When the task of defining one word—beauty—is so vast, how much more difficult must it be to capture the spirit and essence of a whole country. A country that is both ancient and modern, which has passion and wisdom, that is unchanging yet ever changing—a country that veritably defies definition. This is the conundrum that the Tourism Ministry of the Government of India faced seven years ago when it embarked on the ambitious task of trying to brand the country for the first time.

What were the imperatives behind the branding exercise? Post 9/11, tourism all over the world had taken a downturn. There was pain, anger, trauma and disbelief; travel was far from everyone’s mind. The tourism sector, never very robust in India, looked like it would be sucked into the maelstrom. The country had to overcome this, and to turn crisis into opportunity. The first step had to be to forge a new identity, one that would distinguish India in the minds of the global traveler, and create a strong, positive image under an overarching brand. For too long, myriad descriptions of “Magical India,” “Ancient India,” “Mystical India” and similar such hyperboles had been floating around; the time had come for out of the box thinking.

That was the genesis and within no time, the concept became a mission. The Tourism Ministry decided to involve the best artistic minds and introduced a countrywide creative competition to attract people who would bring to the table a perspective that was fresh and original. Ideas for branding came in droves so a committee was set up to evaluate, short-list and recommend. It was a time of frenzied activity as meetings metamorphosed into brainstorming sessions. The heady feeling of being caught up in something creative, something unique, made the process worthwhile. And so it went until: Eureka: “Incredible !ndia” was born.

Incredible India captured the imagination of everyone immediately. The logo, which cleverly played on the use of the exclamation mark, was finalized, and the euphoria was palpable. This was creativity at its best.. The buy-in from all stakeholders was instantaneous. The Indian private sector, generally gloomily certain of the Indian government’s dullness, were wide- eyed in admiration. A new era of partnership was born between public and private sectors.
The first campaign, rolled out in 2002-03, was based on the use of brilliant images featuring the different tourism attractions of India—whether wildlife or wellness, deserts or monuments. There was innovation in every presentation of the “!” of India—it could be the figure of the camel on the horizon gazing across the rippling golden sands, or the spire on the graceful dome of the Taj Mahal, eloquent in its somber silence. The imagery was startling and the choice of media was made with equal care. Readers of leading newspapers and travel magazines all over the world suddenly found themselves admiring a slick and glossy campaign promoting India—and it was ubiquitous. Incredible India had arrived on the world stage. The next stage of the campaign sought to deliver the same message in a starkly different fashion, and to do so with bite. A tiger in a cenotaph blandly stated, “Not all Indians are polite, hospitable and vegetarian.” To emphasize the country’s spiritual heritage, there was an image of a Buddhist monk ascending the steps of an ancient university, while the caption was simple yet profound, “A step by step guide to salvation.” Yet another was a study in contrast, where a surreal black-and-white image of the Taj bore a tongue-in-cheek inscription, “And to think that men these days get away with giving flowers and chocolates to their wives.” The ads invited you to laugh with India, and at India. It was a bold, confident, in-your-face campaign.

Branding India for a foreign audience is a challenge in every respect. India means many things to the outside world, ranging from “enigmatic” and “complex,” to the not-so-complimentary “difficult.” The most advanced research centers stand cheek by jowl with rippling green paddy fields ploughed by stolid oxen. Rockets take off into outer space and the moon mission is the subject of drawing-room discussions, while sturdy mules with tinkling bells on their stout necks sedately bring the farmer back to home and hearth in a million villages. It is a country of paradoxes, and no one can remain indifferent to it. All five senses come alive here—and this, in fact, became the source of inspiration for one of the campaigns.

There is color in every aspect of Indian life—the clothes, the spices, even the homes. The concept was tweaked imaginatively, so “red hot” became the description of chilies drying in the sun while “pure white” perfectly described the purity of love that the Taj Mahal symbolizes. This creative route was a huge hit, and, when carried over to television, the result was breathtaking. Audiences discovered the different facets of India through vibrant colors, right from the fiery gold of the setting sun to the glowing red sandstone of intricately carved monuments.

Insofar as the campaign focuses on India as a tourism destination, it also keeps pace with the outside world. Beyond photography, kitsch art-style illustrations were also used effectively. One ad illustration proclaimed, “Get rid of 21st century stress. Stand for 5000 years,” and featured an artist’s impression of a woman standing upside down in a yoga posture. If style is influenced by international trends, so too is the content. The global meltdown of 2008 had plunged the world into a mood of doom and gloom, so the Incredible India campaign commented on it through a visual of a bullock-cart race, pictured above, with the caption “A different kind of bull run.” It made everyone sit up, take note and smile.

