A David Ogilvy Roadmap for India’s Most Powerful and Ailing Brand

Back in the 1980s, relative newcomer Nirma was dealing body blows to the venerable Hindustan Lever Ltd. It was snatching market share away from Surf like nobody had done before. Nirma was cheap, far cheaper than Surf and the Indian housewife was rapidly deciding that it was better than washing dirty linen in public! Brand Surf appeared to be in mortal danger. How did one of the oldest and most powerful consumer product companies in India react? It conjured up Lalitaji and her now legendary advertising campaign. Lo and behold: far from being exterminated by Nirma as many pundits were fearing, Surf enjoyed a remarkable revival in fortunes as an iconic brand. Brand Congress appears to be in bigger trouble now than brand Surf was back in the early 1980s. Arguably the oldest and most powerful brand in India, Congress is facing an existential threat. And the stakes for India are far higher than they were when Surf appeared vulnerable and besieged. Can the strategists shepherding the fortunes of this 126-year old brand script a remarkable revival?

They have to look a few decades back for some inspiration. In 1967, the Congress – thanks to massive consumer (read public) anger – lost massive market share in a number of states to upstart rivals. By 1969, internal feuds had triggered a split in the party. The leader of Congress and the Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi appeared more vulnerable than what Nokia appears today. Like Surf in the 1980s and Nokia now, it did look as if the days of Congress were numbered. But not for nothing do contemporary historians rate Indira Gandhi as one of the most formidable brand strategists India has ever produced, apart from being someone who evoked awe and admiration even if she was disliked by some. And why not? The Congress back then was in bigger disarray than it is now. And yet, Indira Gandhi scripted one of the most remarkable turnarounds for her beloved brand.

Slogans often make a brand win a marketing war and Indira Gandhi and her team coined two of the most memorable ones for the Lok Sabha elections of 1971. The first was was simple, direct and powerful: Garibi Hatao. For a vast majority of voters, that indeed was the biggest challenge they faced and the biggest dream they had. To further convince consumers (voters who might be looking for other brands), Indira Gandhi delivered a masterpiece in comparative advertising. The second slogan said: “Wo Kehte hain ki Indira Hatao; Mein kehti hoon Garibi Hatao.” They say a great logo that can effectively communicate the core value of a brand can be a potent weapon. Indira Gandhi was right on even here. Her team decided that a cow and a calf would be their logo; one that communicated the message that she cared for the poor and the downtrodden. All this electrified the sales and marketing managers of Congress, and more importantly, absolutely convinced the voters that this had to be the brand they must choose. The rest is electoral history.
They say that usually history repeats itself. But when it comes to brand Congress, can the daughter-in-law and grandson of Indira Gandhi pull yet another set of rabbits off their hats? Even as the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh lurches inevitably towards a defining election, all eyes are on Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Just as in the late 1960s, brand Congress is facing a huge crisis of credibility. Inflation, corruption and arrogance have led to an alarming erosion in the core values of brand Congress. And there is little doubt that the consumer looks really pissed off with the performance of the brand. The consumer-voter-anger is even more poignant because brand Congress was handed a decisive mandate in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections despite the skepticism of numerous pundits and analysts. Today, the consumer feels cheated and betrayed. The sudden emergence of a guerilla brand called Anna – which is not even a direct competitor – has made matters worse for brand Congress. Inevitably, questions are being asked, just as they were in the late 1960s and in 1977 when angry consumers had decisively rebuffed brand Congress and Indira Gandhi in the aftermath of the Emergency. Can this old – and now ailing – brand survive for very long? Can Rahul Gandhi do what his great grandfather, grandmother, father and mother have done so successfully – to convince voters that there is no better value for money proposition than brand Congress?