Book Excerpt: Marketing lessons from Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday, July 24 2016, 10:32 AM
M. K. Gandhi (1869 - 1948) never won a war. He never was a President. He never was a movie star. He never made it big in industry. He never even made money. Still, virtually every poll across the globe, names him as the Man of the Century.

So what is it that makes the frail man from Porbander, such a towering Titan? Is it his ideas? Probably not.  Ahimsa and Satyagrah are age-old concepts.  There have been many apostles of peace before.  But none enjoyed as much adulation as this humble person. What makes this man the ultimate icon?

It may sound preposterous, but can we credit this phenomenon to his marketing skills? After all he is also known for the following quote:

"A Customer is the most important visitor on our premises.
He is not dependent on us.
We are dependent on him.
He is not an interruption on our work.
He is the purpose of it.
He is not an outsider to our business.
He is a part of it.
We are not doing him a favour by serving him.
He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so"

Gandhi famously said "My life is its own message"; so let us look at his life in marketing parlance.

Market Research

In 1901, after attending the Kolkata session of the Indian National Congress he went out on a tour of India, traveling third class in order to study for himself, the habits and difficulties of the poor.


When Gandhi came back from South Africa he promptly gave up his westernized dress and moved to dhoti, kurta, turban; and he had a 'packaging' which was different than other leaders of freedom fighters like Motilal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah etc. When he picked up the 'walking stick' he did not need one, but again it could have been a part of 'packaging'.


With "My Experiments with Truth", an autobiography containing true account of his early life Gandhi positioned himself as an epitome of truth. This helped him get away with many of his actions of omission and commission later in his political life.

Shelf Space:

Gandhi's first appearance on the all India political scene in 1919 was through Rowlatt satyagrah which ended in a fiasco but made him known all over India. The spark was provided by the opposition of many Indian Muslims to British policy towards the defeated Ottoman Empire and their demand for preserving the Khilafat of Islam.

To quote Claude Markovits from 'The Un-Gandhian Gandhi', "Gandhi got associated at an early stage with Muslims protests against British policy, a position which did not go down too well with many nationalists, wary of a movement that, they thought, was dominated by pro-Islamic elements. But it enabled Gandhi to use this apparently peripheral position to establish himself at the heart of the political debate. He forged an alliance with some Muslims leaders which helped him make his views prevail in Congress in spite of his lack of a proper base."

Image Management:

"Gandhi had a frugal style of living but, as Sarojini Naidu once jokingly remarked, it cost Gandhi's friends a great deal of money to keep him in poverty. His consumption of fresh fruit, increasingly his staple diet, would have bankrupted many a middle class household. This friend of the poor was also friend of rich, and he was always opposed to the ideology of class struggle. While he never showed indulgence towards the rich, whom he expected to behave as trustees and not owners of their assets, his links to business circles did sometimes act as a break on his political decisions." (ibid, Claude Markovits)

Event Management:

"Of all the great initiatives in India's Freedom Struggle, the Salt Satyagrah remains the most innovative…Think of Gandhi, for a moment, as a strategist. He had to fight the British Empire. He understood his competition. He was resource-constrained, if we consider military or financial resources. He needed a cause that would unite people, the rich and the poor. He needed a public demonstration of defiance. He did not want a defiance that would involve any technological requirements. Salt was it. It united all castes and economic levels. Salt is God's gift. Salt, water and the Indian Sun could do the trick. The Dandi March and the crowds on the beaches attracted people. The British learned not to underestimate the power of common symbols", says C. K, Prahlad in Business Today dated 22 February, 1999

Public Relation:

"He knew how to exploit all the possibilities offered by a given situation, combining agitation and propaganda in the most effective way. Gandhi proved to be a genius of 'agitprop'. He was good at attracting the attention of media upon his actions and on the movements he led. The start of the salt march was covered by the three film documentary organizations present in India and by correspondents of the international press. Gandhi was skilled in staging his smallest action, so as to maximize its resonance, by playing on symbols and visual elements. When he seized the initiative, he gave no breathing time to the opponent," notes Claude Markovits.

Market Share:

He defended his territory as the 'main leader of independence movement' as ferociously as a marketing manger defends markets share of his product. He never allowed any other leader to grow around him. Bhagat Singh and Subhash Bose had to pay the price in different ways when they were perceived to be becoming bigger than the ultimate icon of freedom struggle. Jinnah got away with it because he re-defined rules of the game and created his own idiom for which unfortunately, Gandhi had no answer.

"Although the hunger strike was a weapon that Gandhi learnt to use with perfection in his political bargaining with the British, he disapproved of its use by Jatin Das, Bhagat Singh and others for the amelioration of prison condition. He rebuked Jawaharlal for approving of this fast, commenting that it was an "irrelevant performance…" (Reba Som in Gandhi, Bose, Nehru; page 42)

"He did not do anything beyond lip service to defend Bhagat Singh and took rest only after democratically elected Subhash Bose had to quit Congress presidentship…Gandhi, exhibited a ruthless firmness in edging Subhash out of the Congress leadership…(ibid, page 8)

The quotations above are, in no way, a reflection on Gandhiji's leadership, but they are used only to underline his determination as a strong manager to defend his turf or market share.


He was a great creator of 'Logos'. He made 'Charkha' (spinning wheel) a potent symbol of freedom fight and he devoted some part of every day to work on 'Charkha' to give it the required publicity. Charkha became so powerful a logo that it ended up on the National Flag till it was replaced by Ashoka Pillar.

Brand Identity and Brand Ambassador:

'Khadi' became the brand identity. Gandhi himself became the Brand Ambassador for Khadi. Khadi was not a mere rejection of Western attire – it was a panacea for the economic ills that beset the country.

Brand Extension:

His brand recall was so strong that his name got associated with the humble khadi cap, which he never wore! What could be a better example of brand extension?


He was well aware of the fact that Mughal and Buddhist rule was overthrown by Bhakti Movement. The resonance of 'Vande Mataram' had brought about the revival of the urge in the country to overthrow Britishers. He created an alternative in 'Raghupati Raghav Rajaram' and like Charkha, started spending time on it every day to give it enough publicity.

To sum it up:

Gandhi said "My life is its own message"; that's why these learnings have been inspired from his life related to his work. (His personal life has been consciously kept out of discussion,)

In sum total Gandhi could have been 'Head of Marketing' of any organization. He had full understanding of all the nuances of marketing and he implemented them to the "T". Only difference here was that he applied that knowledge for fighting for independence and social movements like struggle against untouchability.

Anand Kurian writes (Hindustan Times, Mumbai, December 11, 2007), "So who would be our choice be for India's best advertising man ever? Who is India's best man? …Here is a choice that may appear surprising - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. This may seem very quirky choice. But, perhaps we need to see the man, without the halo around him as we usually do."

Anand Kurian further writes, "Perhaps our marketing students need to put aside their Kotler for a time. I hope , one day his life and his work will be compulsory reading for the young in our management institutions as they truly deserve to be."

The above is an excerpt from the Best seller "Business of Freedom – an Initiative for School of Indian Management" by management author & thinker Sandeep Singh. He can be reached at [email protected].