Can the Mahatma be used as a marketing machine?
Sitting at the headquarters of Mont Blanc at Hamburg, Germany it must have seemed like a good idea. Like most other luxury companies, the manufacturer of expensive pens is keen to increase sales in India, seen as a vital market for the future. So how better to do that than to make one of Mont Blanc’s Limited Edition pens in honour of the most famous and recognisable Indian of all – Mahatma Gandhi.
Mont Blanc is a commercial company, but they knew it was important not to seem crassly commercial here. This again is where Tushar Gandhi was useful. It’s not clear who, if anyone, ‘owns’ the Gandhi brand, but by donating a substantial amount tothe Mahatma Gandhi Foundation run by Tushar Gandhi Mont Blanc could make its good intentions clear, and still use the brand. The money would go to a project with impeccable credentials – a home and school in Kolhapur for rescued child labourers – and would be substantial.
At the launch of the Gandhi Limited Edition (LE) pen in September of this year, Lutz Bethge, the CEO of Mont Blanc handed over a cheque for Euros 101,000 (over Rs 70 lakh) to Tushar Gandhi. In addition, Entrack, Mont Blanc’s local partner committed to giving Rs 10,000 from each sale of the Memorial Edition pan, and Rs 50,000 from each Retail Edition. Assuming the former are the 6,000 cheaper pens, and the latter the 241 expensive ones that’s a possible income, if all are sold, of over seven crore rupees. This is possibly less or on par with how muchMont Blanc would have had to pay a really big celebrity endorser, but it’s certainly a decent amount to pay a NGO.
So why is it that the idea of a Gandhi LE pen strikes so many people as deeply dubious? Commentators bemoaned the way it seemed, with it’s over Rs11 lakh price tag, to endorse a culture of greed in the name of a man who would have scorned it. The Centre for Consumer Education in Kottayam went further and filed a petition with the Kerala High Court asking for a ban on the pen, alleging that it contravened the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950. Tushar Gandhi came in for special criticism, with epithets like ‘racketeer’ and ‘opportunist’ being hurled against him.
He has been here before. In 2002 a controversy broke out with the news that Tushar Gandhi had apparently sold rights to the Gandhi brand to CMG Worldwide, a firm engaged in celebrity image management. (To contrast with theMont Blanc deal, CMG was to pay $ 60,000 a year). Then as now, Tushar Gandhi points out that the money was not for him personally, but for public works related to maintaining Gandhi’s legacy. He also contends that he never claimed to have ‘rights’ over the Gandhi name, but just felt some level of control was needed to prevent its misuse.
At the time of that controversy it was alleged that CMG could licence the Gandhi brand to unsuitable products. The outcry over this prevented the deal going through, but speaking to Brand Equity Tushar Gandhi points out that the same people who protested never do anything to prevent actual inappropriate usages of the Gandhi brand. For example there was an Australian restaurant that promoted their Handi Ghandi brand which included beef curry, or an American magazine that did a spoof exercise routine based on beating up Gandhi. “Who protested about this then?” asked Tushar Gandhi.
The other point he makes is that anger over putting a value on the Gandhi brand is misplaced, because Gandhi himself was well aware of his brand value. “He would sell his autograph for Rs 5 which he gave to the khadi fund,” says Tushar Gandhi.
Be The Brand
This argument also points to how Gandhi differentiated his appeal from other leaders, using ways of operation (fasts, silent days) that were uniquely his own and developed a unique visual identity. By wearing his dhoti and shawls even in the cold of England, Gandhi demonstrated the importance of brand consistency, even at the risk of his own inconvenience.
Gandhi knew his difference meant that the British could not treat him as just another protestor, so what was this if not use of a unique brand identity towards a political goal? The success of this can be seen not just in his political victories, but in the way his brand has endured and come to be recognised across the world. Gandhi’s image is instantly recognisable even in its most basic form (band head, glasses, stick), and there is also some understanding, however stereotyped, of what he stood for. This in fact is what makes him so attractive to companies likeMont Blanc (or Apple, which used him for a campaign that met few protests). What then, asks Tushar Gandhi, and others who feel like him, is so wrong in using the Gandhi brand
for charitable causes of which he would have approved?
But there is a problem, and it cuts to the heart of what makes the Gandhi brand so different. William Mazzarella, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, who has studied Indian advertising, points to this difference in Branding the Mahatma: the Untimely Provocation of Gandhian Publicity. In this essay, forthcoming in the journal Cultural Anthropology, but which he shared with Brand Equity, Mazzarella accepts Tushar Gandhi’s contention that Gandhi consciously built his brand, but suggests that a brand means something unsettlingly different in a Gandhian context – it is something meant not just for product communication, but it is the product itself. A Gandhian brand cannot just be taken as a sales pitch for a separate product, but it the sales pitch itself which has to be consumed.
To understand why this is unsettling consider a certain cola’s ads. These routinely suggest that using a particular brand will make you more daring, more dashing, able to run up walls and perform amazing physical feats. Consumers accepts this as hyperbole and buy the brand without expecting to break out into a sweat – but if it was a Gandhian brand you might have to. Of course, no Gandhian brand would be anything as trivial as a cola, but the point is that a Gandhian product demands a certainconsumer response. Vegetarianism, for example, was part of the Gandhi brand, not because he insisted on it, but because he insisted on you believing his reasons for it. Gandhi once told a husband whose wife resisted going vegetarian that it was his duty to buy meat for her as long, because it was only when she went voluntarily vegetarian would it be real. “If branding appears to offer us our innermost selves in a pre-planned package, then Gandhian publicity demands of every participant in public culture that they not allow themselves to be lulled by selective identifications but rather take responsibility for the ideological complicities of their desires,” writes Mazzarella. From thi
s perspective it’s clear that there is simply no way that Gandhi’s commitment to austerity, his abhorrence of luxury and his preference for simple village products over manufactured products –especially imported ones – would allow his brand to extend to the Mont Blanc LE pen. There are too many examples of Gandhi refusing rich presents, insisting on a commitment to austerity and, for that matter, many injunctions againstfountain pens in particular, in favour of pencils or simple reed pens, for such a pen to pass.
Tushar Gandhi’s response to this is point to Gandhi’s inconsistencies. “He didn’t like fountain pens, but he used one to write Hind Swaraj,” he tells us. This is a bit disingenuous since Hind Swaraj was written in 1908, before he developed his swadeshi ideas in full, but in any case, it hardly means he would use such a luxury pen (Gandhi did accept a fountain pen made by the Ratnam pen factory since it was entirely Indian made). Tushar Gandhi’s real position seems to be a nihilistic one: the ideals that were part of Gandhi’s brand no longer matter, since modernIndia has long abandoned them, except for some forgotten Gandhians. And this being the case, perhaps the best one can do is use Gandhi’s brand for a good cause like theMont Blanc financed ashram.
This is a logical, if depressing, position, but the problem is that it’s also exactly the opposite of Mont Blanc’s stated reasons for using Gandhi, with its rhetoric about his inspiring ideals. The company declined to respond to this story, other than to say it was pleased with the response to the pen, yet one wonders how accurate this could be. From Mazzarella’s analysis, no one who really believes in Gandhi could buy such a pen; but why would someone who doesn’t believe in Gandhi buy one anyway? The scepticism this pen has been greeted with even on Internet forums for pen collectors, like www.fountainpennetwork.com, and the derision it has received from Indian commentators, suggests he’s correct about how Gandhi branding works itself out.
Source: Marketing Resource Hub