The rules of nation branding

V Sunil, the creator of the Make in India and IndiGo airline ad campaigns, says change happens when you bring young people into the picture

Published - June 16, 2017 03:29 pm IST

For a guy who started out in advertising a couple of decades ago, it’s surprising he dismisses Cannes with a flick of his wrist. V Sunil, the man behind Motherland — known for its millennial-chic magazine — says, “It’s an encouragement if you win, but you take some pictures and you go home and unfortunately, nothing really changes. So when we started our company, we decided we are not going to get into that drama.”

He’s launched movements like Incredible India and Make in India, and brands like Indigo and has seen the country itself go beyond campaigns to experiences. His firm is also known for its projects around urban regeneration; stuff that he is not talking about just yet, because he knows when an idea is ready to be tipped over.

His now oft-told story of a man who changed his destiny for himself, from a mechanic, to a creative director in advertising, and now co-owner of a company, Sunil assumes the confidence of a person who thinks big.

At a Make in India dinner in San Francisco last year, Michelin-star chefs politely smiled at a suggestion that Indian wine be served at the highbrow dinner-in-a-museum event. On his next visit he carried a few bottles of Fratelli. The chefs were pleasantly surprised, as were the guests, at this gathering of influencers from business and the political class. “If we do small things on a large platform it can change things. Make in India is that kind of platform. We are not stopping at manufacturing. There’s always culture-building happening,” he says. Here are edited excerpts from a chat.

When did India start getting branded?

In a very simplistic, positive way, the spice trade was where it started. Then there was cotton, khadi, our heritage, a lot of things — maybe it wasn’t well-packaged, but we had it. When you see the imagery of Nehru and others at the time, you get the feeling that ‘My God, this is a country of smart people.’ Air India was the first properly branded property that went out of India after independence. It was so good that when Singapore Airlines was started, it was all based on Air India. But we went and messed it up, like everything else. There’s a publication we (with Motherland co-founder Mohit Jayal) did called Once We Were Cool (for Design Indaba) that’s got the list of where things went wrong, from A to Z: Air India to Zeenat Aman.

The real planned branding exercise was Incredible India. It started to project India in a positive and more exciting way. Now, you see big changes in places like Fort Kochi. In the last 10 years, people have woken up and are collecting old tiles and furniture and are trying to restore buildings, even sheds they thought had no value.

Is brand India ready for the digital age?

I’ve seen the perception change with both Incredible India and Make in India — of how people talk about the country very differently in a very short period of time. When we launched the Incredible India campaign, we used to do events around the world, with city take-overs in New York and Berlin, but those events were done according to our sensibility: a version of India where we carry our Indian-ness, but in a smart way. When journalists came for the first time with us to New York, they were blown away. I think internal excitement is more important because that’s how the excitement spreads.

How has the Make in India campaign fed into that change?

Make in India is actually a foreign investment and manufacturing campaign, but if you look at social media, we’ve got three million followers on Twitter. The lion’s first outing was in Hanover, at the Messe in 2015, where we were the partner country. We built our own newsroom with smart, young people. Make in India was driven by 10 or 11 super-cool young kids in their early 20s. We had installations of lions across the city and a 22-foot-high lion that was gifted to Hanover as a permanent exhibit. If you really want manufacturing to be exciting, you’ve got to bring young people in. You’ve got to make it sexy and cool. The easiest way to do this is to bring art and design into it. The change happens when two or three smart people focus and drive a large project.

What is the current perception of India around the world?

If we do the cultural bits properly, that will change a lot of things. A few good cultural brands are getting built: Kochi, the Jaipur Lit Fest, Delhi Art Fair. When people come to Delhi they don’t just come to see the art, they stay in better hotels, they go outside of Delhi and have other experiences.

What more must we do?

I think we need an idea that can sit above Make in India, where the Government, the culture industry, private sector, all work together, where you can bring IIT together with NID. Once that dialogue happens, we can do something great, but someone has to drive it.

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