As the whole world guns for China after the coronavirus pandemic, there is also a new definition of what a ‘clean’ multi-national company is. It is one that doesn’t have Chinese equipment or funding. India’s Narendra Modi government took this to another level by banning 59 Chinese mobile apps such as TikTok, Clean Master, SHAREit, UC Browser, CamScanner and Helo, in the wake of Galwan Valley clash and the stand-off in Ladakh.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently tweeted that Mukesh Ambani’s Jio is “a clean telecom company” perhaps because Reliance had committed to being a good telco and not using Chinese equipment for 5G.
As the stand-off at Galwan continues, there is one piece of advice that a PR practitioner like me can give to Chinese companies in India — shut up and put up. Unlike what the People’s Liberation Army is doing.
With the BCCI reportedly reviewing deals for the Indian Premier League (IPL) with sponsors who have links with China, we’re at a new level of stand-off. Our advice to companies in this has been — hush, let the BCCI do the talking. Good PR practice of defending your turf had best be given the go-by at these moments, when “bigger bats are at the crease”.
I would advise these Chinese companies to do five things. Keep a low profile, get control of the narrative, listen, state your brand value and work on your commitments.
Ten years ago, the media in China had reported with anxiety that the UPA government at the time had blacklisted 25 Chinese telecom companies over alleged security concerns. Things haven’t changed much on the commerce rhetoric. On the ground, though, we’re literally on a new Line of Actual Control (LAC). That has implications for tomorrow.
Now under the Narendra Modi-led BJP government, like the government before, there is a seemingly nationalistic fervour for pushback against Chinese products in India from the public.
This upsurge of Swadeshi sentiment usually coincides with festivals like Holi, Rakshabandhan or Diwali, when calls are made for banning Chinese colours, rakhis, land firecrackers.
This was also the case in 2017, during the Doklam standoff. Usually, such pushbacks are fanned by narrow political agendas of fringe groups who want prominence. And nothing much happens.
But today the situation is fundamentally different. Blood has been spilt, a nation’s pride has been hurt, and even those who were not on the bandwagon now want to jump on it. Matters are made more serious in India whenever cricket is involved. To add to the world pointing fingers at China for suppressing information about Covid-19, the time now is to believe in the motto – less is more.
The push is here
In a competitive business environment, many see this as an opportunity to edge out Chinese brands from the market. And rather than economic fundamentals, jingoism is probably a more potent tool to achieve this and get some enabling policies from the government. This may be soon possible, with reports that the Modi government is mulling higher trade barriers and raising import duties on about 300 products from China. Further, there has been a new narrative that has emerged from the government in terms of its firm commitment to make India ‘Atmanirbhar’, especially targeting Chinese brands.
So long as the border face-off continues and the media continues to play it up, this sentiment is not going to go away.
If you are a Chinese company, it will be awkward and pretty foolhardy to go out and associate with Indian-ness and try to be desi. With so much uncertainty on the horizon, Chinese brands will need to adapt to the new challenges and demands placed on them. Brands need to re-calibrate what their communication should be about. Our advice has been: less is more. This isn’t your moment.
Five things you can do
If you are a Chinese company and if you have been around for a while in India, first look back and see what kind of capital you have built for yourself. Try staying with that and without much hype or hoopla. Just state your commitment as far as those brand values are concerned. Subtly not loudly. And keep stating them. Say it only, under your breath. Listen to Indian feedback, keep listening….
The second thing to remember is that sometimes things can get quite hairy out there. This is the time when emotions are running riot, among bureaucrats, politicians and even citizens. Silence is smart. Keep quiet. Don’t raise visibility, or hackles, for a while, even if it means an unduly low profile.
The third suggestion is to use this time to build a real narrative about what your actual contribution to India is and could eventually be. It is something you can build upon and then accelerate, once the dust settles. Build your narrative on how you are contributing to India in terms of investments, employment opportunities, etc. So, while silence is the mantra, use this time to build this narrative.
The fourth point is, looking at the future, to move from communicating brand value to real value creation. Once you shift gear, this is where you should head, so that the questions about your identity take a backseat and what you mean is clear from what you do, on the ground.
Finally, it’s also time to build on the technology, quality and durability narrative. Use this time to add to your arsenal stories on research, innovation, durability, which will help move the needle from the “Chinese is cheap” conversation when tensions stabilise.
At a time when China has been weaponised into a war cry in India, the mantra should be to put up and shut up.
The author, India’s Image Guru, is Consulting Partner of Perfect Relations. He advises corporations, political parties and start-ups. On Twitter @DilipTheCherian. Views are personal.