With the call to be “vocal for local”, there’s never been a better time to be a local brand in India. But despite favourable conditions caused by current affairs, convincing an Indian consumer, used to a global marketplace, has also become trickier. What will it take for homegrown brands to break through? WARC's Asia Editor, Gabey Goh, introduces a deep-dive into the insights you need to know.

If one were to pin a start date to the current wave of nationalistic sentiment washing over India, 12 May 2020 would emerge as a strong contender.

It was the day that India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a rare public appearance since COVID-19 lockdown measures began on 24 March, addressed the nation with a call to be “vocal about local brands”. This policy shift, which will see India strive to be more self-sufficient was a reasonable one, given how the pandemic laid to bare the fragility of global supply chains.

While global brands remained calm, confident that their already deep investments in local operations would hold them in good stead, local brands such as ITC, Parle Products, Amul, Dabur, Bisleri, Godrej, Marico and Voltas jumped on the call as an opportunity to garner support and increase consumer consideration.

The call also opened a Pandora’s Box about the role of national allegiances in consumerism and the reality of hard choices for an already price-conscious market staring at the face of a looming recession.

But what was initially an economically-driven set of motivators, quickly received an unexpected injection of politics and emotions. In mid-June, fresh skirmishes along the long-disputed Sino-Indian border resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers, sparking a wave of nationalist anti-China sentiment.

There is now a growing call for Indian consumers to boycott Chinese products and services, while the Indian government attempts to navigate a way forward with a country it holds a fraught and complex relationship with, not to mention one of its biggest trading partners. Just this Monday, the government announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps, the most notable of which is TikTok. The India market accounts for 611 million of the video sharing platform’s 2 billion-strong userbase.

The move was part of sweeping anti-China measures, which include plans to impose higher trade barriers and raise import duties on about 300 products from China, as well as ban Chinese companies from bidding on telecom projects in India.

With all this in mind, it feels appropriate that this edition of WARC’s Spotlight series looks at how India’s homegrown brands can navigate a climate that by all accounts, appears primed in their favour.

That such a brief to our panel of in-market experts would spark impassioned discourse on the existential future of Indian brands, seems inevitable in hindsight. What does it mean to be “Indian”? What does it mean to be an “Indian brand”? Does it even matter when budgets are tight, and it boils down to a question of how many rupees?

To begin, industry veteran Naresh Gupta of Bang in the Middle offers a socio-economic and historical lens with which to consider the current playing field. He points to the country’s storied history in driving international trade and its wide-reaching influence, arguing that modern-day India, while prone to bouts of isolationism, must still keep an eye to the global stage.

“Today, when India talks of #VocalForLocal, the country needs to know that we cannot be an isolated island any more. India was a global player at the height of its economic prowess, and today when it wants to improve quality of life of millions of poor, it needs to play a bigger role at global stage,” Gupta added.

To do so though, requires that Indian industry goes through a transformation of both mindset and priorities. A move away from the jugaad (resourceful, frugal innovation) culture that permeates so much of the Indian workplace and towards a strong and sustainable innovation pipeline.

Leo Burnett’s Dheeraj Sinha argues that the call to be “vocal for local” should be taken as an opportunity to raise up the Indian ecosystem in its entirety, and collectively gear things up for building world-class brands.

“Vocal for local is not good enough as a philosophy if it remains a passport for a privileged few Indian business houses to get all the gains. It’s a philosophy, worth its while, when people around us benefit from the chain. Only then will these brands and businesses be authentically local. Only then will the consumers buy into the philosophy of – vocal for local,” he writes.

If anything, recent developments have cast the spotlight (pardon the pun) on the long-standing challenges faced by Indian brands in trying to break through a crowded marketplace of globally recognised brands.

DDB Mudra’s Sonal Jhuj breaks down the question of why Indian brands tend to lag significantly behind their global counterparts and the label of “Made in India”.

Right now, the only signal attached to “Made in India” is one of action, to ease choice-making between us versus them. As tensions flare between countries, and issues of national security call patriotism repeatedly into question, this will remain an easy choice to make. But beyond the tensions of the news cycle of the moment, “Made in India” remains a label with no real meaning attached to it, yet.

“Indian brands need to find their unique made-in-India narrative, because soon it won’t be enough to say they’re Indian,” she writes.

Prasad Narasimhan of the brandgym also cautions local brands against relying heavily on patriotic sentiments to carry them through, especially in turbulent times like the present. He points out that patriotism is a positive emotion but is also one of the many emotions that brands can access. Depending on product and category, it may not even be the most relevant.

“Local brands must leverage their innate agility and consumer intimacy to rethink their brands, their strategies and their actions, not expect a train of wishful jingoism to carry them through,” he writes. “Made in India has at times been equated with indifferent quality, and we can’t wash this away in a surge of patriotism; we must deal with it.”

But what of the Indian consumer? Flying Cursor Interactive’s Shormistha Mukherjee approached the theme from the lens of not just a marketing practitioner, but also as an Indian consumer herself. “I want to back an Indian company that’s out to change the way things are done,” she says.

And there is indeed hope on the horizon, as a new breed of homegrown brands make their presence felt through world-class design, savvy engagement strategies and a clear brand narrative to market. At its core, it is a story well told that will create that much coveted resonance, for anything less would be unacceptable.

“The truth is people care about you, only if they resonate with you, if they fall in love with your story, if your design adds something to their life,” she argues. “Give them that value, not just in terms of price or a jingoistic line, but in terms of who you are and what you'll bring to their life.”

Indian brands now find themselves at the cusp of opportunity, caught in the crosswinds of political, economic and philosophical shifts that has made the homegrown proposition more attractive than it has ever been in the last decade.

It will be up to them, to write the next chapter of India’s story.