Though born in a Gujarati merchant family, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a merchant without a profit motive. He was in fact a merchant of causes. Satyagraha, ahimsa, freedom and civil disobedience, among others.
They were not disparate elements but part of a cohesive marketing campaign. Satyagraha asked one to stand up for truth by fighting for one’s birth right of freedom without using force, and by defying laws that were unjust. He marketed these causes like brands with the panache of a venture capitalist, brimming with audacious ideas. Bringing to play activation, crowdsourcing and event management, decades before they became buzz words.
His two-pronged reaction to the unfair import of British mill-made cloth was both radical and novel. Giving birth to two of his signature causes: one that urged people to shun British cloth and the khadi movement which called on people to make their own cloth. Gandhi at the spinning wheel became the poster boy of the world media. In the process, he probably masterminded India’s first road show when he toured the country, teaching people to spin and make khadi. Gandhi’s call to reject British mill-made clothes was equally dramatic. Imagine the spectacle of garments, unceremoniously being thrown into street-corner bonfires, led by Gandhi himself. Consider the 240-mile, 24-day salt march to Dandi with Gandhi at the helm of the swelling masses, in protest against the infamous Salt Act. The New York Times and others from the media followed the march with near-daily reporting. Gandhi and his fellow marchers grew from 78 to several thousands, making global headlines as they reached the ocean.
At the Dandi shore, he picked up a handful of salt, raised it to the sky and said, “With this salt, I am shaking the foundations of the empire.” In the words of biographer Eknath Easwaran, “The salt march created brilliant theatre.” And Gandhi was playwright, director, lead actor, stage manager and producer. He always masterminded his own campaigns, pitching his causes with symbolism that captured the imagination and struck a chord in the hearts of millions.
Hitler had his swastika, Churchill his 'V' sign but much before them Gandhi was marketing his freedom cause with a logo that spoke to everyone: the charka (spinning wheel) – and it went with him everywhere. It touched everyone, including the so-called untouchables whom he called God’s children and invited to his rallies to stand shoulder to shoulder with the ‘higher’ castes. His inclusive strategy paid off. All castes, clad in khadi, stood united as one against British rule.
Gandhi cannily leveraged the power of the underdog to sway world opinion against British rule and market the mother of all causes: freedom. The spectacle of a frail man in a loin cloth and a rough spun khadi shawl, standing up to the might of the biggest empire on earth was like a David challenging a Goliath but without a slingshot. It grabbed column space, airtime on radio and newsreel footage. No wonder, Churchill found the sight of the ‘seditious, half-naked fakir’ climbing up the steps of the viceroy’s palace to parley with the representative of the emperor, eye to eye, disgusting. But in the eyes of the world, oppressed India appeared heroic and fearless. He also gave the movement for freedom his own badge of frugality. When a journalist asked him the reason why he travelled third class, he answered, “Because there is no fourth.”
Gandhi had the media eating out of his hand. His open-letter technique to push his cause, created a media buzz and a sense of anticipation even before his movement was launched. His first salvo, promoting the salt march in March 1930 was an open letter to viceroy Irwin: “… On the 11thof this month I shall proceed with co-workers from the ashram to disregard the provisions of the salt law.....” He added, “...I hope there will be tens of thousands ready in a disciplined manner to take up the act of disobeying the Salt Act….”
The stage was set and caught the public eye. But while the march was at its peak, the viceroy banned reporting on civil disobedience by the Indian press. But Gandhi, not to be bested, had the last word when he shot off an open letter of protest to the viceroy, justifying his movement. The press carried it with perfect impunity.
More than 60 years after the death of Gandhi, his methods of cause marketing are still in currency. Many commercials of a well-known tea brand have echoed his style of standing up for what is right. Gandhigiri, popularised by Lagey Raho Munnabhai is the cool moral code for potent but peaceful activism. Movements like Occupy Wall Street are a throw-back to the methods applied by Gandhi. Prakash Jha’s film Satyagraha vividly depicts what additional influence Gandhi could have wielded had the social media existed during his times. Imagine a flash mob performance or a Facebook movement in support of Independence. The khadi Gandhi cap which he popularised during the Independence movement has staged a comeback. Anna Hazare, agitating for the Lokpal bill, was the first to resurrect it. Members of India Against Corruption (IAC) and the Anjaan Aadmi Welfare Trust regularly wear it with messages inscribed on it.
Gandhi was more savvy than saintly. He called himself a practical idealist. He certainly dreamed big but never with his eyes shut. His ideas were not theoretical and could always be ignited into action through movements that gathered momentum and groundswell. Best of all, they appealed to everyone. Common salt, khadi and Independence are the stuff that resonated among both the prince and the pauper. What distinguished him most is the fact that he campaigned for his cause both as a strategist and foot soldier.
The Cannes and Abby guys should seriously consider a posthumous award for brand Gandhigiri, in the category of Cause Marketing.
(The author is a senior creative director with JWT Kolkata. Views expressed are personal and not those of the organisation.)