Home >opinion >online-views >Brand positioning lessons from Narendra Modi

Last Friday, Narendra Modi gave his first Independence Day speech as Prime Minister. And his address—in which he hardly looked at his notes—offers lessons in brand positioning.

Successful positioning is always done based on an understanding of what the audience finds relevant. If we sell mobile phones, we must understand the latent and overt needs that users are trying to fulfil with such a product. This is true for companies, but for politicians as well. So when the Prime Minister wants to sell his vision, he must have a keen sense of what the masses want from him. But understanding relevance alone is not enough. To succeed, we must also position our solutions as superior to their alternatives.

To do this, one of the most important principles is to use the power of polarities: day versus night, hot versus cold, cool versus nerdy, etc. Polarities can be used in various ways. Modi’s 68th Independence-Day speech offers some great examples.

Contrast: The first and most obvious way to use polarities for positioning is to highlight your stance by simply contrasting it with its opposite. Modi used this when he discussed the need to eradicate poverty in India, for example. One obvious obstacle to this is the sheer size and complexity of the problem. He tackled this by contrasting the difficulty of eliminating poverty with the far greater difficulty of freeing the country from the powerful British empire.

“What were the weapons available to us? If the people of India could remove such a big empire without the power of the government, without weapons and even without resources, then friends ...can we not overcome poverty?" he asked. Modi positioned his difficult goal as achievable by contrasting it to a much more difficult objective that has already been achieved. He used it also in one of his big themes of which he gave many examples: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Although he did not use John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase literally.

Synthesis: A second and powerful way to use opposites is to use the inherent tension between them to forge a new synthesis. Toyota did this in the 1980s in the car industry, when it showed that affordable cars can be of the highest quality also. Previously, price and quality were irreconcilable opposites. You either bought a great quality car at a high price, or you drove an affordable car which would break down more often, or was less safe and comfortable.

The Prime Minister used this principle several times, especially when he discussed the need for the nation to come together to take India forward rather than stick to the paralysing stereotypes of government vs opposition. “I want to express my feelings of respect and gratitude to all those previous governments and ex-prime ministers," he said, “who have endeavoured to take our present day India to such heights and who have added to the country’s glory."

Modi credited the opposition for helping to take several important decisions. “From the ramparts of Red Fort, quite proudly I salute all the members of Parliament, I also salute all the political parties and by virtue of their strong support, we could take some important decisions intended to take the nation forward and yesterday the session of Parliament had concluded," he said.

“We are not interested to move forward by virtue of majority. We want to move ahead on the basis of strong consensus," he added. Naturally, such a resolve will be severely tested in the years to come. But when the intent is genuine, it can pose a powerful moral force. The nation demands action from politicians. By showing his intent to move forward and build bridges, Modi is positioning himself as the one who is defusing the government paralysis.

Dichotomy: One of the most powerful ways to use polarities is to present yourself as the positive side of a dichotomy, thus simultaneously trashing the alternative. Apple has done this many times, especially in the series of commercials about the nerd (Microsoft) and the cool guy (Apple). When Modi used this principle, he created the most powerful parts of his speech. First, he positioned himself as an outsider against the political elite and its vested interests in a powerful line: “I’m amidst you not as a Prime Minister, but as the First Servant."

He then railed against the fiefdoms and disunity of the political culture in the capital, casting them aside as unproductive profiteers, without saying it literally. Perhaps the most emotionally loaded use of dichotomy came when he shifted the blame for rape from the victims to the rapists, and from just these individuals to their parents also. “After all, a rapist is also somebody’s son. He also has parents. As parents, have we ever asked our son as to what he is doing and where he is going. If every parent decides to impose as many restrictions on sons as have been imposed on our daughters, try to do this with your sons, try to ask such questions of them," he said.

The speech was full of many more examples of deliberate use of polarities for positioning. The overall themes were cast in polarities, too. Every individual must take their own responsibility in building the nation and not just follow their own direct self-interest. Building the nation is not just the responsibility of government, but of every citizen in a democracy. Also, he announced several policies (building toilets, bank accounts for the poor, digital education, etc.), which demonstrate that building India starts at the bottom, not at the top.

The new Prime Minister has a clear strategic mind. Polarities directly link strategy and communication, trade-offs to rhetoric. Given the importance of Modi’s leadership for India, communication of his strategy is critical. Hopefully, his speech writers understand his command of strategy and polarities, and grasp the power of positioning. Much depends on it.

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

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