30 July 2015 14:53:48 IST

Is Bengaluru a brand?

How this iconic southern city became the ‘software capital of India’

Recently, I was part of a panel discussion on Bangalore as a brand, conducted by a prominent TV channel. I probably learnt and observed a lot more than I spoke but I thought it would be appropriate for me to share a few thoughts with you on the branding of a city.

Mind you, branding a city is not a new idea. One of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time is the “I love New York” campaign created by Jane Maas, who is as famous an advertising personality as you might come across.

So what about Bengaluru?

I came to Bangalore (as it was then known) in 1980 to study at the IIM and continued to live on in this now not so wonderful city. Let me quickly add that it is arguably the best city in India, at least to live in. But when you are talking about branding, it is about being known for something or, better still, owning something — not only as a place to live in.

When I came to Bengaluru it was first “a pensioner’s paradise” and then the “public sector” city of India, not to forget the “garden city” tag that it inherited though some cynical editors chose to call it the “garbage city” not so long ago! How times and things change! Things moved on from the early 1990s as software majors like Infosys and Wipro built their headquarters there.

Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat had Bangalore (it became Bengaluru only recently) as its key setting and suddenly it logically became the software capital of India and was, at one point of time, the only Indian city that was a brand all over the world.

Let me give you a simple example. I have been travelling around the world to watch cricket World Cups. I was in a mall in Johannesburg a day before the India-Pakistan World Cup match in which Tendulkar was to show his magic. But before that, at the mall, I literally bumped into a South African gentleman. He accepted my apologies graciously and asked me where I was from and when I said Bangalore, he looked at me with awe and said: “Oh, software?”

So, even someone who is a technophobe like me got branded as a software wizard! So much for the power of branding! Today, so much is happening in Bengaluru in the area of start-ups and entrepreneurship that it is being called the “start-up capital of India”.

What are the learnings?

Yes, places can be branded too and we do have a great example in India too of “God’s Own Country,” as Kerala has been so effectively and evocatively addressed over the years.

Branding takes time, effort and energy, not forgetting a clear strategy, and we start by answering the question: “What should we be known for?”. Now, in the case of Bengaluru it probably happened due to the environment. Bangalore became the software capital of India only partly by intent.

The fact that majors such as Infosys and Wipro were in Bangalore just made it necessary for the competitors to come there! But if you want to brand yourself as a city, against others, you need to be clear of what you are offering. How can you be relevant and yet different from your competition is a difficult question that needs to be answered honestly, however difficult it is.

Not just about advertising

At the risk of repeating, let me tell you that branding is not only advertising. It is just about everything that your city needs to do. It is also about customer experience.

While Kerala’s scenic beauty lent itself to the theme line of “God’s Own Country” the State realised even then that its infrastructure did not measure up to the lofty claim. They had to focus on infrastructure and the means of reaching destinations in the State. If the airport of Cochin (Kochi) had to be improved or renovated, that was an important part of this whole process.

Branding is not only about tourism, though most people tend to look at it only from that perspective. Yet today, for instance, cities and States want to be destinations for investment. You can see almost every State wooing investors from other States.

My final thought is while branding may have specific needs, like tourism or investment, there must be a larger objective: that is, standing for something that sets it apart, and that is not an easy question to answer. Start with research. But remember that branding is a process, not an event, whether it is a person like you or a city like Bengaluru.

Who knows, you may end up with another “I love New York” for your city!

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