Growing up in New York City, you sometimes forget there's a world outside of the bright lights of Manhattan. There are, in fact, places where you can't just go anywhere at any time with the wave of a hand; where you can't buy a toasted sesame bagel and cream cheese with a side of chicken fried rice at four o'clock in the morning. Being at the Cannes Lions Festival has been both a pleasant and shocking reminder of the great big world around me.
On Tuesday afternoon, I attended a Lowe and Partners seminar called “Global India with Shekhar Kapur and Balki.” I have to admit that I was not initially drawn to the topic and wound up staying mostly because I didn't want to leave the red, cushy chairs of the seminar room. But I did stay, and it has been my favorite discussion so far at the festival. The panel was moderated by the chairman and CEO of Interpublic Group, Michael Roth, and featured chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas India, R. Balki, and Oscar-nominated director, actor, producer, and new media entrepreneur, Shekhar Kapur. Kapur was recognizable to me only by his Academy Award nominations for Elizabeth and The Golden Age, but his insights on India's global culture and impact were more than inspiring.
Roth opened the seminar with a statistic that shocked me: In the 21st century, every sixth human being will be Indian. At this point it became clear to me that India is a country that our industry needs to know and understand in order to be truly global, because India's impact is not just big, but on the rise. Kapur painted a beautiful picture of India and its people, saying that “India is a land of imagination. It always has been. We are a nation of storytellers.” He continued, “Nothing influences people more than storytelling, and we become the stories we tell ourselves.” Kapur noted that this in particular is the key to global India. His point was not lost on me, as more communicators are being pressured to tell the story behind the message to drive people to action.
Kapur also focused on the growing young population in India, and Balki echoed his sentiments by saying, “Social media is a huge and new opportunity for India because of the youth… it is an influence economy and it has become a social commentary device. India is using it to express itself.” I thought carefully about this and realized that the growth of a social media economy in India is not only an adaptation of new technologies, but a fight to be heard. Kapur spoke along these same lines, likening the population in India to a pyramid and saying, “The top of the pyramid is sitting on the resilience of the bottom…what drives the Indian youth is hope.”
What India is seeking to do as a country in embracing global brands and the latest technologies is to “change the very concept of what you can do when you grow up,” and reform an educational system that desperately needs to focus on innovation. At the end of the seminar, Balki was asked, “How can brands succeed inside India?” He responded sternly, “Live in India before you start marketing…and leave it to the Indians.” Kapur was just as firm when he finished the seminar with this advice: “The day you stop looking at India as a market and start thinking about it as a culture, you will succeed.”
There is a lot to be learned from Kapur and Balki in their perspectives on how global companies can break into India and be successful, but the lessons of India I learned in the seminar apply elsewhere in the world; at the heart of the matter, organizations need to pay close attention to the culture and the people of the places where they want to find acceptance. You can't take the Indian out of India just like you can't take the New York out of me, and as communicators, we can't underestimate the impact of identity.
Allison Cohen is director of external communications at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.