Sanjay Sarma, co-founder and chief executive of Design Worldwide, an integrated strategic branding and creative solutions company, on why Brand Modi appeals to people across social strata, caste, gender and age groups. Edited excerpts:
What changes do you perceive in brand Modi over the years—from 2014 when he was seen more as an anti-Congress and anti-corruption brand to now when he’s being seen as someone who empowers the poor?
I think Brand Modi is much more aligned with Brand India today than it was in 2014, which is a good thing. Earlier, it was all about the individual; but today, it is synonymous with India and its development. The narrative has progressed from building a cult figure to aligning with the national agenda. In just a few years, Brand Modi has managed to achieve the kind of loyalty which most brands take decades to build.
Your comment on his journey as a brand.
So far, we have seen the negatives surrounding his personality give way to positives. Earlier, there was a strong “anti" streak (anti-Muslim, anti-Congress, anti-Corruption) in how he was perceived. Now, there is a positive aura around him that reflects a “pro" stance in everything he does (pro-poor, pro-development, pro-transparency, pro-youth, pro-girl child, pro-masses). This is a subtle but important positioning shift that will have long-term benefits over the next decade. No one would deny that in just three years, Brand Modi has decimated every shred of competition within and outside the party to emerge as the most dominant leader in the country. And the long-term objective would perhaps be to go down in history as one of India’s most significant leaders of all times. I imagine that 20 years from now, (independence hero Mohandas Karamchand) Gandhi and Modi will be seen as the greatest Indians ever.
What is it that you think appeals to people about him and how does his appeal cut across social strata, caste, gender and age groups?
The single-minded promise of “a better India for every Indian" delivered with a strong dose of nationalism has resonated with most people. Except perhaps some sections who continue to remain critical and cynical. They can mock his shortcomings, but can’t deny his presence and enigma.
People today see Modi as a man with a vision; on a mission. A one man army.
The fact that he has been able to cultivate this messiah-like, larger-than-life aura is remarkable. Everyone sees their own aspirations slowly aligning with his grand vision.
Be it employment, entrepreneurship, skill development, women empowerment, opportunities for the girl child, housing for all, banking for all, demonetisation, digitization of the economy—people see every step as progressive and are willing to disregard minor shortfalls along the way. He has managed to sell the big picture, and that will keep him going for the next decade.
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What are the chief attributes of this brand?
Decisive, disciplined, durable. Confidant, commanding and always in control.
What should he do to extend the popularity of his brand?
To answer the first part of the question: The defence adviser from the high commission of a neighbouring country told me recently, “You have a visionary leader, and we know that. But he runs the risk of being pulled down by the short-sightedness of his own party and people. If he can break through the saffron shackles and cultivate a secular identity that has the world’s approval, nothing can stop India. And that will be good for the entire region." To extend its longevity and go down in the annals of history as one of the greatest, this is what Brand Modi needs to achieve.
The second part: Human brands do evolve, and so has Brand Modi. The hard image has considerably softened, and he has adapted himself well to align with the responsibility of his office and the aspirations of a billion people. But core values should remain rock solid. That is where someone like (Delhi chief minister) Arvind Kejriwal has faltered.
Brand Modi’s equity is now strongly linked to Brand India’s equity, and the next phase will be about tangible results, not promises.