Re-imagining Gandhi

Curated and written by Amit Bapna, Advisor (Content and Industry Engagement) for the Consumer Culture Lab.

In the first of this series, the Consumer Culture Lab deep dives into the phenomenon called Brand Gandhi and unravels the layers of the DNA of this formidable and unusual Indian brand. We will be looking at many more such themes and trends that are crucial and important in the evolution of Indian culture and fusing the opinions of a mix of academic experts, industry leaders and other members of the society. Brand Gandhi makes sense because it is possibly the most powerful Indian brand that has gone abroad and is familiar to people across the world, and this is without applying any principles of marketing to Brand Gandhi, such was his power and clout. And that is all the more reason to relook at the relevance of this powerful brand to an emerging audience set, who may be finding it difficult to connect with the brand idea of Gandhi simply because, “in our reverence an idealistic picture of Gandhiji has been created that is too perfect to be emulated and inadvertently made him and his ideas distant.”

Relevance of Brand Gandhi to a changing Indian consumer

For Abhiraj Tapar, a MBA student at IIM Udaipur, the most powerful associations of Brand Gandhi are, “the currency notes of 500 bucks, the charkha and the stick.” Non-violent patriotism that Gandhiji preached is something that has been taught since childhood, he adds.

For Jayeti Anand, PhD student at IIM Udaipur, Gandhi is an ideology more than a person or a brand –  that is now integrated at each level in the market. Be it in films like  ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’ or the integration of this ideology in the branding of various government programs like ‘Swachch Bharat’ it runs across in her view. 

Without a doubt, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi is possibly one of the most well-recognised symbols of contemporary India. He  established himself as a powerful leader who changed the course of a nation’s direction even while being the custodian of many unique traits – simplicity, austerity, humility and most uniquely non-violence.

For a country that has a sizable population below the age of 35 years, does the context and the content around Brand Gandhi need a shot in the arm and the mind? After all, it has been more than 70 years since he passed away and we are living in a changed world with a different lifestyle and set of challenges. Time for the narrative around Brand Gandhi to be rebooted if it has to remain relevant to a changing India. As per Jitender Dabas, chief operating officer & CSO, McCann Worldgroup India, “Gandhi as an idea should perhaps also belong to an 8-year-old as it does to an 80-year-old.”

The most successful brands are timeless, but they have done something to belong to every generation that came by in their lifetime. Adds Dheeraj Sinha, CEO & chief strategy officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett, “he was the real monk who sold his Ferrari, and his learnings would undoubtedly be a bestseller in the self-help section.”

Peeling the layers of Brand Gandhi and repackaging it for the new audience set 

The set of challenges for the consumer-set growing up in the pre-Independence era and the years just after India got freedom were different and thus the way they saw Gandhi was also different. These citizens have since grown up, moved on and took on new values and challenges.

Dr Tanvi Gupta, Assistant Professor of Marketing, IIM Udaipur draws an interesting parallel. While Gandhi’s real-life experiences were much more complex and had many contradictions, what most of us remember of him is an abstracted and over-simplified myth of ‘a father who says “No”’ and this archetype of Gandhi as ‘the father of the nation’ fits well with the paternalistic feeling that parents usually portray towards their children, she says. This regulatory behavior to control the indulgence of the youth is the signature Gandhi-myth which also resonates with the dominant Indian parenting culture.

However, the parenting style is also changing with every generation and the evolution of the socio-cultural setup. In the current scenario, the paternalistic archetype of Gandhi may not resonate with the young generation, the way it did with the previous generation. Just as Indian parenting styles have changed with time where the youngsters today are seeking a more approachable and friendly parent and sources of inspiration. The current dominant Gandhi myth, with its paternalistic (grandfather-like) style may also need the right amount of tweaking as it may not be inspiring enough, points out Dr Gupta. A younger and more accessible Gandhi myth needs to be created, she adds.

Relooking at the messaging around Gandhian principles  

There is a strong school of thought that believes that the current narrative and image of Gandhi as an old man is especially alienating. 

Ashok Kumar Kaliyamurthy, currently pursuing PhD in Marketing with a minor in Sociology at Arizona University makes an interesting point. In his view, “Gandhi’s message of simplicity is lost on an audience that has been groomed to valorize spectacle, grandiosity, and abundance in consumption. Even contemporary godmen proudly flaunt their expensive cars and taste in material goods and for the uninitiated, this milieu makes Gandhi’s austerity difficult to associate with.” So, even while simplicity is core to the well-established Gandhian thought, it is time to ask the question around its relevance to a younger audience subset: “by itself, it is not something that can be an immediate way to connect with GenZ”, adds Kaliyamurthy.

