India's oldest challenger brand: Can it learn new tricks?


    The new Congress playbook proves you can teach an old dog new tricks. But are they clever enough to woo the nation?

    In his blog about the UK’s infamous tabloid The Sun’s Page 3, legendary adman Dave Trott writes; “Being Australian he (Rupert Murdoch) was more brash, and decided to take on the Mirror at its own game. He put in more sex, more jokes, more gossip, more fun. In particular, the Mirror always had a bathing beauty in a bikini. Murdoch decided to go one better and lose the top half of the bikini. (Controversy is always good for a challenger brand.)”

    Embracing ‘Pappu’

    While the country’s undisputed market leaders in FMCG still reel from the waves of disruption created by challengers like Patanjali, India’s political theatre has provided an even greater David, or, shall we say, old Goliath versus new Goliath tale. With the final battles yet to come, Congress and Gandhi are, in marketing speak, changing the narrative. Starting with Gandhi embracing his flaws and even taking the ‘Pappu’ title head on, according to marketing whizzes. What’s also clear is that both brands, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP and Gandhi-led Congress, are being positioned along starkly different lines.

    The Economic Times reported last week that the idea of hugging the PM first came to Gandhi after he heard the former’s speech in Parliament in February. The report states; “‘He criticised everyone – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. It is then that the party president thought that Modi is really angry and just needed a hug,” said a source close to him, adding that the point Gandhi was trying to prove was that adversaries need not hate each other. “We can all exist in the same political ecosystem without hatred was his message,” the party functionary said.”
    rahul hugs modi

    One might venture as far as to see method in what many view as complete madness. Says brand consultant Harish Bijoor, “I see brand positioning play a big role in the 2019 General Elections. The Congress has discovered this in its statements of "inclusivity" and "unity". It’s positioning itself as a party that opposes a "divide and rule" policy. Its own "unite and rule" philosophy is being worn on the sleeves of its leaders, Rahul Gandhi, and Shashi Tharoor included.” He adds, as “hate” continues to polarise communities and campaigns, naturally then “the Congress is going to use the language, tone, tenor and decibel of the other four letter word, LOVE as their 'asthra' (weapon)

    Love Actually – The Reboot?

    However, not everybody is deeply in love with the party’s strategy so far. Says Arvind Sharma, the former chief of Leo Burnett, who was involved in the creation Congress’ 2004 election winning campaign ‘Aam Aadmi Ko Kya Mila’; “The identification of issues and articulating how to work to solve them seems right, but campaigns are won on sharp rallying calls: ‘Roti Kapda Makaan’, ‘Garibi Hatao’, ‘Aam Aadmi Ko Kya Mila’ and ‘Sabka Saat Sabka Vikas’.” He adds, “Nobody took Rahul Gandhi seriously; I sense that’s starting to change. But there are miles to go.” For starters, despite a surge in Gandhi’s popularity in the social media sweepstakes, augmented by other party leaders like Tharoor, “The BJP’s social media strategy is far more aggressive and not just in terms of message but in volume and weight,” says Sharma.

    Echoing that sentiment, independent marketing consultant Tarun Chauhan says, the Congress’ social media cell is not firing on all cylinders, it must become more proactive to beat the competition’s well-oiled machine. However, chinks in the latter’s armor are showing. The BJP hasn’t moved “from being an opposition to a government social media cell.” Says Chauhan, “They should have shifted the goalpost to become a positive source.”

    Instead Gandhi is filling the void with good vibes, pups and hugs. Chauhan believes “positivity” is the source of his newly found edge.

    But is the ‘make love, not war’ pitch compelling enough to get them not just vanity metrics but votes? Subramanian Krishnan, chief strategy officer, TBWA, believes it’s not enough; “To the young, suave, and urban activist kind of mindset, obviously this holds appeal since it looks like Rahul Gandhi is getting some spunk back. But most good challenger brands have a great core with which the symbols resonate. That’s what they are missing: the real enemy is not Narendra Modi, but the idea of democracy as proposed by the BJP. That needs your own idea of democracy to be articulated.”

    So, where’s the idea, Sir ji? “The recent developments are good drama but I don’t know if it would make a dramatic change,” says Krishnan, “For that you need a counter story. Like Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’.”

    It would, however, serve the brand better to find inspiration and not ready-made answers in its history. According to Ogilvy & Mather’s vice chairman Madhukar Sabnavis, Congress and Gandhi can’t be challenger brands, which are typically new entrants. Instead they are iconic brands that have lost appeal and relevance over time. Unlike a textbook challenger that has no baggage, the Gandhi dynasty and Congress “can’t wish away 133 years.” Nor can the brand keep using its legacy and part in creating an independent India to appeal to a generation whose stirrings of patriotism are confined to 15th August reruns of Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’. Or, when seat 25B didn’t stand up for Lataji’s rendition of the national anthem. “But an iconic brand can reinvent itself,” says Sabnavis; What it needs though is a promise stronger and more tangible than “social equity” to counter the BJP and Modi’s better future, jobs, healthcare, gas cylinders, et cetera. He adds, “The Congress promised freedom in 1947 and that’s why people voted for it. What’s in it for them today?”

    We’ll let Pidi chew on that for now.
    (Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)

    3 Comments on this Story

    C.M>kohli734 days ago
    It appears as if Leadership of congress is not sincere to its own organization but they are being carried away by small regional parties aiming at Remove Modi. Is it the goal for which the party will be contesting and that too congress shall be contesting on 8 seats in UP. The Regional parties Leadership cleverly taking Leadership from the hands of congress and swiftly moving to themselves . They are denying Prime- ministership to congress . I don''t understand why should congress act as second fiddle. what shall it gain out of it rather they shall be finished even if United Opposition looses any Regional Leader like Mamta or Maya shall come at national level pushing aside congress from National scene. In last general elections congress contested under distress & inspite Modi Wave , it got 40 plus as now it should contest alone under all situations its tally shall improve .It should prefer to sit in opposition. strengthen its organization to bring back glory to the organization . It should not dilute its National status.
    Krishnamurthy Krishnamurthy734 days ago
    No chance. Not only party the oldest but top leadership is also dominated by old people only viz Digvijay Singh, Chidambaram, Kabil Sibil, Gulamnabi Asad, Ahmed Patel, Antony etc etc. The prevailing situation is work for the younger members and position and power money for seniors all the time. If the atmosphere continue like this, how the party will be strong enough to pose any challenge. At the most it might survive as junior partner to state oriented parties.
    Ruby Roy Varghese734 days ago
    Congress can polish the tarnished image of its brand,by just stating that it will make the country secular and safe. Then follow the plan with absolute sincerity An.ordinary housewives musing.
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