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It is a truth universally acknowledged that times of adversity are best tackled when people keep their heads up and their spirits high. In the unlikely possibility that it wasn’t before, it has certainly got emphasised over the last year, ever since the pandemic hit. Brands from across the globe have been consistently coming out with communication to cheer up their audiences and, given how things seem, will surely continue to put out more such messaging in the coming year. 

Unlike other times when a content surge on a single theme can feel insincere and noisy, this current swell feels necessary to balance out the despair and hopelessness brought by news media. Given how much each of us needs to feel relief and positivity, as of now, all such communication is much needed.

That said, it is important for this communication to be effective. Since its point is to recharge its audience, it is not of much use if it doesn’t meet its purpose—if it only marks the brand as present in the current scene, but doesn’t truly make the audience feel represented in what they’re undergoing.

Engagement figures aside, how can brands determine whether their hope and positivity-driven communication has been effective? Additionally, how can they make it so in the near future? The simplest way to it (though perhaps easier said than done) is through cultural mirroring.

When the overall theme and message are going to remain the same across brands – not just Indian but even global – then the only way to resonate is by ensuring that the communication feels tailor-made for the target audience. They must be able to look at it and go, ‘yes, even though the problem exists at a global scale, this branded response to it feels very Indian’.

That brings us to the question, what is Indian? What is Indianness? And how can it be manifested in branded content? We arrived at the answer by analysing five examples of hope and positivity-driven branded content from 2020 and 2021.

Take a look.

Manifesting Indianness in branded content

Indianness refers to a cultural characteristic or marker that is specific to our people and widely acknowledged as so. A simplistic but accurate example of it is ‘unity in diversity’. Regardless of what we think about the concept, its correlation with our culture is so deeply ingrained that, on hearing the phrase, we immediately visualise a collage with elements like a Kashmiri shikara, the Qutub Minar, Bihu dancers and a Kathakali mask –together with a message of unity.

Some such imagery can be found in our first example from Jjust Music and Cape of Good Films:

‘Muskurayega India’ (2020) is a visual montage with frames that alternate between different Bollywood actors lip syncing to the song and imagery commonly associated with India – like India Gate, a farm, the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi and Dussehra, Hawa Mahal, parade at the Wagah border and the Amar Jawan Jyoti. Both elements, the Bollywood industry and the imagery, indicate Indianness. The concept also comes through in the visuals of large crowds that indicate Indianness in the many.

The next two examples are similar in their interpretation of the concept. HDFC Bank’s collaboration with A.R. Rahman and Prasoon Joshi (2020) alternates between scenes from the country’s on-ground relief response to Covid and clips of national-level singers from different regions. So, a literal way of mirroring India combined with a message about unity that is signified by voices from across the country relaying the same phrase, “Hum haar nahin maanenge”.

Lay’s ode to everyday heroes from 2020, ‘Heartwork’ primarily signals Indianness by showing happy farms for our large agricultural sector, dedicated farmers to reinforce us as ‘people of the earth’ and a factory with noticeable people presence (as opposed to only heavy, swift-moving machinery) for our manpower-oriented workforce.

All three of the above conceptualise Indianness the way a travel brochure or a postcard might do. They use straightforward ways of signifying India that don’t need the viewer to possess any more than a basic understanding of the country and culture. They mostly employ markers that can be easily identified with the country instead of giving a deeper cultural context to the people.

Put differently, they highlight India as the land of many, the land of unity and show landmarks and social occasions important to us. But they don’t show how we interact with each other as people, our style of responding to challenges and the beliefs that drive us regardless of circumstances.

Facebook’s hope and positivity driven-communication from both this and the previous year contrast with the first three examples by mirroring more than just the country’s markers.

Pooja Didi’ (2020), as we all surely know well by now, is the story of an empathetic young girl who makes the financially impractical decision of hiring unqualified workers so she can save their livelihoods during the pandemic.

Given that the story is centred on a Sikh girl, Indians will immediately be able to correlate her act with Kar Seva – the spirit of selflessness encouraged by Sikhism. Additionally, since Pooja repeats her late father’s teaching as her reason to hire more workers (‘Remember what dad used to say, ‘do something so big that the shop ends up being too small for it’’), it can even be read as the Indian trait of relying on the guidance of elders for decision making.

The Indianness of the brand film also shows in the improvisation or jugaad that Pooja displays in her accommodation of the new workers (‘kara lenge kuch’/ ‘We will figure some task for them to perform’) and the forthrightness with which people address each other (‘your quality has really deteriorated’ – a customer responding to paneer created by a new recruit).

Facebook’s latest film ‘Rizwan’, shared for Eid, similarly captures Indianness through cultural characteristics:

The film is about a young man named Rizwan who makes it his goal to have all the elders in his town vaccinated after his elderly parents pass away due to Covid. He takes months of presumably unpaid leave from his office to approach even the elders he doesn’t personally know to ensure their vaccination.

Through Rizwan’s interactions, we see the very Indian trait of presuming familiarity with strangers and new acquaintances – ‘Apne? Phir mai kaun hun? Koi nahi?’/ ‘My loved ones? Then who am I? No one?’ he asks a lady who challenges him, saying that even her loved ones couldn’t convince her to get vaccinated. We see the communitarianism that our small towns are known for. And in Rizwan’s goal, we see reflected the care and respect for elders culturally practised across the country.

It is not as if both examples from Facebook don’t feature cultural markers of the country. But those markers aren’t treated as adequate representations of Indianness in and of themselves. The creators of the content have gone beyond the markers to include them as details of a much larger narrative.

Why reconsider the literal approach to Indianness in branded content?

Two reasons.

First, as we have emphasised time and again, a primary advantage of branded content is that it allows brands to go beyond the straightforward style of communication they had to follow with ads. It allows them space to capture the complexity of their consumers’ context, and thereby, create representations closer to their everyday reality than ads can. By not making the most of this opportunity provided by branded content, brands lose out on resonating with their audience like they otherwise can.

Second, a literal approach to Indianness means that consumers won’t need to engage with the content at a deeper mental level to understand it. Since it is made up of signs in the exact same way they have seen them a thousand times, they will be able to quickly process them and move past them. They will not spend the kind of time needed to establish an emotional connection with branded content and its creator.

If these are the implications of taking a literal approach, should brands still go ahead with adopting it?