How political branding came of age in Indian general election in 2004

Jayshree M Sundar’s book 'Don't Forget 2004: Advertising Secrets of an Impossible Election Victory' captures the defining moment, where the challenger Congress scripted an unexpected victory against the rival BJP, even though the tide has changed in the ruling party's favour since then


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Fri 25 Mar 2022, 8:04 PM

Last updated: Fri 25 Mar 2022, 9:19 PM

In December 2003, the Congress — India’s grand old party — took a drubbing in three assembly elections. The India Shining slogan of the then ruling Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had caught every voter unawares. Finances were stretched then, and the parliamentary elections were advanced by eight months. In May 2004, the Congress sprang an electoral surprise and vanquished an over-confident BJP.

Jayshree M Sundar’s book Don't Forget 2004: Advertising Secrets of an Impossible Election Victory is about the making of that electoral history.

Sundar, an advertising professional, who worked for Lintas for 22/23 years and five years with Leo Burnett, and is known for her work with clients like Cadbury, Maruti Suzuki, ICI, Gillette, Parker, Xerox, and Ponds, has unveiled a chain of events that led to this unexpected victory. It captures how she got a phone call from the Congress's office to the big moment on the Judgement Day on May 13, 2004.

The book is peppered with conversations with Congress leaders such as Sonia, and Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra.

It is an inside story of the marketing and advertising campaign which dovetailed into the political strategy for the Congress party, which helped it reclaim power after being in the wilderness since 1996.

Khaleej Times spoke with Sundar to get a sense of the backstory behind the fascinating electoral campaign, which in a way puts the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections’ strategy in the shade.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What was the trigger/inspiration behind this book?

To tell the story of one of the biggest case studies in Indian advertising and branding. In fact, 2004 was the year political branding came of age in India. There were two major campaigns pitted against each other. While a lot has been written and heard on “India Shining” the campaign pitted directly against it which resulted in success and a shock defeat needed to be explained. The inspiration was to make people understand the fascinating advertising industry, the world of ideation and execution.

How to build a political brand? Has the Congress lost its mojo, while the BJP has reinvented the wheel?

Political brands are a different ball game in many ways.

Firstly, you are dealing with a huge target audience. Potentially every individual who is above 18 years old. If you extrapolate that for a country like India, it goes into millions of people. From that you must carve out your target audience. It’s very challenging.

Secondly, there is no repeat purchase. There is just one voting day. If the consumer does not “buy” (vote) you that day, it’s a loss for you. So how do you motivate them to move out and cast their ballot?

And yet the basic tenets of brand building must apply. To create salience, relevance, and differentiation.

In any product or corporate life cycle, brands grow, mature, and slide and sometimes rejuvenate and reclaim position. So, one can never say never. As in life nothing lasts forever. The 2004 elections are a case in point. Having said that whichever party keeps its eye on the changing consumer will be the one able to connect better.

How can a political party treat each voter as a consumer? Is it possible to take the consumer approach in caste-ridden and communal Indian politics?

Whatever are your pillars of governance you can craft your messages accordingly. And that could be caste based or secular based. That is the choice of the party. Reaching the voter with your genre of messages is easier now than ever. Each voter must be treated as a consumer.

How is every medium of communication the key?

This is a very good question. The erstwhile definitions of above the line media (mass media) and below the line media (collaterals) have completely blurred. Social media and the proliferation of mobile phones has completely changed that.

Approximately 900 million Indians have a mobile phone with 54 per cent of them having smartphones. That is massive penetration. Also screen time of the Indian consumer has increased from the average five to seven hours due to Covid-19. Marketers and political parties have a potent tool with them to deliver messages directly to the consumer.

So, while TV will give a blanket reach especially with demonstrative and emotional messages and print and radio will play messages of urgency, its media like WhatsApp and YouTube that are going to be key from now on.

There was no social media in 2004. How key is it now?

Social media had made its advent by 2004. There were short messaging service (SMS) campaigns used widely by the BJP and the then ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But it was just the start. Now, it’s critical. If data mining is done effectively, then it’d result in carving out your consumer well. As a result, you know what they consume online, and what they click and share. It becomes easy to band messages for groups of people and customise to a micro level. In political brand building, going down to the smallest village is important because every voter is equal.

How do live videos, morphed or real, have emerged as a game-changer?

Live streaming is a great tool for anyone. It was used rampantly by candidates in the last US elections. It will make its entry into India too in a big way. Because you are on live with your audience directly without a via media like TV or cable who can edit content. And you have full control over what you're going to show. Morphed videos are dangerous; however, the public is canny and is learning to recognise fake news.

Each election has a big idea. What was it in 2004?

The big ideas in the 2004 elections were two-fold. I think “India Shining'' was portraying a ‘Growing India” and “Aam aadmi ke saath” (with the common man) was portraying “inclusivity right to the lowest common denominator”. One talked to the urban elite and the other to the non-shining India, where the have-nots were trying to make both ends meet.

How important is the communication strategy and positioning of a party as a brand. Illustrate with a couple of examples.

It is hugely important. All the number crunching and strategies that get discussed in think tank meetings need to find the right expression and get to the consumer so that it resonates with him/her. Reaches them and makes them take a decision and cast their ballot.

The first example I would take is the 2004 Congress campaign. The brand positioned itself to partner with the common man. The struggler. It told them we are with you. Because research showed that most of them had not heard or seen India shining and those who had were left cold by the messages it was giving. High forex reserves, stock market gains, etc were things that didn’t resonate as they felt they were not benefited by it. Therefore, the line, “Aam aadmi ko kya mila?” (What did the common man get?) was coined, which made the cut with the target audience.

The other example of a sharp positioning and strategy was Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign “Yes we can” with the logo of the sun rising over a horizon flaming a new sense of hope.

To quote US President Obama “This is our moment. This is our time — to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes, we can.”

How have smartphones and the internet changed India’s electoral politics?

With affordable 4G internet connection and a 54 per cent penetration of smartphones, social media is amazing for parties who can save on time, money, and efforts of physical coverage by reaching out to voters on a personal level, in an interactive format. Access between politicians and the electorate is now possible. WhatsApp campaigns and troll armies and real time news and immediate rebuttals are all a challenge and opportunity. The party that can get this piece right will be way ahead of the curve.

How does segmentation of voters lead to rich political dividends?

If you segment well, you can reach your messages most pointedly. For example, in the 2004 elections, we segmented the consumer base and decided to primarily target farmers, women, unemployed youth and middle-class investors. This was the unserved market, and the lot who would be most open to listening to you. Once this target was decided — messages were tailored accordingly, and media was selected to reach directly to them.

Lastly, should the most prominent leader of a party be assigned the role of a brand ambassador?

Usually, the person announced as the face of the party, or the prime ministerial or presidential candidate naturally evolves to be the Brand ambassador. If you are fighting an election and this is the face people trust and endorse, then it makes absolute sense to assign the role to that person.

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