Pushing out multiple facets of Brand Gandhi

The related and interesting bit from a brand communication point of view is the need for a narrative that includes various facets of Gandhi’s life and not just one single imagery. Gandhi was young before he was old and faced some of the same dilemmas that today’s youth face as well. For instance, Gandhi’s fortitude in the face of obstacles is something that today’s youth who face all kinds of academic, social and economic pressures can relate to, points out Kaliyamurthy. 

While today’s youth look up to sports icons like MS Dhoni for being able to face pressure calmly, Gandhi’s moral approach can be a powerful aid for GenZ in developing a sense of calm. Indeed, some of Gandhi’s experiences during his younger days can serve as inspiration to GenZ on this. So, a combination of changing the iconography to include images of a younger Gandhi combined with relatable associations would be useful, says Kaliyamurthy.

It is time to ensure that the narrative of Brand Gandhi is younger and hence more inspiring in a relatable manner. The brand symbolism needs to be more than just the glasses and the charkha, as an expert points out. “Brand Gandhi needs to move from God to man, from the world of perfection to a world of pragmatism”, says Prem Narayan, chief strategy officer, Ogilvy India.

What do ad folks say about Brand Gandhi?

Industry experts feel that branding Gandhi is especially challenging because Gandhian thought is radical and not something that can be easily communicated within the formats of contemporary marketing. Here is what some of people from advertising have to say about the need for resurgence of Brand Gandhi and the role that advertising can play in this task. 

We interviewed a mix of senior communication professionals to ask them how much has been done and what more can be done to make the idea of Brand Gandhi more relevant to a generation that is growing on WhatsApp and Instagram, among other things and finds many parts of Indian history, ancient and boring. 

  1. Jitender Dabas, Chief Operating Officer & CSO, McCann Worldgroup India

Salience versus on-ground relevance for a new generation 

Gandhi is perhaps the biggest global brand that has travelled out of India. While a lot has been done by the brand custodians, but as a brand it faces a challenge of affinity and relevance. 

In terms of salience, possibly more has been done than required, so much so that the brand has been diluted by putting him on every single thi we could think of, from roads, stadiums and airports to currency notes and every big government scheme. By seeing so much of Gandhi all around us, we start feeling that we have enough of him in our lives and hence find no need for more of him, without actually truly imbibing what he represented.

And because we start taking him for granted, we don’t feel the need to tell stories of Gandhiji to our kids or take them to the National Gandhi Museum even when we are living in Delhi. The result is a generation that is less and less familiar with his ideas and ideals.

Time to relook at the role of popular culture in nurturing brands 

Iconic brands reside in popular culture. Brand Gandhi needs to be made more approachable and relatable. The choice of medium is also important. Brand Gandhi’s story most often comes to us through boring textbooks. It needs to become more interesting. 

Mediums such as cinema and OTT can be useful here. After all, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was the most powerful campaign for Brand Gandhi and Rajkumar Hirani attempted to take forward Gandhi’s ideals in a consumable form with his version of Gandhi in the ‘Munnabhai’ film franchise.  

Gandhi as an idea is multidimensional and certainly has parts which haven’t been communicated to the world yet. Gandhi was also a rebel, a challenger and even anti-establishment. Steve Jobs is aspirational and inspirational for these traits. So should Gandhi be. 

Challenges in Brand Gandhi finding relevance   

The problem with the idea of Gandhi has been that it has been made into a rigid monument and put on a pedestal. That has made Gandhi immobile whereas the strength of great brands lies in their mobility, their capacity to expand and change according to the pressures of time.   

The current saint-like hue given to Gandhian values makes them passive and hence uninspiring. It requires some immediate redrafting. Brand Gandhi needs to be re-explored for its potential strengths that haven’t been leveraged yet. 

  1. Dheeraj Sinha, CEO & Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett

Time to deploy tech-enabled solutions to reboot

One of the biggest aspects of whether history can be useful to the current generations is about its accessibility. Unfortunately, the idea of Gandhi is hidden in some textbooks and some ill maintained museums.

