Upon meeting the first Nepali he ever encountered, a grade seven student in India asked the Beed why he didn't sound anything like Aamir Khan's 'bahadur' character in the new Coca-Cola television commercial. The child's grasp of all things Nepali has been filtered through the oily lens of advertisement jingles on pickles and colas.
The question of how an Indian generally see a Nepali may be a question worth pondering on the eve of Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa's official visit to New Delhi next week. A well known Bharpali (Bharitiya Nepali read: Indian of Nepali origin) leader said it to boiled down to the ABCDs of Indian life: Ayah (maid), Bearer (waiters), Chowkidar (guard) and Durwan (doorman). Which is exactly how Aamir Khan ends up playing a bumbling Nepali for the Indian audience-it's a stereotype they recognise.
In the United States, Nepal is synonymous with Mt Everest and consequently they believe Nepal is all mountains and no flatlands. "And how many mountains have you climbed?" one is constantly asked. It's as if geographically challenged Americans think I have to strap on my crampons just to get to work.
Is branding a perception that is created, or a reality that you sell? In his latest essay, marketing guru Philip Kotler talks about national branding developing a competitive edge. With more than 200 countries producing similar goods and services, he asks why a few are perceived better than the others. Why is Bhutan now a brand for pristine tourism when Nepal and even parts of India that offer the same unspolit natural settings are not recognised?
It is becoming increasingly important to better brand Nepal as well as Nepalis-a theme the Beed feels strongly about ('Made in Nepal', #127). Surely we deserve better than a distillation of a black-Nepali cap wearing, 5 feet tall man in green with a khukuri dangling from his belt. Unfortunately this is exactly what will turn up if a survey were to be done in India about the Nepali brand icon. It is a disturbing thought that India is our biggest market for goods and services and they see us ABCDs.
Many countries, helped by 'parachute consultants', are re-branding their image and strategy. India had a big 'do' last week showcasing the best advertising brains in Asia to finetune its international unique selling point. Singapore is already ahead of the game with its clear planning and execution that is continuously reviewed. Malaysia and Thailand have followed suit, and even Vietnam is ready to burst into the market.
The time is right for us to create our own image and icon. If we don't hurry, there are others out there who are quite happy to do so for us.