention in a competitive marketplace. Certainly, the belief that reputation management is a crucial factor in promoting international competitiveness is at the heart of branding campaigns, and India is no different. However, the difference is that in the Indian context, the suggestion by Amitabh Kant, and other key architects that the 80% of Indians living in abject poverty can overcome their low income levels through engaging with India’s nation-branding has led to some incredibly disturbing side effects, especially at key moments when political, social or cultural events have interrupted the branding process, and taken the control of the brand away from the architects who have been deemed in charge of India’s branding project.

Just how far Indians go to manage their reputation leads to an important question: Is poverty alleviation truly a main goal of the Incredible India campaign? Certainly, the brand architects have suggested so to me in the course of several interviews, and their reasoning links them back to the logic of the UNWTO’s claim that:

“Tourism not only provides material benefits for the poor, but can also bring cultural pride, a sense of ownership and control, reduced vulnerability through diversification and development of skills and entrepreneurial capacity.”[5]

While the economic benefits may be true, when taking into account the jailing of 65000 beggars at the behest of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, during the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in a $65 million clean up project, it becomes clear that pride and eradicating poverty is not the focus of the branding campaign, necessarily.  It appears that by focusing exclusively on attracting foreign tourists and investors, the Incredible India campaign attempts to change the entire face of India itself, and often against the democratic appeals of its constituents, the extreme poor themselves. Other domestic campaigns, such as those in Ireland and Canada, have attempted a domestic campaign in order to educate locals on how to behave with tourists, and it is this approach that Incredible India endorses.

Branding a place may start out as a tourist initiative, but its effects on national identities are paradoxically interesting.

Canadians, for example, reinvented themselves after World War II, in order to cater to U.S. tourists, in a campaign which focused specifically on creating a distinctive identity for themselves from Americans. The result was a carefully fostered image with the help of Canadian women’s magazines inventing recipes, and even Canadian people, who were advised to project themselves as friendly and courteous to create this distinction, to allow the American consumer to feel they were going elsewhere.[6]

As the example displays, a nation’s tourism is meant to attract consumers of a very particular kind.  Because of the influx of tourists, “the host society ‘comes to reflect upon its own traditions and values through the confrontation with otherness signified by the presence of tourists.”[7]

India is no different in this sense. Whilst international consumers appear to be the focus of India’s nation branding efforts, Brand India does not aim to alleviate poverty on the ground, but simply create the façade of a beautified India. Nation-branding does hope to influence national identity. Additionally, commercial pursuits in the “new” India, are focused entirely on retaining existing class structures.

Taking steps to shame the poor into accepting how they deter India from progress achieves the effect of reinstating class difference. The heavy involvement of India’s film industry- actors, directors, and producers- in the campaign, privileges the perceptions of India that these actors and directors generally have of the nation, and as a result, the poor are marginalized, imprisoned, ridiculed, and when embraced, done so in usually a romanticized manner.

The underlying motto of the domestic campaign is even derived from ancient Hindu scriptures, suggesting to the locals that Atithi Devoh Bhavah,” or “The Guest is God.” What does this mean for the locals? If the guests are literally given an ephemeral status, then is their space as a local meant to mean simply that they as submortals, they must be kept from the views of the gods, unless they are found lacking? The reality is troubling.


[1] Bindass is an entertainment television channel for youth, and the UNIC serves India and Bhutan.

[2] Amitabh Kant, Branding India: An Incredible Story. Delhi: Harper Collins, 2009, 16.

[3] V. Sunil, Interview with author on April 25, 2012.

[4] Sue Curry Jansen. “Designer Nations: Neo-liberal nation-branding – Brand Estonia.” In Social Identities, Vol. 14, No.1, January 2008, 121.

[5] UN WTO in Kant, 205.

[6] Karen Dubinsky, ‘Everybody likes Canadians. Canadians, Americans and the Post-World War II Travel Boom’, in: Shelley Baranowski and Ellen Furlough (eds.), Being Elsewhere. Tourism, Consumer Culture and Identity in Modern Europe and North America, Ann Arbor 2001, pp. 320-347.

[7] Dubinsky 2001: 334.


7 thoughts on “The Indian Century: How Advertising Affects National Identity

  1. Extremely interesting – especially as I’ve worked with groups trying to develop a ‘Bangladesh’ brand (which, invariably & inexplicably, approaches ‘the tiger’). Like corporations, countries find it hard to internalize their brands – brands, to us, being something that reflects the exterior or how we’d like ourselves to be perceived. Its been my observation that nation-branding is a continuous process (e.g. through news, traveling citizens, embassies, exports). Countries can seldom exert any conscious control over the process – beyond the tourism promotion videos. That is, unless, the branding truly represents what is inherent in the people or the land i.e. a sort of organic approach to nation-branding.
    Great post with interesting links. Thanks a lot..

    • Hey there, thanks very much for your great feedback. This was part of the intro to my master’s thesis, and I’m honored to be receiving such astute feedback. Do you reckon that there actually can be organic branding? I am not sure that I agree entirely- I feel that the “privileged” few are the ones who always control the strings, but I would love to hear further thoughts of how you see this being possible… Cheers!

      • Ahem …awkward – having mouthed off with someone who’s done a thesis on the matter. For what its worth: by ‘organic branding’ – I was referring to the positioning of the brand. E.g. ‘incredible’ works for India BECAUSE its so exotic and diverse. ‘Tiger’ doesn’t work for Bangladesh – because we can’t deliver on that promise, you know? I’ve long campaigned for a brand that banks on the resilience …the indomitable spirit of Bangladesh, because its something that we see on the streets, at the coastal areas, at urban slums.

        But I see why you think the process of such branding can’t be organic – but must remain in the hands of a few. A lay-sounding but potentially-effective solution is …organic brand positioning – where the brand is phrased so that it only reflects a core national trait – not what it aspires to be or what is in vogue. Its like embracing what you are 🙂 That way, the few aren’t at liberty to dictate or concoct what the nation actually stands for.

        How do you think Bangladesh can portray itself?

      • Well… Advertising, I think, is not just generally about positioning, but as you hinted at, it’s got a lot to do with delivery. Personally speaking, I’ve noted that some Aussie friends who wanted to come visit with me have already been warned by the Aussie government not to do so. I reckon it’s super duper important to be aware that if the country is not politically stable, and has the current level of dirty streets, pollution, etc, it cannot possibly aim to be a leader in driving traffic to its beautiful sites.

        What I guess I am saying is that brand positioning is great but the product, and it gets tricky when the product is the nation itself, must match up. India has made tremendous progress, for example, in infrastructure improvement, through the Atithi Devoh Bhavah campaign aimed towards educating locals, and generally, progress must be visible. In Bangladesh, I am often fearful for my life because of the rubbish traffic conditions. I don’t think any tourist, any expat, or any visiting friend has been able to give positive feedbacks regarding this.

        I think your points are valid- Incredible is an adjective, while Tiger is a noun. Ferocious Bangladesh? Brilliant Bangladesh? There’s something to be said about adjectives, but thoughtful urban planning must also comply, and hence I am not sure. I’d be glad to hear more thoughts.

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