Reimagining India: A conversation with Christopher Graves

| Interview

Launched in 2002, Ogilvy & Mather’s “Incredible !ndia” marketing campaign—with its now-iconic exclamation mark—increased the size of the country’s tourism industry more than fivefold in barely a decade. Yet as Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide global CEO Christopher Graves explains in this video interview, foreign and portfolio investors aren’t looking for “incredible”; they want a stable and reliable investment climate. What follows is an edited transcript of Graves’s remarks.

Interview transcript

Branding India

When you think about going to the beginnings of a nation’s brand, when it relates to something like discovery and tourism, I like to go back to earlier literature. What did people first say and write about a country when the rest of the world only knew it perhaps through little shards of pottery, or tapestry, or paintings?

And in this case, I loved looking at what Mark Twain said back in 1896, when he went on a round-the-world tour for a year, trying to pay back his debts. He had made some silly investments. And in that tour, he spent about two months in India.

This is a guy who normally could distill the most complex things into one cynical, skeptical, wry distillation, and in India, he could not do that. The array of contrasts were so amazing that all he could do was just surrender to a giant exclamation mark, saying, “This is India!” He just couldn’t believe the contrasts there. Now, on the one hand, that’s wonderful. But if you think about branding a country, and how difficult it is if it’s an entire gamut, this array of contrasts.

So when India was trying to develop its tourism in a very concerted effort with the government back in the early 2000s, Ogilvy & Mather worked with it to create this sort of exclamation point in awe of India, called “Incredible !ndia.” And that stuck ever since then. And from a tourism point of view, that’s worked remarkably well. And in fact, tourism went up from $3.5 billion to $18 billion in receipts in just a decade, using that kind of campaign across a number of agencies.

Credible India

When you go to brand a nation, there are different constituencies who are really tugging at that brand and want it to work on their behalf. Among them, there is usually the constituency of the tourist promotion board, if there is one in a country, or the hospitality and travel sector for tourists.

But there is also the foreign-direct-investment and portfolio-investment side. And they’re very, very different in terms of emotional versus rational and how you want those audiences to view you. Something that you see as exotic and amazing and beyond control is wonderful for an adventurous tourist but not such a great ride for an investor.

And so I think one of the real challenges for an “Incredible India,” which captured what makes India incredible for tourists, is a little bit uneasy in terms of foreign direct investment, where you actually want it to be quite dull, quite predictable, quite boring and with growth. You want consistency, predictability, and growth.

You don’t want an Incredible India. You want, as one conference said, a “Credible India” when it comes to investment. So India has often baked into part of its investment brand a few amazing attributes, such as being the world’s largest democracy, the world’s largest English-speaking country, for example, and used those as attractions for would-be foreign direct investment.

There are a couple of problems with that. One, if you look at the world’s most famous democracy, the United States of America, you find nothing but dysfunction at the moment. So actually leveraging democracy as expressed by Americans at this point may not be such a great brand attribute.

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