According to some, the delay in the search for a new symbol for the rupee is symbolic. In his Budget speech on February 26, Indian finance minister Pranab Mukherjee said: “In the ensuing year, we intend to formalize a symbol for the Indian rupee, which reflects and captures the Indian ethos and culture. With this, the Indian rupee will join the select club of currencies such as the U.S. dollar, the British pound sterling, the euro and the Japanese yen that have a clear, distinguishing identity.”However, in June, a meeting of the Union Cabinet, which was supposed to decide on the symbol, didn’t take up the issue because the finance minister said he needed more time. The symbol for the rupee — just like the Indian century, it seems — is yet to arrive.

The search for a new symbol for the rupee had started in February 2009, when the Union Ministry of Finance kicked off a competition for the design of the symbol — although not without controversy. Non-resident Indians protested because they were not allowed to participate. Others grumbled at the US$10 entry fee. Some objected to the identifying photograph that had to accompany all entries because it intruded on participants’ privacy. And there were complaints when the five winning entries were shortlisted by a panel of experts. The government remained silent on these matters. There is still uncertainty about the number of entries received, with estimates ranging from 3,500 to 25,000. There is reason for this opacity: At the top end of the estimate spectrum, the panel would have had just a few seconds to judge each entry.

Choosing the Top Five

The panel, headed by Reserve Bank of India (RBI) deputy governor Usha Thorat, shortlisted five contestants, who won US$500 each. The final winner will get US$5,000. The contenders are Jitiesh Padmashali (an advertising professional), Shahrukh J. Irani (a designer), D. Udaya Kumar (a student from the Indian Institute of Technology), Nondita Correa-Mehrotra (a lecturer in architectural design at MIT and daughter of well-known architect Charles Correa), and Shibin K.K. (a teacher in Kerala). “I think our rupee suffers from not having an identifiable symbol,” Correa-Mehrotra told web portal shortly after being named a finalist. “With a symbol we would be poised to represent our economic liberalization as … the Indian currency will be traded globally.”

The U.K.’s pound sterling (£) dates back to the Kingdom of Mercia (now the British Midlands) in the 8th century. The dollar symbol ($) was adopted in the U.S. in 1785. The yen (¥) goes back to 1871. The euro (€) was unveiled in 1996. More recently, other countries have engaged in a similar process. The Central Bank of Russia held a contest in 2007 and came up with 13 symbols — but two other groups have put forward rival entries. China, which may have the best credentials to flaunt a currency symbol given its economic strength, has the complication of having both the renminbi and the yuan (the former is technically the money system and the other the base unit of the currency). In addition, the currency already has three symbols that are largely unrecognized outside the country.

Why does India think a new rupee symbol will gain currency? And what would it mean for the country? “As we are a part of the global economy and our effort is to gain a prominent position in the comity of nations, it is only appropriate that our currency also gets an internationally recognized symbol on the lines of other world currencies,” says Sudip Bandyopadhyay, promoter of financial services company Convexity and earlier managing director of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Money. He points out that India is among the top economies in the world in terms of purchasing power parity and is possibly the second-fastest growing economy. “Under these circumstances, there is a fair chance for the Indian currency to establish itself as a currency of choice for the international community. Creating a symbol for the rupee at this junction will help this cause and enhance the image of the Indian currency.”

Currency Is an Ambassador

“The currency of a nation is … its ambassador across countries,” says Harish Bijoor, brand-strategy specialist & CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. “The currency of a country is also a symbol of its status. Its value and its exchange rate is a symbol of its strength and stability as a nation, both political and economic. [It is] therefore much more than what it seems to be.” Bijoor, who is also a visiting professor at the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business (ISB), adds that the symbol for the rupee is yet another stepping stone to future greatness for the country.

The rupee was once legal tender across several countries. This started in the British colonial days when it held sway in East Africa and Asia. It continued as legal tender in Oman, Qatar and the countries within the United Arab Emirates until 1966. It had been replaced by the local currency earlier in Kuwait (1961) and Bahrain (1965). The RBI also functioned as the banker to the government of Burma until 1947. Today, the only places where consumers can pay in Indian rupees outside the country are “mini Punjab” in Southall, West London; Springdale (known as Singhdale) in Brampton, Canada; and other ‘Little Indias’ across the world. The rupee is accepted, but a dollar or a pound takes consumers further; no businesses will offer the official rate of exchange.

