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How incredible?

As a tourism brand, should India be arrogant enough to assume it is `incredible'? Perhaps we should let our visitors decide that, says NEELAM MATHEWS.

There are lessons from the Australian experience.

A RESEARCHER called me recently and asked me to give snap answers to her questions. "What animal do you associate with the following hotels?" So I found myself calling `The Oberoi', a poodle, for its neat, well-groomed look, `the Grand', a tiger, as I associated it with aggressive marketing, and the government-owned `Ashok', an elephant. Perhaps I should have prefixed "white" to it, for reasons that are pretty transparent.

I didn't realise it then, but what was happening here was an early stage in branding for a hotel property. An exercise major tourism organisations are doing following a drastic reduction in visitors in the past year, a result of non-stop nightmarish events.

Every country needs a "personality" it can be associated with, a "branding" that can help it successfully compete for international business. So we have the crisis management strategy of "Singapore Roars", "Malaysia Truly Asia", "100% Pure New Zealand", "Amazing Thailand", and even our very own "God's Own country" and "Incredible India".

One would expect that all the bucks spent on branding would set a product apart from everyone else. Yet as I try to remember which country it was that had lured me to head to its white sand shores with a sparkling turquoise sea, a glass of wine in hand, being waited upon like royalty, I am in a quandary whether it was the Phillippines, Indonesia or the Seychelles that offered the dream holiday. In that, the branding has been unsuccessful.

Something "Incredible India" branding will never have to worry about. For the evocative music with exotic images of the camels in the desert and the Taj Mahal, couldn't be anywhere else.

Unfortunately, this is where the praise ends. Branding does not stop at a creative campaign that can go on forever, particularly with cash-strapped tourism budgets like ours. Branding delivers what it sets out to do — get more revenues through visitors from the segment that it was aimed at, consistently through a sustained period.

Recently, many tour operators have marvelled how business has come back to India barely two months after the campaign was released. "It's incredible," one gasps. The hard fact is that "visitors are just following a world-wide trend of returning to travel as it is now accepted that terrorism is here to stay and life must go on," says an industry observer: "If `Incredible India' really wanted to weave its magic, how come it could not attract visitors during the SARS period when India was one of the few in the region not to be hit by it?" he queries..

A sneaking apprehension remains at the top of my mind. With India in no position to deliver a consistent pleasurable experience that the branding seems to offer, I wonder, if not sooner than later, we might have a headline roaring across a major decision-makers' newspaper in Europe sarcastically worded by a disgruntled visitor — "India? Truly Incredible!"

On a personal note, I think India's arrogance comes through by assuming it is incredible. Perhaps we should let our visitors dub it that if they choose to after they have passed the grumpy immigration officers, the cab driver at the airport that tried to rook them and the dirty hotel with lice infested sheets that had looked like a page from the Taj Mahal hotel when they booked it on the internet.

Words of a bureaucrat come back to me when several years ago I asked him about the possibility of opening casinos. He said rather curtly: "We have everything (I was given an earful on India having no dearth of seas, mountains, deserts) and there is no way people will not come to us." Why do we need a branding then, Mr. ex-bureaucrat? Casinos, aside, that is a policy matter, but I marvelled at his words even as I wrote rather unwillingly on how our neighbours' visitor numbers were up — a result of projecting a genuine need for wanting people and delivering it with an ample dose of quality infrastructure.

Little wonder then, that a branding programme should address many more issues that go beyond a good logo and a great campaign with haunting music. It is the culmination of everything you do that plants an image of who you are in the minds of your customer, and what it is that sets you apart.

Something Kerala's brand "God's Own Country" has succeeded in doing. In the increasingly competitive national and international marketplace, destinations need to say what is best or unique about their product. Kerala does that well with its positioning of a land of backwaters, culture and beaches. Today, it has become a recognisable brand the world over. Its formula is right as it does not stop at past glory, continuously working on the brand with follow-ups and delivery of what it promised and the constant reminder to its targeted visitors that it is a fresh and innovative brand.

It was even registered recently with India's Trade Mark Registry, a step taken to maintain its equity.

Kerala has established itself so sturdily as a stand-alone destination, that it does not in any way, clash with the concepts of "Incredible India", which seems to be in the initial stage of branding in an effort to create awareness.

When a product like "Incredible India" is being marketed, chances are, the person seeing the message will not make a decision to buy right then and there, since it isn't as simple as buying crackers. Will they remember who you are when it is time to make that decision? And will you be the winner in a sea of competition, is the question.

