The ‘Howdy Modi’ event at the NRG Stadium in Houston had a massive 50,000 Indian Americans in attendance. Sprinkled in the audience were American politicians of every affiliation. Bureaucrats, CEOs and founders of many American and Indian companies (of both the old-world and startup kind) were there as well. We are told this is the largest gathering commanded by a visiting elected foreign leader in the US, apart from the Pope in the past. Good show then PM Modi!
But was this just another event? Was this an extension of the persona of PM Modi into the lives of people through yet another event of his making or was it more?
I do believe it was more. A lot more than meets the eye. Yes, there was plenty of event management in this, but there was a lot more branding and a whole lot of strategy in the mechanics of ‘Howdy Modi’ than we have deciphered to date.
Let me peel the onion of branding and strategy in this seemingly large and innocent event out there in Houston. And let me do it by examining three brands that sought and got what they wanted. The first is Brand Modi, the second is Brand Trump and the third is Brand India-US.
‘Howdy-Modi’ is not an isolated event really. PM Modi has had a series of successes with events in the past. It all started at home. “Vibrant Gujarat”, his pre-2014 election talks at institutions of every kind, Ferguson College, Pune included, and too many others to list. PM Modi has been a firm believer in communication and branding. He is the one person who has understood the power of communication and what it can do.
Post his win in the 2014 general elections, PM Modi went one step further. His “Mann Ki Baat” on AIR is a communication outreach that reaches millions across the country where literally no other messaging reaches as well. And then came communication to the rather important diaspora audience of India and eventually a terrific way to communicate with the people of another nation altogether through this diaspora.
What better nation to start this with than the mother of all economies, the United States of America. In his first term, if it was Madison Square Garden, in his second, it is NRG Stadium, Houston.
Let me then outline quickly what ‘Howdy Modi’ does to the three distinct brand entities listed.
The event was totally centred around PM Modi for sure. It showcased him as a world leader of significance. It portrayed him to be the leader representing the largest democracy in the world. It talked of an India in the right hands. It talked of a popular leader with an unchallenged popular mandate, possibly like no one else before, except Indira Gandhi. It even went on to showcase Modi as a global leader with global concerns like terrorism and climate change, to name just two.
The residual output of this event - Brand Modi endows Brand India with responsible cues when it comes to global issues of concern. Not insular, not regional, but global. India emerges as a brand to watch. There is an aggressive stride out here to note. A stride represented by PM Modi and his outreach.
The establishment of Brand India in the minds of Indians within the country, the diaspora audience in the US and other parts of the world, and indeed finally amongst non-Indian audiences, is the positive fallout of this event. A very positive fallout for sure. Something which you cannot achieve with any amount of advertising money, but something PM Modi has already achieved through the clever tools of branding.
I do therefore credit “Howdy Modi” as an event that offers far more benefits to Brand India than it does to just Brand Modi. And that’s a big one. For once, India has a powerful brand ambassador who is the Prime Minister of the country! I can’t think of a better name to fit the bill.
Now, what does a domestic event to celebrate the visiting Prime Minister of a country have to do with the President of the host nation? And that too a high profile, abrasive and in-the-eye President as Donald Trump himself?
Plenty it seems in branding terms. President Trump, who started his tenure with a deep suspicion of India (amongst literally every other nation that had a positive balance of trade - BoT - position against the US), is today a friend of India. The US-China situation, the fact that India has tried to rectify its BoT position over the last year and the fact that India is a market no one can ignore when it comes to doing business with are all potent factors for this new friendship.
Add to it the fact that Elections 2020 are due in the US. Add the fact that the hitherto Clintonite Indian diaspora of 4.4 million can count in elections ahead, and you have a new “Trump-Modi Bhai-bhai” language around.
PM Modi has even gone ahead and sounded the Indian bugle of support with his “Abki Baar, Trump Sarkaar” line! Nothing is covert anymore! This friendship is here to last. At least till Elections 2020!
India is a large market of 1.3 billion bellies, bladders and literally every other body part to satiate. The US is a producer nation. India is getting more and more aspirational, the penetration of goods, services and brands is deepening. The country is possibly one of the fastest-growing brand markets in the world. Who can ignore such a market?
For India in return, the US is a terrific ally to have. With the reality of the geopolitical situation with China and Pakistan as neighbours, a friend in the US is a friend indeed!
India will dangle its large markets, and its ability to provide jobs for Americans through the tech majors that have a large presence in the United States, as bait.
In addition, India is a country with the numbers. While within the country itself, we are the largest population in the world, within the United States the Indian diaspora is a large one as well. A friend of Brand Modi is therefore a friend of the diaspora audience that will turn up to vote, come November 2020. Brand Trump understands this for sure. As does Brand Modi.
All friendship is with expectation. Plenty of expectation. Yes, Brand Modi and Brand Trump are friends. Yes, India and the US are friends. Friends with benefits! Touche!
(The author is a brand guru & founder Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)