Rahul Gandhi is a lesson in brand gone wrong

By Aishwarya Chaurasia

The brand of a product is often more potent than the product itself. Once a brand image is created, it defines the product. If a brand loses face, the product fails, and a recovery is tough and even been impossible. Amazon chief Jeff Bezos said that a brand is to a company is what a reputation is to a person. And we all know how easy it is for reputations to go off track. What better example of what a reputation means to someone than that of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi?

From “poverty is a state of mind” to “10 out of 7 youth in Punjab are hooked on to drugs”, Gandhi is known for this faux pas, even more than his political career, some might say. Unfortunately, despite his best intentions Gandhi’s brand image is that of ridicule. Most of his speeches draw instant mockery, and clips of his comments are circulated widely across social media to share the joke. In fact, such is the expectation of him, that even when he does not say something incorrect or inappropriate, people pick up on something to ridicule.

Take, for instance, his recent Coca Cola-Shikanji comment. At a Congress party event earlier this month, Gandhi said:

“Everyone must have heard about the Coca-Cola company. Who started this company. Who was he, does anyone know? I will tell you who he was. The person who started the Coca-Cola company was one who sold ‘shikanji’. He used to sell ‘shikanji’ in America. He used to mix sugar in water. His experience and talent was honoured and he got money and started the Coca-Cola company.”

Hi comment drew instant flak, with many mocking him. But did he really say Coke was invented by a shikanjiwala and McDonalds was once a dhaba?

According to Coca Cola history, Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John S. Pemberton created a “distinctive tasting soft drink that could be sold at soda fountains”. He added flavours in this syrup and mixed it with carbonated water. Likewise with McDonalds, which Gandhi said first started as a dhaba. The brothers who created McDonalds first started with drive in restaurants that sold hamburgers to much success.

Likening the Coca Cola carbonated drink to the desi shikanji and the initial McDonald restaurant to a dhaba was actually quite a smart move on Gandhi’s part since the audience would likely recognise the brands and process the information better.

But in the fuss that followed what was entirely missed was the point Gandhi was trying to make: that every successful man/organisation started small and made it big through hard work.

Why then did people respond to his comments with such derision? It is because they come to expect this from him, and his brand demands it. Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi or even a celebrity like Amitabh Bachchan made the same comment, people would have perhaps applauded and quoted them in agreement.

Gandhi (or his PR team) may find some success building a new brand, but how far this will displace the current brand is what matters.

According to research by psychological scientists at the University of Chicago, first impressions often become the brain’s default perception. In fact it is easier to alter this perception negatively rather than positive. One bad action brings you a bad name, but one good action is considered an exception rather than a rule. If our brain has already perceived someone as “bad”, seeing that person behaving well creates a cognitive dissonance, so much so that people do all sorts of thing to explain the “goodness” as an anomaly.

In the Indian political climate, not being taken seriously can be dangerous for any politician, least of all one with the burden of his family name and party history on his shoulders. Changing an image is tough, and Gandhi may have now run out of chances.

Aishwarya Chaurasia is a writing analyst at Qrius 

Rahul Gandhi