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Times of India
22nd February 2009

Image is everything, so they say. But why does image matter when thoughts and predictions of doom and despair abound? As the global recession
bites, most companies and countries are prompted to ask the question, 'How do we get out of this mess?' rather than 'How do we improve our image?'

I would argue that this is short-term thinking. Of course, there is a need to look hard at economic and business strategies for survival, but this has to be balanced by strategies for the longer term. A look at the top brands in the corporate world reveals that in adverse conditions they continue to invest in their brand(s), and use downtime to look at strategic brand improvements that can be put in place for the future when markets recover.

Image management never stops, because if a brand's image is not controlled well by its owner at all times, it is more than likely to be controlled by outside market and competitive influences.

Now is the time for countries to work hard on their branding. Barack Obama was elected on a platform of change, and a large part of his campaign success rested on his declared determination to re-engineer and restore America's global image. This area of emotional as opposed to rational appeal won him millions of votes. Americans want their brand and reputation back.

As the public sector learns lessons from the corporate world, the branding of countries is now fast becoming a constant cabinet agenda item. This is not surprising as a strong national brand can bring huge benefits, including:

l Currency stability

l Restoration of international credibility and investor confidence

l Reversal of international ratings downgrades

l Attraction of global capital

l Increase in international political influence

l Growth in export of branded products and services

l Increase in inbound tourism and investment

l Development of stronger international partnerships

l Enhancement of nation building (confidence, pride, harmony, ambition, national resolve)

l Attraction and retention of talent

l Greater access to global markets

l Reversal of negative thoughts about environmental, human rights and other matters of importance to global audiences

So what has this got to do with India? To my mind India should be concerned with branding in order to gain such benefits. Although it has positive growth and massive potential, it will continue to be faced with intense competition from other more developed as well as emerging economies such as China. Confronted by a situation where its products, services, systems and technology are easily replicable, the biggest challenge for any country is differentiation; the need to be perceived as being different and better than competitors, while marketing and selling similar things. India is no exception to this rule, and even though it presently has some cost leadership advantages, these may not be sustainable.

India needs to differentiate itself from China, ASEAN, Japan, the 'Far East', China and other clusters and countries that are competing for investment, talent, tourism and exports in order to gain a sustainable competitive advantage.

The brand challenge for India is to develop a strategy that presents a uniform national identity alongside internal diversity. India's diversity can be advantageous for areas such as tourism, and India's rising industries such as automobiles, IT and pharmaceuticals are powerful brand image vectors; its corporations strong brand ambassadors. Beyond the obvious there are also substantial opportunities for branding in more traditional product categories such as Kashmiri clothing and basmati rice, but the strengths of all these 'sub-brands' need to be channelled into, and driven by, a master brand strategy required to build the India of the future.

A fragmented image is not a powerful one, and the image of any country needs strong brand management led from the top. Importantly, image is not built by advertising and promotions but via astute policy change management based on the needs of 'customers'. Greater ease of doing business, less bureaucracy, visa facilitation, improved security and improvements to infrastructure are among the policy issues that countries, including India, need to pay attention to. All such 'touch points' a nation has with the outside world influence the total perceptions that make up its image. Policies and diplomacy change a country's national image, not tactical communications campaigns.

There is a strong argument to suggest that India needs to develop a brand strategy now. India has not been immune to the global recession but has not been badly wounded by it. So, efforts to brand India now will ensure that when global markets recover, as they undoubtedly will, India will be first out of the blocks. To delay will not be catastrophic, but it may place India further behind the competition in the longer term. It's time to think — about image!

The writer is a visiting fellow at Said Business School, University of Oxford. He has advised various regional groupings like ASEAN; several MNCs and governments around the world on brand-building