You never know where Neil’s lyrics will show up…

What’s a political party if not a marketer?
Shyam G. Menon.

Mumbai , Jan. 26

ELECTION 2004 is possibly the first where `feel-good’ has gone centre-stage. But is there a downside to packaging the free shine of many as a brand for one?

To some, `India Shining’ irks because stuck on a poster it betrays its entrapment. Your power supply may fail, but that shining hardly flickers. So, is it a country shining or is someone wanting a shine out there?

Presumably the latter, for the attribute covers 1.03 billion people who tackled two tough fiscals, were going about their hard earned – in part, rejuvenated – lives as usual, but have just been told they are shining. Understandably, the jury is still out on whether that sheen to your face is real or not, but even without economics the alleged state of grace begs question, imposed as it is sans permission.

Marketing guru Tom Peters may have said, “Perception is all there is,” but `shining’ is a bit like living out that Neil Diamond song, “You’re so sweet, houseflies keep hanging around your face… ” Who can endure saccharine sweetness? Or shining. The Government, a top corporate official argued, is not at all wrong in showcasing feel-good. “They have every right to do so. Which CEO does not talk of improvements in his time?” he asked.

Still, the danger in freezing a feeling is that it causes disconnect. A fortnight ago when the first pre-election tranche of feel-good fuel was dispensed, the impression that hovered in phone calls to corporates, was one of acknowledgement. The future seemed anticipated, after all it was spelt out in the Kelkar Committee’s recommendations and the country’s WTO commitments. Credit was shifting from the charity of Government, to the doers in industry.

Ahead of feel-good inputs, revitalised sectors had entered a proactive mode with reduced appetite for the traditional `wah-wahs’ to hand-outs. Few days later as the first quivers in a heated stock market occurred, a businessman and NDA MP asked in surprise, “Not always do Governments take such steps. Then, why this?” Logical, for entrapped shining’s duty is to shine. In contrast, that deity of feel-good – the Sensex – is dynamic, burning wealth, restoring some back.

Apologies to Dr Mark Breitenberg of Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. But an insightful paper on branding he presented at a design conference in Mumbai last month, and quoted out of context herein, lends perspective to that halo to one’s head in an election year. Branding causes a “shift from the importance of the object to the importance of the object’s identity in the market place – its brand.” From the object’s function and use – to the branding of immaterial ideas, services, lifestyles.

“In other words, the signs and perceptions have become more important than the things they stand for.” Put in context (or herein, out of context), the shine to your face is more valuable than you. And someone just lifted it. How does it help?

“The key event that showed the triumph of the brand over the product was the purchase of Kraft Foods by Phillip Morris in 1998 for $12.6 billion – six times the company’s worth. Phillip Morris realised that Kraft’s brand was more valuable than its sales and hard assets.” On the face of it, reason for rent – someone stole your shine for his benefit! But then as in the US where advertising expense zoomed from $50 billion in 1979 to $200 billion by 1998 making brands common place, here too, life became enveloped by media and advertising.

“If early branding strategies were driven by the idea of adding value to people’s lives, today’s mega-brand companies are now in the business of creating people’s identities, of writing the script for their daily lives, experiences and aspirations. And this is especially true for younger people who have never known a world that is not branded.” Now you know why they sent your shine back as a campaign and you didn’t flinch.

Read thus far, this out of context interpretation of an interesting paper, would have the spin doctors of `shining’ topping the polls. But it isn’t that simple. Dr Breitenberg cites examples of consumers re-branding and re-creating products in their own image, and worse, rejecting brands. “There are countless indications that we are witnessing a reaction or backlash to the omnipresence of branding and advertising or, at the very least, an increased scepticism of branding strategies.

“One of the ironies of this new development is that consumers are more critical of branding precisely because they are so invested in it – if brands have become like families, we care much more about them. So by bringing branding into every facet of our lives, companies have also created consumer resistance to branding.”

“Transposing this angle to India Shining would be over-braining things. Besides, it is not a brand,” one corporate official said, conceding however that the electoral debut of feel-good – as with any risky corporate investment – would be judged against outcome.

Until few months ago, feel-good was everyone’s aspiration, everyone’s property. Like the surreptitious patenting of a Sahyadri medicinal plant, it now has a tag – `shining’ – and a patron somewhere. Little wonder then, the power supply fails, but not the shine. So, was it sensible to forge amorphous feel-good into a pre-election platform?

“Tell me, what is a political party if not a marketer ?” the official mused.

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