The power of modern technology needs to be deployed to make the ideas of Gandhi accessible to today’s generation. Imagine a modern-day interpretation of his learnings available on mediums of today such as microblogging, newsletter, short video platforms etc!

Playbook of real-life learnings

The ideologies and the social experiments that Gandhi ran, on how to run a mass movement without the power of media, how to lead from the front, how to take on a powerful enemy by redefining the axes, are all potent life learnings for today’s generation.

Time to take the idea of Brand Gandhi beyond politics

It is important to separate the ideologies of Gandhi which are highly useful in everyday life from any kind of political allegiance. Gandhi as a brand needs to go beyond the arena of politics. He was the real monk who sold his Ferrari, and his learnings would undoubtedly be a bestseller in the self-help section.

  1. Prem Narayan, Chief Strategy Officer, Oglivy India

Gandhi – a powerful but static brand

The narrative of Brand Gandhi is set in a once in a lifetime event called Independence (of India). The values that have been told are almost ‘god-like’ and perfect: sacrifice, others above self, no power or position, denial, frugality and truth. It is a brand that I remove my sandals (emotionally) and visit once a year on October 2nd. A brand whose values I respect but seldom practice. 

Today, brand Gandhi is largely seen through static images on stamps, currency, as a name of our largest roads, and as statues. Sadly, that’s all we have done to build this brand. However, it is not useful enough.

Moving the needle from an academic brand and beyond

Brand Gandhi needs to be salient; it needs to be noticed more and be noticed more often. To borrow from Ogilvy: “if a brand doesn’t get noticed everything else is academic.” Brand Gandhi is that today – academic.

It is time to break out of the thinking that Gandhi is a person and move to Gandhi the brand, that is not stuck by a stagnant image. 

New age Storytelling around Brand Gandhi

Look out and build on his hidden and powerful values. Here are some.

Risk taker and strategist: Gandhi was a calculated risk taker, and he  was perhaps the greatest ‘strategist’ India had. Non-violence was a strategy after all.

Persistent and persuasive: He was a brand with great ‘persuasion’ and ‘negotiation’ skills both within the party and with the British. He was someone who overcame ‘failure’ many times and never gave up.

Bold and brave: Voiced his opinion fearlessly and frequently, and in an era without social media.

Leadership style: He was a ‘servant leader’; the new buzz word in leadership these days. He was the ultimate ‘unifier’ who brought all kinds of people to one table.

Walk the talk: Practiced what he preached since it was less of gyan (advice) and more of action. 

High on stature: Role model for role models and right up the ladder on ‘stature and fame’. He mobilised enough ‘venture capital’. Throw in some national pride, idealism, green/clean activism and it could be the perfect symbol for Indian Youth.

Roadmap for the renewed Brand Gandhi story

It would ideally comprise territories that drive India and its youth today.

Entrepreneurship – to celebrate risk taking and overcoming failure.

Sport -Yes, Brand Gandhi and sport. The mental aspect of sport is as big as physical and so are attributes of strategy, leadership, picking the right team and never giving up.

Politics – Ironically no one today practices Gandhi and his values such as strategic, national pride, great negotiator and ultimate unifier.

Environment – Clean/ Planet perhaps

  1. Harshil Karia, Founder, Schbang

Positioning Gandhi as a man of today and tomorrow  

Gandhi is relevant even today. Gandhi is about strength. Gandhi is about resilience. Gandhi was educated. He was smart. He had perspective. He was a scholar of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. He could have access to everything in the world, but he was simple. He was and is an inspiration. An admirable man. A man who can inspire rap, spoken word, music, design, culture etc. 

Brand Gandhi needs to be resurrected and come back into the national consciousness again. It could happen by means of another film like Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ or even ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’. Or a sci-fi version of the future in which Gandhi exists and has a point-of-view or a resolution to things. That may inspire artists to create a wave around Gandhi. 

Time for a redesigned Gandhi  

While the principles are eternal, the visual of how we design Gandhi needs a facelift, a reinterpretation. The language needs to be updated with today’s times. 


Amit Bapna is an Advisor (Content and Industry Engagement) for the Consumer Culture Lab. 

A marketing communication and content specialist, he has worked in the space for more than 20 years. For a large part of his career, he has been involved in spotting consumer trends across industries and crafting engaging content around them. 

He is currently the editor-at-large (APAC region) for The Drum, one of the biggest marketing content websites in Europe with an increasing footprint in the US and APAC markets.

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