Crudely put, the purpose of branding and marketing is consumer attention that culminates in sales. But if we widen the scope of our understanding, every public entity that engages with people needs an idea or an image to be remembered by, i.e., a brand. This stands true for the government as well. When launching new initiatives, programs, and agencies, governments need to communicate the same to the citizens these are aimed at. Shubho Sengupta helps us understand how the aims, objectives, and strategies differ in branding for the government as we explore an end goal beyond sales.
The idea of the government needing to invest in branding seems outlandish. Why would the government need to do so, who is the target audience, and what does this branding look like?
Hi, I am Madhuleen, representing ISB Management ReThink, an online management practice journal published quarterly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In this session, we venture to understand what government branding is and what are the aims and guidelines for governments to engage in it. To guide us on our journey, we have with us the man right at the center of government communication, Mr. Shubho Sengupta. Mr. Sengupta is head of marketing and communications at Mission Karmayogi, a Government of India National Programme for civil services capacity building. He is also the former director of media and creatives, for MyGov India.
Welcome to podcast Mr. Sengupta.
Thank you very much.
To start off, could you help us understand what is the aim of government branding and why do governments need to engage in it?
Yeah, that's a very good question. You know, from my background and I've spent, you know, I mean, since the mid 90s, I was in advertising, promoting FMCG products and…stuff like that. And so, I understand branding, communication, stuff like that. But, I was always looking at government communication and it seemed to be so boring. You know it...it was the these, you know, bunch of text in an incomprehensible ad…the language was very Victorian and so on. The English was very difficult to understand. So, I had always wondered, you know, why is it so convoluted and so on? I mean, if I can't understand it with a degree in English, how will common people understand? So, you know, thankfully, that's changing in the last couple of years. I mean, the government has realized that good communication means people. I mean, you don't talk down to people, you speak at a...common, you know, speak to as a friend.
And so that...really that's kind of…changed the game a little bit. So, I think, I can't remember who it was, but they said the ability to express an idea is as important as the idea itself and good communication, frequently, if I may, you know, just take one more minute, good communication, does not mean sarkari (by the government) press releases that are often seen as propaganda, you know, as patting yourself on the back. So, you know, our aim should be to highlight the work that the government is doing in a transparent, open, and a democratic way, giving some room for people to give you feedback also, right. And, you know, you highlight positive stories, highlight achievements of individuals, of groups of people, scientists, ISRO, et cetera. Right! So, the needle has kind of shifted to, you know, just spewing out information to communication. And communication, as you might have seen some of the work during COVID, you know, it was very two-way. Okay, we are also very open and transparent, and we take feedback, you know. For example, where I used to be for five years, MyGov, the citizen engagement platform, we were always citizen...you know put the citizen bang in the middle of all our initiatives, right? I mean to the point, you know, just before the budget we used to ask young people in regions, in regional India, far-flung states, to give the comments what they wanted from the budget and we kind of relay to the Finance Ministry and a couple of suggestions were taken in the budget right? So anyway, what I'm trying to say is, the ability to express an idea is as important as the idea. So, you know, we've moved from incomprehensible propaganda driven kind of stuff to a more friendly, open, transparent kind of communication platform.
Yeah, that's an enlightening insight into what government branding is.
You touched upon how government branding has evolved from ‘talking down’ to ‘talking to’ people. Could you help us paint a more elaborate picture of how the government has engaged in branding over the years?
Yeah. Like I was saying, you know, I mean, I'm sure your memory is also, you know, I mean, if you remember the newspapers, those ‘tender ads’ as they are still called…I mean miles and miles of incomprehensible gobbledygunk, which would take a scientist to decipher and, so that is changing from…changing to Instagram reels for example, where young people talk about what's happening on the ground—young IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers or they could be ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers, in panchayats and so on. So, information has to, you know, I mean, no matter what your message is, it has to communicate at a ground level. I think that is what the government, and not just this government, but governments all over the world are kind of realising, especially with, I should add, digital platforms like social media where it's very difficult to do propaganda on social media, right? I mean, because it's open, people kind of give you feedback and so on, right? It's two-way, unlike the one-way of traditional broadcast mediums, newspapers, or television, where you didn't have a choice, you had to sit and listen. Alright, but now with digital at the center, it's becoming two-way, becoming four-way, five-way, it's a conversation. It's no longer a one-way gyan (knowledge) kind of thing. So, I think that's the big thing that is happening.
So, are there any ethical guidelines that dictate government branding and have these evolved and presented challenges with the changing environment?
Yeah, we, you know, when you're kind of open and you as a principle, as ethically, you know, as an ethical principle, you take feedback and everything is out in the open on, say social media or whatever. So, you know the guardrails are very… pretty much defined. And the government also uses AI (artificial intelligence) and other emerging technologies to make sure that there is no fake news. We are very data driven and the data, you know, the government’s, a lot of people don't know, the government’s data machinery is as good as the best in the world, right? I mean, we know what is happening in the remotest of villages, taluks, and panchayats. So, you know, and it's all open data, right. We are a very open source, kind of, information ecosystem, so by default in the last couple of years things are becoming very, very transparent.
We also believe we should not work in a silo, right? I mean often what used to happen some years back is someone in the government would put on information out in a silo without realising they were part of the larger government, right? So, you know what we do is we kind of connect with all the dots on the canvas. We leverage our collective information gathering, collective strength of distribution and dissemination. So, that helps keep it more transparent and democratic.
You talk about how the government aims not just to send their message across to the people but also have a conversation with them.
