An Indian Revolution

Sheer numbers suggest that the law of modern life is brands win. The United States grows 800 new brands a day, which join some 800,000 already out there. And today this growth is taking place well beyond the capital of consumerism.

Consider India: 14,800 brands in 1998 and, five years later, 76,000. West, East, the U.S., India—branding is now a fundamental part of how we think about life. And today brands are no longer limited to products—they’re companies, places, people, political parties and intangibles such as Web sites and concepts.

Last month I went to India and it was a tremendous learning experience. I immersed myself in the business culture and climate, both out of curiosity and because our group in India is among the 10 largest and most profitable of the JWT companies. From the moment my British Airways flight touched down, my schedule was packed with engagements with senior clients and heads of multinational brands. My aim: to personally understand how JWT can better help clients in India—how we can ensure their brands continue to be market leaders in this ever-competitive and hugely challenging marketplace.

Here’s some of what I learned: Better is going to get better. How’s that for a truly upbeat forecast from a global CEO best known for his pragmatism?

What made me so sure? I repeatedly heard, and saw, that the level of everyday aspiration is rising exponentially. It seemed it wasn’t about moving out of or beyond India, but rather about digging in and creating great brands—and, more important, great lives—at home.

India is terrific for brands. When the standard of living rises, brands thrive; when people have huge aspirations, they expect big improvements in their way of life. These people want and need brands, as well as services, that allow them to realize their individual dreams. Forget about all the numbers being thrown at us about the size of India and start thinking about consumer power that may begin one sachet at a time. They could also be realized more ritualistically, by milestones: a first credit card, a first mortgage, a diamond engagement ring.

I know better than to believe I can learn about a city, let alone two (I went to Mumbai and Delhi), in one visit. And learning about India is especially complicated. The collective energy focused on change in the city of Mumbai alone is palpable. It’s as if I stumbled out of the airport into the Land of Change Agents, all of whom are excited about possibilities and their shot at probabilities. You see it in people’s eyes and read it in the mission statements published by national companies.

As India’s oldest advertising agency—we opened in 1929—and its largest marketing communications group, we’ve had the good fortune to work for decades with some of our multinational clients, clients that understand and embrace local customs and mores. Most of them have flourished here through years of reinvention and patience, and they are now poised to lead in a marketplace that has serious local players, real gems who are strong because they understand the complexities of India and how to bridge the now and the next.

Our best chance for continued success is to keep partnering the best of what we know about the world with a determination to keep in tune with the changes in India, especially the changes taking place in the consuming class, from their desires to their talents. They have aspirations that ultimately translate into brand aspirations. That is what’s different about India circa 2006. Now is the time to flash badges well earned, including your own good stuff.

One word I heard throughout my visit: “employability.” Increasingly, India is an economy that’s about opportunities rather than careers. This trend is already reaching maturity in the U.S., so I know it well. It means all of us—you, me, the trainees, the middle-level managers, the hotshot kid investment bankers, the doctors—need to sell ourselves, and personal branding is how we do it. Employability is just another expression of optimism—and it means the rules of engagement are really changing. Every well-educated Indian in this age of optimism is CEO of Brand Me. Suddenly, as managers, we need to think of the trainee market as 300,000 bright, young brands who all know their employability. How are the employing brands talking to them, the talent who will ensure we are a creative, entrepreneurial growth engine for our clients? We should all wonder the same thing on behalf of our brands, since strong brands are good for India, and good for all of us.