Will the rupee become stronger if it has a symbol of its own? Opinion is divided. Says Sundar G. Bharadwaj, visiting Wharton professor of marketing and professor of marketing at Emory University: “I am not a currency expert but I can clearly see that the perceived strength of the brand will go up.” Adds Bandyopadhyay of Convexity: “The symbol for the rupee may not make a difference to its strength, but it will definitely enhance the image.”

In marketing terms this is a rebranding exercise. “The rebranding has to reflect what the underlying brand is about: a growing economy, a confident economy, a large economy,” notes Bharadwaj. “India has to be clear about what the underlying brand promise is. Brands are a promise of superior performance or excellence that forms a set of associations in people’s minds. It is important that India understand what it wants to convey and there is some underlying basis behind it. India cannot claim to be a First World nation when the majority of its people live in Third- and Fifth-World conditions. It has to demonstrate that it delivers the underlying promise. You can’t just claim something and fail to deliver. Eventually it will come back to bite you.”

A Richer Brand India

Viren Razdan, managing director of brand management firm Interbrand India in Mumbai, was part of a team of experts the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) put together two years ago to brainstorm approaches to the rupee’s rebranding. “The rupee rebranding [is] an exercise to say that if we [want] to become an economic superpower, we have to create a symbol that is reflective of our cultural code. Each of the emerging economies is trying to establish a clearer picture of its brand. The branding forms a valuable, symbolic code for Brand India. It gives us a clear advantage over the Chinese, to say that we are far more cultural. In the past few years, India has really used its ‘soft power’ to embellish its brand — through its music, movies, art forms etc. This really forms part of that coded system. Brand India will become richer if and when this symbol comes into play.”

Bharadwaj explains that the rebranding is similar to what happens in the corporate world in a situation following a merger or when a company wants to live down its past. He gives the example of ValuJet, which rebranded itself after one of its aircraft crashed in the Florida Everglades. Closer to home — and very much in the news — is Union Carbide. The chemicals company became Eveready Industries in India after a gas leak killed 15,000 people in Bhopal, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in 1984.

According to Bijoor, the country will adopt a soft approach, “with an Eastern ethos to the branding…. The Eastern way is a subdued way. It is not as overt as the American and the U.K. way. It is not as ‘top down.’ It is bottom up. I believe this Eastern ethos needs to be preserved in everything we do with the symbol for the Indian rupee.” He adds: “The brand is a thought that lives in peoples’ minds. This is a function of many things. The name of the country, the color of its flag, its national anthem, its political, economic, religious and social ethos, and of course its currency.” He notes that because other nations have their own rupee as a monetary unit, a symbol will be a differentiator for India.

Designing the Campaign

What would be the best way to promote a new symbol? B.N. Kumar, CEO of Concept PR and an image consultant, suggests “a grand event for unveiling the brand with the prime minister doing the honors, as he is the best-recognized economist as well. There should also be global road shows at major financial centers. I would also recommend a campaign titled ‘I value my rupee.'” This is an excellent opportunity to position the Indian currency as a powerful force that will drive the India Vision 2020, he adds. “It will be a significant campaign which could last up to two years,” notes Razdan of Interbrand. “The first task is to sell it within India. It will be multimedia; TV will be the dominant media and it will be launched with much fanfare.”

Will politics interfere? Says Bharadwaj: “A brand has incredible intangible value. I am afraid that with political parties, this could be the fad of the month or season.” Razdan is more optimistic. “If the rupee symbol is positioned correctly, it will rise above petty politics,” he says.

Bharadwaj is, on the whole, optimistic. “The rupee is trying to associate itself with the top four or five currencies,” he says. “The rebranding reflects the bigger ambition of India. The new India has immense confidence in itself — the confidence that you can do anything. It wasn’t there 20 years ago. A while ago, India was compared with South Korea and China. You don’t talk about South Korea any more. You also don’t compare India with China any more. India is India.”