Does government branding also target specifically government employees, both potential and present? And how does that change messaging in any way if it does?
That's a brilliant question. You know, because, as I say...mentioned a little earlier, I used to be at MyGov, the citizen engagement platform, where it was the government talking to the citizen and the citizen talking to the government. Now I am at something called Mission Karmayogi, Karmayogi Bharat. And you know, our objective is capacity building of government officers, civil servants, right from the bottom to the top. And our communication is all within the government, inside the government, right? It is not outside, so it's e-learning training basically. So, we are trying to get people to come online at the iGOT (integrated Government Online Training) portal. We have a portal, and we have an app and so on, right? It's like Coursera, Udemy, etc. but it's only for the government and we have our own ecosystem of learning. So, the communication is completely internal. It is not external at all, right? Though some sections of what we do is open to the public, but it's 99% internal. So, you know, we use a lot of traditional and also new digital mediums to keep in touch with what we call ‘learners’ on a learning platform.
So, we use a lot of one-to-one digital platforms, we have our internal various technologies including instant messaging systems, right? And of course email, and of course a huge automated engine to connect with the individual or groups or ministries and so on. And it's, I can tell you it's far more alive, and lively, and fast than your, typical...uh, social media. So yes, we do have an internal system to communicate.
So, you know what we are trying to do is...uh, the word sell is the wrong word, but kind of make aware of, you know, the new India that is taking shape in front of our eyes, especially for young people, people who are entering the workforce, the job market for the first time.
So you know it's no longer a, you know, and this is what we do at Mission Karmayogi, it's no longer a naukri (job), right? It is no longer a sarkari naukar (government servant) right? It has moved from sarkari naukar to a position of empowerment from, you know, rules...rule-based to role-based. You know, getting…giving the government officer employee…empowering that person, giving him a stake in the new India in the modern India, you know, the good things, the big things that are happening.
So, we are trying to say listen, things are changing and here's how you can be a part of it. And we are talking to 25-year-olds or younger or young people generally. So that's the branding that we are doing and frankly speaking this is not…we don't have to try too hard because young people want change, young people want to do new things, they want to belong to something bigger than, you know, just a job, right? Just a career. So, you know we are, you know, kind of trying to promote a, a larger, broader mission, you know, not just a job. And I think we've been fairly successful at it going by the, you know, reports, results.
In the beginning you talked about the fact how the digital era has changed the way the government communicates with people and how the communication has evolved from the one dimensional to now a multidimensional communication.
So, how does the government balance, especially in India, the varying access to digital tools across the nation?
How does the government balance between those who have access to digital platforms, and branding, and advertising, and communicating to those who don't?
Yeah, okay. So, you know, I mean we were just discussing how digital has kind of democratized things, right? In traditional media, traditional times, it was very broadcast, you know, someone was sitting on the top of a tree and shouting at the top of his voice. Right now, the communication, the power centre has come down and it's amongst the people. So, what we try and do, and you know, I'll quote Bill Clinton, I suddenly remembered. Someone asked Bill Clinton, “what do you do?” And this is many, many years back, of course. And so, he said, “I tell the stories of ordinary people”, and I...and he was the President of the US at that point in time, you know, and I thought, you know what? What a brilliant answer! You know, he's a storyteller. That's what he is. He brings alive the stories of ordinary people. So, you know that's what we are also trying to do, you know, I mean give voice to the millions of unknown Indians in every corner of India. I think that is the vision. That's the mission. That's we're what we're trying to do.
The digital divide is not as bad as it used to be, you know, 10 years back or 15 years back. I remember 20 years back, it was terrible, you know. It was just 2% or 3% of people who had access to some kind of Internet, digital device, or Internet. It's completely changed now, especially in the last three, four, five years, right? I think about 800-900 million Indians out of our total 1.4 [billion], right, they have access to, you know, some kind of Internet or the other on a smartphone normally.
OK, so this is one thing, the how do we, you know, get to the last 500 million? So, one big thing that is happening and that's what we are the in the government are also doing is you know moving away from only English and Hindi to you know, 20 plus regional official languages, right? So, at MyGov, we...and also at…Mission Karmayogi, we, well we have something called, you may have heard of, you know, Bhashani which is an AI-driven language translation tool. Connecting with regional audiences is very important and the future is AI. The future is, you know, regional languages. If you really want to reach to, you know, every Indian, in every border, remote corner, which was never done before. You know, I mean, it's strange that the...even now the Internet in India is, I don't know, 99% English, right? So, we wanna change it through, you know, initiatives like Bhashani. Everyone should get an equal representation so that, that's a goal, and that's something we're working towards.
Those were some enlightening insights into the realm of government branding.
As I now understand, government has always invested in means to communicate with the citizens to promote information, ideas, and morale of the people. But, with evolution of media, this communication has evolved into a conversation between the government and the citizenry. This includes not only the masses in general, but also the government servants in particular. In the digital world today, we have the opportunity to engage with our government should we choose to do so and make a difference
Thank you so much for taking out time for us and sharing your insights and experience on the omnipresent yet elusive realm of government branding.
Thank you so much.
Thank you so much for inviting me.
Shubho Sengupta is a digital marketer, startup co-founder, columnist, and podcaster. He is currently the head of marketing and communication at Mission Karmayogi, Government of India, and has been the former director, media and creative, at MyGov India. In his illustrious career in marketing and communications, he has held multiple creative roles with the most recent being digital marketing, working with both startups and big corporations, and now the government. He focuses on building integrated strategies, with a digital core, aligned with business objectives.