UDAIPUR, RAJASTHAN, India -- I am just returning from a summer in India, where, I have observed, the most frequently used words these days are "iconic" and "brand."
These words may have become clichés partly because, with reference to the former, India is a young democracy obsessed with making its new history seem both old and culturally relevant; and partly because, referring to the latter, it is aggressively trying to leverage its newfound Wall Street cred to the global marketplace.
Arvind Singh Mewar is sometimes considered the former but not often the latter. He is set on changing both impressions.
If "iconic" means, as my online dictionary reports, "any person or thing that is revered; someone or something regarded as embodying the essential characteristics of an era, group, etc.," then he admits his guilt at being an icon.
At the age of 64, he is the 76th in an unbroken line of men in his family who have led the people in this region of Rajasthan, India, since 734 C.E. Indians up and down the socio-economic ladder prostrate to him (literally or figuratively). I've seen hotel doorman in Mumbai and Delhi doyens recognize him, defer and bow, addressing him as "Shriji," a Hindu term of respect and affection. He is, or was, among India's royal class. In some circles, he is still referred to as a "Maharana," and his children "Prince" and "Princess," though the terms themselves, along with any official claim to leadership and any financial privileges, were abolished in the years following India's independence.
A brief historic aside for my Western-centric friends: There is a significant distinction between maharanas and maharajas. They all are, or were, members of one of 565 so-called "princely states," better known west of the Hindu Kush as feudal systems, into which the present country called India had been divided. Maharanas often take the bad rap for what maharajas did throughout their history.
Reduced to its essence, if such can be achieved condensing several millennia, maharajas assumed their power and wealth by conquest -- doing so time and time again against each new invader, whether Muslim, Christian, or Hindu.
Maharanas claim their descent from no less "higher authority" than the Sun God, Ra. Westerners will have trouble wrapping their heads around such an assertion but Indians, who have an innate understanding of myth-meets-fact, get it. Get it or not, since the 8th century they have not so much "ruled" as defended, protected and seen to the daily needs of their community. His family -- the House of Mewar -- lives the credo known in French as noblesse oblige. But to them it's not just a phrase; it's a way of life, a moral compass which rules Shriji, as it has ruled his forefathers, as it rules his two daughters, as it will rule his 24-year-old son, Lakshyaraj, who will inevitably succeed him.
Icons die hard, which, one would assume, is why they are called icons. But while many of his ilk have tried hard to hold on to their past glory, they have floundered, either spending or drinking away fortunes amassed over several centuries, and without the wherewithal or will to reinvent themselves in the 20th or 21st centuries.
His family, like some other former rajes, converted their opulent palaces and hunting lodges into hotels. Two of his HRH Hotels -- Fateh Prakash and Shiv Niwas Palaces -- sit along the shores of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, which was voted "world's best city" by readers of Travel & Leisure this summer. He also owns the much-photographed Taj Lake Palace Hotel, an island in the middle of the lake (and a favorite getaway for Mick Jagger, who Shriji counts as a good friend and, I hear, vice versa). One measure of the HRH Hotels' success, if imitation remains the highest form of flattery, is that two large chains have built new hotels further down the shoreline, designed to look exactly like 200-year-old palaces -- that is, exactly like Shriji's 200-year-old palaces.
It seems that capitalism and free market economy have brought a new wave of invaders.
Which brings me, in typical Indian round-about manner, to branding.
Indians are nothing if not entrepreneurial. Every street vendor from Mumbai to Chennai thinks of himself as a start-up, already plotting his IPO in this lifetime, if not the next. Nonetheless, most other former royals shy away from pandering to commercial interests, thinking it a sign of the depths to which they've fallen.
Shriji thinks otherwise. In fact, he has embraced the B-word, which may be why even back in 1969 when he was a young hotel trainee in Chicago, a Sun Times columnist dubbed him the "maverick prince." He is surely the only former Indian royal actively updating his Facebook wall every day.
Several years ago he retained a Mumbai-based branding group called Chlorophyll to position his various for-profit and nonprofit enterprises under one umbrella. They developed a branded name, Eternal Mewar, a logo and a slogan.
Chlorophyll called it one of their most challenging branding projects. I understand why. Most other brand exercises are about a product or corporation in search of a brand identity. This "family business" already had an identity -- more precisely an ideology -- that needed to be "packaged" as though it was a product.
What they came up with is too esoteric for Americans: the logo is three grains of rice (a symbol of welcome in India) set against a red circle (the bindi in the middle of the forehead, where Hindus believe one's "third eye" of wisdom resides), embraced by a pair of paragraph marks (embracing and protecting the community). Again, Indians may get it but those from the West may not. Their slogan -- "Custodianship unbroken since 734 AD" -- may cause inherent cross-cultural confusion. In the United States, a custodian is a janitor, one who looks after a building. These Indians do that too, but as conservationists and preservationists, thanks in part to a grant from the Getty Foundation for the palace museum restoration. Americans like their slogans in three catchy words, more preferably three syllables. "Just do it!" just did it for Nike.
In any regard, the Holy Grail of any branding effort is to have your brand name become so familiar that it enters the lexicon as a generic noun or a verb. Kleenex and Xerox achieved such heights. So has Google. I know that because I just googled it.
No Indian product or corporation has yet achieved that global status of true brand name, internationally interchangeable for the generic, universally associated with a value and an ethos. Until such time, though democratic India has come a long way, baby, Brand India, as it is sometimes referred to, still has a long way to go, baba.
Shriji feels he is up to branding Mewar in the United States. Whether American consumers can connect the concept of a former Indian royal -- who Facebooks his altruistic activities while running an empire of for-profits and not-for-profits -- with charity, longevity and unparalleled hospitality, all in one word...well, my "third mewar" is blinking on that prediction.
Perry Garfinkel is a longtime contributor to the business pages of The New York Times and the author of Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All (Three River Press, www.buddhaorbust.com).