The ludicrousness of white cachet

A Jaguar with an Indian accent? It simply won't do!

By Andrew Leonard

Published December 18, 2007 11:40PM (EST)

"Maharajas ruled long before Viceroys did. That's the simple reply Indian companies must give to foreign companies that resist an Indian takeover on the grounds that Indian ownership will lower the brand image."

So begins an angry editorial in India's Economic Times published on Dec. 13.

The issue: Two recent snubs from the West directed at India's premier business conglomerate, Tata.

First came a sniff from Ken Gorin, the U.S. head of the Jaguar Business Operations Council. Tata is attempting to purchase the luxury car brands Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford Motor Co. But on Dec. 7 the Wall Street Journal quoted Gorin as saying "I don't believe the U.S. public is ready for ownership out of India... I believe it would severely throw a tremendous cast of doubt over the viability of the brand."

"My concern is perception [in the marketplace], and perception is reality," he added. "It's about saying there are unique image issues with two of the bidders that the other one doesn't have."

Next up: The Financial Times reporting the reaction of Paul White, chief executive of the Orient-Express luxury hotel, train, and cruise operation, in response to Tata's Taj hotel chain subsidiary purchasing an 11 percent stake in the group.

"We do not believe that there is a strategic fit between your predominantly domestic Indian hotel chain and our global portfolio of luxury hotels," White said in a letter to Indian Hotels Vice-Chairman R. K. Krishna Kumar. "Any association of our luxury brands and properties with your brands and properties would result in a reduction in the value of our brands and of our business and would likely lead to erosion [of] RevPar (revenue per available room) premiums currently achieved by our properties."

Setting aside the pure irony that an operation calling itself "Orient-Express" doesn't want its brand associated with an Indian hotel group named Taj, which one might think signifies just as exotic an aura as anything in the Far East to well-heeled luxury consumers, there is the complicating factor that according to a recent Pew Foundation Global Attitudes survey, Indians have a higher opinion of their own culture than citizens of any other nation with 64 percent polled "agreeing completely, without any reservations" that "our culture was superior to others," according to Meera Nanda, writing in The Hindu. (Thanks to Sepia Mutiny for the link.)

So some peevishness from the Economic Times could be expected.

This is close to racism, barely camouflaged in the language of branding. And it is only one of many examples....Last year, Vijay Mallya’s bid for the French champagne company, Tattinger, was turned down on the ground that the French cachet of the brand would be hurt by non-French ownership. But the days of white supremacy are disappearing rapidly, and white brand value with it.

When Arab financiers are needed to rescue Citigroup, notions of white cachet seem ludicrous. After the subprime mortgage fiasco, Citibank has turned to Vikram Pandit as its new CEO (see the edit below), to refurbish its image. So, an Indian name is actually rescuing a tarnished Citigroup brand... So, Indian bidders should shrug aside quasi-racist slurs against their takeover bids. These cannot halt their global march.

The global economy. Just one big happy family.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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