Mont Blanc Withdraws Gandhi Pen
Last year the FT broke the story of outrage in India over the launch of a new Mont Blanc pen because of its name: “Gandhi”. Mont Blanc has now apologized and decided to withdraw the luxurious limited series.
Behind the news:
The withdrawal may be great news for pen collectors (only 241 pens were made, one to represent each mile Gandhi walked in his march to protest British colonial salt tax in 1930), but it is an unfortunate blip for the iconic French luxury brand, particularly in the vast Indian luxury growth market.
What is wrong in associating the exemplary history of Gandhi and the immaculate heritage of Mont Blanc?
Gandhi was an ascetic man whose spiritual life and revolutionary peaceful combat against British oppression turned him into a global hero and the locally revered father of the Indian nation.
France also has a revolutionary history of opposing tyranny and cherishes values of universal equality and justice for all. Just like Gandhi, France was locked in struggle with the British colonial empire. Before the launch, Mont Blanc was cautious enough to obtain formal permission from Gandhi’s great-grandson in exchange of 90,000 pounds, to be donated to a charity.
So what’s all the fuss?
First, a local issue:
Not only was Gandhi passionately opposed to the British colonial domination of India. He believed in frugality and opposed luxury as well as any commercial use of his name. Well-educated upwardly mobile Indians, the target market for luxury brands, may be attracted to luxury but remain acutely aware of this fact.
Second, a global learning:
The West and Western brands do not get to appropriate and dictate universal values anymore. The world may be flat, but we all want to be different! The trend is to assert local pride, values and asperities.
What’s the moral?
Any attempt by a global brand to use national symbols of pride and heritage risks damaging backlash, ESPECIALLY with the new powerhouses of the world such as China, Brazil and India.
Here are 3 tips tongue-in-cheek tips from the past year’s cross-cultural leanings for brands interested in China, Brazil and India.
1. China. Don’t make fun of Mao, or pretend to be Chinese when you are not.
2. Brazil. Don’t eco-preach about the Amazon Forest or make a clichéd display of outrageous sexiness (Google “Paris Hilton and Brazil” if you are curious about this one).
3. India. Whatever you do, don’t mess with Gandhi.
Times change. What might seem obvious points to us today, with 20/20 hindsight, were not just one year ago.