Tourism Secretary Rathi Vinay Jha, quick to acknowledge that India's branding had taken long in coming, had words of wisdom at a recent PATA seminar: "A brand's success can only be determined when there is a sustained and institutional trust in the consumer's mind. It is critical that they return. However, we have miles to go as far as our infrastructure goes." A branding needs to be supported with trade and consumer messages in all spheres. Inviting 250 journalists from the world over without any planning, may not necessarily get the rewards a handful of focussed writers could. At the recent International Travel Tourism Mart in Delhi, for instance, over 40 writers from Australia were invited to visit India. Big coup, except that, national carrier Air India does not fly to Australia.

Creator of the "Incredible India" brand, O&M's Piyush Pandey said the idea was to create a strong bond with customers. "A brand is the guarantee of an expected performance and is the basis for customer relationship."

Says joint secretary Amitabh Kant: "The creative aspect of the campaign reflects India as an upmarket brand to attract top-spending tourists. As masses follow the upper crust, we will catch both segments."

Jha says the slogan "describes our modernity, historical legacy, cultural diversity, natural splendour, wildlife, spiritualism and yoga and ayurveda". While Pandey says there is a need to look at many target audiences.

"Incredible India", unfortunately, does not leave many out, perhaps spreading the message too thin. However, Pandey adds: "Many imageries and sub brands make the mother brand."

Hype must be supported with follow up. Log on to and I expect to be transported to a wonderland of images and information. Instead I am taken to, at first glance, a good looking site, but with hastily collected information, that by no stretch of imagination, is concise. It has no media room, a video segment that does not work and many images that do not open. One saving factor is that the government is willing to give up control. The booking engine, for instance, is handled by

In contrast, I would urge readers to check out the "100% NZ" website. One is tempted to catch the next plane to the beautiful country. I did and was not disappointed. The website more than lived up to its promise.

New Zealand is one of the most successful brands in tourism today. Just 12 years ago, the island had problems, says a representative. It was surrounded by sharks. With a commitment to spending and an awareness that a brand cannot be created in a vacuum, the strategy was to introduce a national branding of quality and a philosophy of excellence that was tied to all of New Zealand's exports. The 100 per cent pure logo was tied to exports and companies had to pay to use it. If quality was not up to the mark, it was taken away. This has now been applied to tourism.

Brand strategist Howard Russell says: "We want our visitors to be good story tellers for New Zealand. We want them to tell intimate, exciting, thrilling stories about their visit here .... We want them to tell stories about breathtaking vistas, about nine-pound trout, about unforgettable meals, about random acts of generosity, and warmth and humour."

In a way, "Brand Australia" is the essence of all Australian Tourist Commission (ATC) activities. It guides the tone, design and imagery used in all ATC communications to consumers, the travel trade and tourism industry and forms the basis of all television, cinema, print and online advertising as well as PR, direct mail, travel guides, Internet and trade marketing activities. Something "Incredible India" tries to do, except falls short where public relations is concerned. Despite the trade imploring the government to appoint a PR agency in the West, for some odd reason, there seems to be a very clear signal that it does not want to comply.

While the "Brand Australia" logo that uses the most recognisable symbol with the country, the kangaroo, it aims to promote the personality of Australia as a free spirited, optimistic, fun and liberating destination offering a range of experiences, "Incredible India" talks more on a holistic experience.

Think Thailand and the "Amazing Thailand" branding brings to mind the sights, smells and tastes of Thailand. The imagery evokes the sense of transforming the mundane lives of ordinary individuals into extraordinary, fulfilled ones. But Thailand is not resting on its laurels. Presently, it is working on a Brand Thailand project that tackles both "inside-out" and "outside-in" perceptions of Thailand, as well as Thai corporations and products. It aims to devise strategies to close the gap between perceptions and realities so that Thailand can reap tangible benefits from its brands in terms of, attracting new foreign investment, and boosting export and tourism revenue.

Malaysia has been as aggressive as Thailand with its "Malaysia, Truly Asia" brand and it is difficult not to be tempted to hum the memorable tune. The campaign has been used in different forms to give multifarious messages including being used as a tool for crisis management, always using the tune.

In that, it has been very successful.

As for our home-grown "Incredible India", while others may claim breathtaking locales, we all know that what we have is much more:

It is a journey of mind and soul
It is a journey of the five senses
It is a journey of self-discovery
It is a journey of self-fulfilment

There remains a slip between the cup and the lip — the need to follow our words with positive action.

And while we may use the phrase "Atithi devo bhava (Guest is God"), generously, we citizens, as stakeholders of "Incredible India", will need to ensure that we live up to the promise.

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