By: Prof. Rahul Gupta Choudhury
Associate Professor (Marketing, Strategy and General Management)
Let me start with a ‘serious joke’. One day an airplane had to land on water. The passengers who were from different nationalities were required to get into a raft to reach the shore. The cabin crew had no idea about how to motivate the passengers and so decided to ask the pilot. The pilot told the cabin crew to tell the Americans that it is an adventure, to tell the British that it is a matter of honor, to tell the French that it is romantic, to tell the Germans that it is the rule, and to tell the Japanese that it is an order. It worked. Now the cabin crew asked about the remaining passengers who were from Singapore and Pakistan. The pilot told the cabin crew not to worry about Singaporeans as they would go stand in a queue as soon as they see one. He also advised the cabin crew to tell the Pakistanis’ that it is a suicide mission. Like before, this also worked. Now the remaining few passengers were all from India. When asked about them, the pilot simply advised – tell them that it is free. Needless to add - again, it worked.
The idea here is that every major nation – state has, consciously or subliminally, portrayed and projected an image of itself to the outside world. Unfortunately, these perceptions are sticky and lasts for a long time. For India, it has taken many decades to shake off the image of snake charmers and bullock carts - and get into the software bandwagon (ISRO and Nuclear detonation notwithstanding). Why is that important? In the corporate world, image building or managing the perception that others have of an individual are critical parameters at all stages of management. Some make it their business while some do not pay any attention to that. There is no conclusive proof of how much perceptions matter in the upward journey of an executive, but everybody agrees that it matters and matters quite a lot.
So, the question is doing this phenomenon hold good for a country also and if so, how and how much. It is assumed that technology has brought the world closer home and there is a lot of free-flowing information available about countries and their citizens. So, transparency is almost assured for most countries in the world and hence perception management is no longer as important as it used to be. Nothing is further away from the truth. The fact remains that today the global trade is at an all-time high and consumers are making purchase decisions at every given moment. What must be understood here is that the role of the government in normal peacetime has reduced considerably and true to our belief systems, the market has taken over. Economy is the buzzword on which the entire world is dependent on and it is the markets which are driving consumption which determines the wellbeing and lifestyles of the citizens of the countries around the world. So, the question is who is buying and what are they buying? The answers to both the questions are readily available – which brings us to the obvious next question – what are the factors or determinants of the decisions taken by the consumers about which product to buy and what not to buy. The process is complex, but the role of country-of-origin in the sale ability of the product/brand is well established. As soon as the country-of-origin comes into the picture, one of the foremost factors that emerge is the perception of the country of the seller in the minds of the citizens of the country of the buyer. This is also not a straightforward equation. For example, at a certain point in time, Chinese products may not have been selling well in the US market but may have been able to attract large number of consumers in some African or Asian countries. And it is very much possible to go up the ladder in this hierarchical system as well. Japan, Korea, Taiwan etc. are very good examples of this phenomenon.
There is simultaneously no doubt that the old model of export-led growth to prosperity is tapering out. While we must aim to be a major player in the global trade, adequate attention must be given to develop our domestic market. Consumption led growth is the only way out for us at this moment – and for this to happen, the soft power of managing our image and the perception of consumers in other countries about us and our products are also very necessary. This is, off course, easier said than done. This image building will take decades and the work should start right now in right earnest. The approach must be integrated across many dimensions – from trade and tourism to exchanges of citizens across the major countries of the world. Education can be a very good contributor to building our brand, and so are healthcare facilities. It is imperative that we broad base our business and other relations across continents and do not concentrate on just the developed Western countries. As said earlier, this is no easy task. However, this reminds me of a quote of Winston Churchill. Asked about the definition of success, he replied: Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Holds good for everybody, including countries.