The Slumdog Millionaire

Sad but true: Many Indian brands do not prefer being called Indian [maybe lessons for Indian startups?]

For a brand, an image of quality and credibility is an extremely important asset and a key factor in a company’s profitability and growth. In India, where locally produced brands are often seen as inferior, businesses consciously choose to build a “fake” foreign image for themselves. An abundance of foreign-sounding goods available at any high-end Indian mall makes it look as if India doesn’t manufacture any consumer goods of its own. But is it really the case or merely a well-planned illusion?

The Slumdog Millionaire
The Slumdog Millionaire

Here’s a fact: if given a choice, an Indian consumer will buy a foreign brand instead of a domestic one. At its most basic level, this preference is sparked by prejudices against an Indian brand name, even though there is no valid reason to justify this bias. That’s exactly what foreign branding is – the intention of certain brands to project themselves as foreign-based, so as to ensure they profit from this “foreignphilia.”

As the East and West created images of each other’s cultures, at some stage the East (or the emerging countries) deemed the West superior. It would be safe to assume that this phenomenon has something to do with the Indian tendency to gravitate towards everything foreign, and western goods are automatically equated to better products.

However, a lot of consumers in India are unaware that many popular, foreign-sounding brands are really Indian: Koutons, Monte Carlo, La Opala, Franco Leone, and Da Milano, to mention just a few among many, are of Indian origins. In some cases, the owners made a conscious choice of adopting a foreign name, while others “inherited” the name when they acquired a foreign brand. The fact that many of these brands– even the Italian-sounding ones like Monte Carlo and Da Milano – come from India is intentionally obliterated.

It is unlikely that this attitude will change anytime soon. “The trend will gather momentum,” says Piyush Kumar Sinha, Professor in retailing and marketing at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. He predicts that Indian brands will try to look and sound foreign to play into the local population’s aspirations for foreign-label merchandise.

To be fair, the fascination with foreign-sounding products is not exclusive to India.

Look at Häagen Dazs, the popular ice cream brand whose name conjures up Scandinavian origins. However, this product was first manufactured in the Bronx, N.Y, and its name doesn’t mean anything in any of the Scandinavian (or other) languages, so the concept of foreign branding is alive and well in many parts of the world, where the preference for new and different products is rampant. That’s why many local brands are “baptized” with Italian, German, or French names, creating an illusion of exotic origins.

And the name is just the beginning of the carefully crafted illusions (some would even call it deceptions). These companies hire foreign models to showcase their collections, which is why there are so many foreign models in India. After all, it is easier to perpetuate a pre-conceived notion of a foreign brand if foreign models are showcasing it. Brands like Duke, for instance, have been hiring foreign models for their collection because these models “help create an international feel for the brand,” an image that an Indian model would not be able to project.

Fortunately for the companies, hiring an overseas model is not difficult. Many of them come to India as tourists and charge between 20,000 and 40,000 rupees ($36o – $720) for a day’s shoot, while a famous Indian personality would charge a lot more.

Ad agencies that provide brands with foreign models concede that a number of them are tourists and don’t have work permits. They get away with these assignments because there are no stringent checks within the modeling industry. This mostly happens in the case of mid-tier, small-budget brands. Some companies have actual statistics suggesting that hiring overseas models proved fruitful and has improved their sales tremendously. Cotton County, for example, faced declining sales, which were revived once they brought in foreign models. It cannot be merely coincidental that profitable Grasim brands like Van Heusen, Louis Phillipe, and Allen Solly have never hired Indian models.

Some firms have gone as far as to fall for their own act. A brand by the name of Munich Polo, that sashays itself as German, chose to design its site in the same fashion – so much so that its website talks about German culture and the German city of Munich, completely erasing all signs of its Indian origins. Similarly, brands like Woodland have succeeded in projecting themselves as a foreign brand. Launched by Aero industries, Woodland now has all but lost its original roots. It is easy to see that the impetus behind a brand image construction like that of Woodland’s owes a lot to other foreign brands like Timberland, which are massively successful. From its merchandise to its use of foreign models, it is hard to see Woodland for what it really is – an Indian company. The Woodland site terms itself as Woodland International, even though it ships products only within India. Therefore, the conscious effort to create a foreign image is embedded in even the smallest details.

This trend is not limited only to adult brands, but also to many children’s brands like Lilliput, and Gini and Jony. In reality, Gini and Jony is a product of Pakistan-based Lakhani Brothers, while Lilliput was founded by an Indian businessman, Sanjeev Narula. These brands also use foreign kids as models and project their merchandise as if it were manufactured in America or England. The new emergent middle class falls for the illusion and participates in this conscious manipulation of the Indian psyche.

The next logical question is why Indian brands pretend they are foreign when they are clearly not? It is not as if local brands like Fabindia are not equally popular. It cannot be denied that these pseudo-foreign companies are exploiting the Indian mentality, which, as stated above, perceives foreign goods as superior. Therefore, the projection of a certain brand as originating from abroad justifies higher prices.

Though this technique seems to be very effective, there is no reason for it to continue. It must be very frustrating for Indian companies to know that so many consumers do not give native products a fair chance. But at the same time, the brand image does very little if the actual products do not provide the high quality expected of imported goods. If a local company chooses to market its merchandise under a foreign alias, it has to ensure that its products look, feel, and last as long as the imported ones, otherwise it’ll be taking advantage of gullible consumers.

So the next time you step into a mall, make note of the brands you go for. You might be surprised to note that many of the ones you choose are actually Indian brands and that is proof enough of the need to recognize the potential in the indigenous market, and not to fall for the same prejudices again and again. Who knows? Maybe your next visit to a mall would be to a truly Indian one!

What about your startup? Are you ‘faking’ it? Is it really mandatory in India to get accepted and charge the ‘right’ pricing?

[About the author : Priyeshu Garg is an engineering student and internet marketing consultant, follow him at @priyeshugarg on Twitter]

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