Selling the Taj Mahal to America


No matter what your business, success lies in understanding your market and correctly positioning your product. You can have the right message for the wrong market and be moderately successful. Or you can create a potential blockbuster by carefully analyzing your market opportunity and effectively selling into this.

A chance meeting with one of India's film moguls led me to realize how well these marketing principles apply even to an industry like Bollywood. And I was thrilled to have the opportunity to play a tiny role in bringing the Taj Mahal to America.

HARNESSING "DIVINE ENERGY." In previous columns, I've written about how a tech executive like me got involved in the film industry (see BW Online, 1/24/04, "Bollywood, Here I Come"). The Taj Mahal journey started with a dinner at the residence of legendary Bollywood actor and producer Feroz Khan . On my second trip to Mumbai, instead of introducing me to Miss India at dinner as before, Feroz presented to me to his brother, Akbar, and his lovely wife, Mariam. In Bollywood, the Khans have a celebrity status equal to the British royals, so I felt pretty honored.

Akbar had devoted nine years to a single obsession -- documenting the story of the Taj Mahal and sharing it with future generations. He said, during a visit to the Taj, he felt captivated by the "divine energy" within the magnificent mausoleum, "where every slab of engraved marble seems to speak of the eternal love the emperor Shah Jahan felt for his wife, Mumtaz."

This inspiration led him to produce one of the most magnificent films ever shot in India. With a budget estimated at $15 million, Taj Mahal -- An Eternal Love Story also ranked as one of the most expensive. To complete this epic, he rented a historic fort from the Indian government for three years, built a dozen sets as marvelous as the royal palaces of the Mughals, and hired top actors and many thousands of extras.

And now it was time for him to face the biggest challenge that any entrepreneur faces: Selling his product and recovering his investment.

UNSPECTACULAR GROSSES. Akbar understood the Indian and Middle Eastern markets and believed that he had the makings of a blockbuster on his hands. He knew every Indian child studied the history of the Taj Mahal in school and that this was a matter of pride and fascination in that part of the world. He also expected substantial interest in the West over the film and hoped to do as well as such recent Bollywood hits as Devdas and Lagaan.

Given that even the biggest Bollywood hits grossed only around $10 million in India, and Bollywood films targeting the Indian-American market pulled in only a few million at most, Akbar would need to have a runaway success to turn a profit. I knew that foreign films with much smaller budgets like Bend It Like Beckham had grossed $32 million in the U.S. alone, and that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had done more than $128 million. But these were targeted at the mainstream U.S. markets vs. the ethnic markets. So I quizzed Akbar on his plans.

I learned that Akbar simply had not given much thought to market strategy. He was a gifted filmmaker and very passionate about his product, but market research and positioning were not things that he had time for. He expected that the Bollywood film distributors to whom he was about to sell the film would do all the marketing for him.

WESTERN INTEREST. I challenged Akbar to take a broader view of his film's market potential. Why wouldn't the American public be as interested in the Taj Mahal as Indians are, for example? Why wouldn't American parents want to see this film with their children and not only enjoy a dose of Indian culture but also learn an important history lesson? Why not go after the big Hollywood market rather than just focusing on Bollywood, I argued. What started out as a casual dinner conversation led to a lively brainstorming session about Western markets and opportunities.

Three months later, I received a very excited call from Akbar. He had indeed done some market research and realized that his true market opportunity lay outside Bollywood. The more he thought about it, the more excited he became about bringing the Taj Mahal and its timeless love story to the Western world. Akbar had shown the film to top European and American film executives. They agreed that the film would be of great interest to Western audiences and that the big revenue potential resided with those audiences.

With hopeful distributors clamoring over his film, Akbar decided to delay his Indian release and focus on the Western markets first. He decided to position the film as the world's greatest love story, a tale the West has rarely heard, and a historic epic that would educate the West about one of the most interesting passages in Indian history.

OPRAH AND BEYOND. Celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the completion of the Taj Mahal were under way, and this would add buzz to the film's marketing process. A soundtrack composed by a legendary Indian composer would further add to Western interest, where Bollywood scores have become staples on the club scene and in alternative music.

Beyond that, Akbar could ride on the coattails of a rising tide of general interest in Indian culture in the increasingly multicultural Western world. After all, when Bollywood stars appear on Oprah, it's not a huge leap to assume that Main Street U.S.A. is intrigued by -- and perhaps ready to embrace -- Indian culture.

With a bit of luck, you'll soon have the Taj Mahal showing at a cinema near you. And when you see it, just think of what you would have missed out on if a gifted entrepreneur didn't do a little bit of market research. It's something every entrepreneur should make time for.


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