After the Mumbai terror attack, a conscious decision was taken that the campaign had to make a strong and compelling statement about the entire country. So the ads showing a tiger close up included a message that reflected the mood of the country through a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence: “I want all the cultures of all lands to blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” It expressed forcefully the strength, resolve and resilience of this incredible country.

In this era of communication and globalization, outreach cannot be confined to the print and television media alone. The Ministry’s campaign has taken into account FM radio and Internet, including the increasingly popular You-Tube. A new direction has been forged with the Incredible India events worldwide, which revolve around the soft power of India. This soft power is drawn from the graceful forms of classical music and dance, the robust and earthy folk culture, the exquisite craftsmanship of artisans and weavers who nurture the craft traditions of the country, and above all, the cuisine. The cultural expositions began in 2007 in Berlin where India was the partner country at the International Tourism Bourse. The grey environs of Berlin vanished in an explosion of sound and color as 200 artists stormed every venue with pulsating beats and rhythms. Winter appeared to have sulkily retreated to a corner when faced with huge outdoor brandings of a crystal clear sea under a dazzling blue sky that provocatively stated “In India it is 36 degrees centigrade.”

Buoyed by the success of the Berlin experience, the Ministry zeroed in on two new venues, especially as 2007 marked 60 years of India’s independence. ”India Now” in London and “Incredible [email protected]” in New York had indoor as well as outdoor events. The size and scale of both were in proportion to the vastness of India.

In London, all of Regent Street was pedestrianized; every store had an India display, there were dance performances going on while spicy food tickled the palate of all visitors as they savored the balmy weather and festive mood. A special campaign was unveiled under the tag line, ”India is closer than you think.” The standard images of everyday London in an Indian setting made people do a double take. There was “Elephant & Castle” written across an image of a richly caparisoned elephant posing in front of a palace. “Oxford Circus” had people perching precariously and happily on an auto—what the image denoted was the quintessential chaos of India that both beguiles and exasperates visitors.

Meanwhile, New York had never envisaged that Bryant Park could boast a sand sculpture of the Taj Mahal in front of which Bihu dancers from Assam would weave their magic. The Lincoln Center was filled to capacity with an audience who sat mesmerized through the choreographed performances that included a medley of classical and folk dance. The photography exhibition and the fashion show on the sidelines of the event, all gave New Yorkers much to talk about.
In 2008, after having wowed Europe and the U.S., Incredible India decided to focus on Asia—Singapore and China, to be exact. The Orchard Plaza, a commercial hub of Singapore, was enthralled by the beats of Bhangra and the whirl of Pungcholam dancers who twirled around the stage even as they beat their drums. In China, the subtle flavors and aromas of India food and the kaleidoscope of colors of the cultural presentations were a resounding success. The food festivals, enthusiastically organized by leading hotels in Beijing and Shanghai, drew people in like a magnet.

This year, Russia and Los Angeles have been at the receiving-end of our cultural diplomacy. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the exposition of Indian culture has been a great success, so too in Los Angeles. The print and outdoor signage campaign in Los Angeles had Hollywood as the theme. “Toy Story” was tagged on an image of attractive Indian toy dolls. Meanwhile, “Natural Born Killers” was captioned with a Bengal tiger giving its trademark killer look. In September 2009 the Hollywood Bowl was transformed into something quite different with the “India Calling” event. Music and graceful dance competed with the colorful pavilions of village artisans. It was a lively, noisy, crowded atmosphere—a microcosm of India itself. The main program, with classical, fusion, pop, folk and Bollywood numbers had people tapping their feet and breaking into dance.

The focus of the Incredible India campaign is innovation. The Ministry has been able to come up with new, stylish inspirational and creative ideas, that draw from the a country that has drama and spirituality, chaos and serenity. You can lose yourself here and find yourself here because the discovery of India is nothing less than a journey of self-fulfillment. But to truly understand India, one lifetime is not enough.

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By Leena Nandan

Leena Nandan has extensive experience in destination promotion and marketing. During her tenure in the Ministry of Tourism, the “Atithi Devo Bhavah” campaign was launched with the purpose of generating social awareness all over the country. The campaign now has a leading film star, Aamir Khan as its brand ambassador. She looks after the Incredible India Campaign in overseas markets where it has won several international awards. She has handled several international marketing events such as “India Now,” “Incredible [email protected]” and “India Calling.” In addition to promotion and publicity, Nandan’s responsibilities include creation of tourism infrastructure and development of niche products like rural eco-tourism and cruise tourism.