In the past multinational brands like Nike have been under fireform being heavily inclined on one side of the political spectrum. However, brands themselves are trying to portray a neutral face as they don’t serve just one but also the other half of the population. Hence, from a business perspective, it makes a lot of sense to keep even the subtle messages free of bias.
Last year, an advertisement by Tanishq, a jewellery division of the Titan Co. from the house of Tatas showcased a traditional ceremony. It focused on an inter-faith couple from the two religions which have historically been at loggerheads. The brand received massive flak for the ‘naïve utopian’ narrative it was trying to showcase. So much so that it was compelled to withdraw the advertisement and issue a statement. Its stock price tanked nearly 3% the same day eroding nearly 2700 crores of the market capital. But why did it happen? Are brands unaware of the cultural landscape of the society they operate in? Or are they living in a bubble ignorant of cultural norms of the society? Whatever be the reason, the entire fiasco has burst the bubble brand managers were used to living in.
Most of them come from affluent backgrounds, born and raised in metropolitan cities and are unaware of the harsh realities of the rest of the country. Almost all the tweets against the campaign raised an issue that instead of promoting their exquisite jewellery designs, why is a brand which has no reason to be even closely associated with politics, getting into things it has no knowledge of? It has already been a bumpy ride for brands promoting their brands during the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic. Sales have nosedived and demand for luxury goods is still tepid. Amidst all this, being strangled in a controversy would be the last thing it would want for itself.
Recent mass outrages over advertisements seem to be a recent phenomenon but it is definitely not. In the pre social media era, outrages were more or less limited to street protest making it to an insignificant column in the newspaper. However,it does not mean that the audience was not offended by the television content. In the present times, internet has not just democratised information but also the expression of the individual. Earlier, people who used to be in a fix thinking that are they the only ones who think a particular way are finding hundreds of thousands of like-minded individuals on social media platforms.
Every individual in a free country always had the right to freely express oneself, however, social media provided a platform to exercise it. What people did not like earlier or should I say they have not been liking since a long time and were not able to speak against, are now vehemently doing it. It seems like social media has been a double edged sword for brands. On one hand, it has completely transformed the marketing industry, helping brands to scale their businesses to newer heights by improved sales owing to targeted ads to the consumers. On the other hand, it has made their jobs tougher in the sense that now they need to be far more careful than ever to avoid indulging in an activity that may have unintended consequences.
Some people may argue that controversies get much needed limelight and attention for a brand no matter be it positive or negative. However, this is an extremely myopic view of a particular fiasco ignoring the overall long-term impact on brand image. Imagine the scale of damage a single loyal customer with a lifetime value worth hundreds of thousands of dollars offended by an advertisement could do. On top of it, negative word of mouth by outraged customers would do even more damage. A controversy could help a new brand gain some traction in the short term but would be disastrous in the long.
So, is there a way out for brands to handle a situation wherein they are being used as a punching bags for people of the opposite ideology? Yes there is! And I am not talking about rolling out apologies every now and then to different groups of people for offending them. Just like everything else in the company, political controversies should be best handled by people who have sound knowledge of the field. Professionals finalising the advertisement campaign are marketing professionals from premier business schools who have been raised in a cosmopolitan environment. They have little to no sense of what is and what is not acceptable in a country which is more diverse than most continents on the planet.
Hence, it becomes all the more necessary for brands to appoint a professional with expertise in social and political matters. This professional would be responsible for vetting all the marketing campaigns and helping companies steer free of controversies. This seems to be a far-fetched idea and some might argue that this responsibility already lies on C-Suite executives. However, we must not forget that in the present times when we are always offending someone or the other unintentionally, brand communication needs to be sensitive to all social and political issues. For this purpose, a specialist in the area is the need of the hour.
Disclaimer: The article is written by Ayush Saxena- a business analyst who is based in Delhi. The opinions expressed in this write-up are of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the The Youth or any of its members.