Opinion

‘Brands should have a voice if they want to engage consumers and build relationships with them’

The furore over a year-old ad for Red Label tea in India, which resulted in calls for a boycott of the brand on Twitter, leads Dentsu's Narayan Devanathan to mull over the risks for brands taking a stand in polarising times

An image from a ‘Boycott Red Label’ post on Twitter

The other day, I caught an impassioned tweet that appeared on my newsfeed. I don’t personally know the tweeter but it was retweeted by someone I know – a perfectly ‘sane and normal’ person that nobody would accuse of being imbalanced or partisan. In it, the original tweeter asked, in light of recent reports of atrocities against Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, why doesn’t the Indian government take up an initiative to move them all to India? 

My response (only in thought at the time) was: What if the Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan feel like that’s their home—not just legitimately but also emotionally, just like Muslims in India do? What if the cost of uprooting themselves even in the aftermath of such events was far greater than staying in a place where they had invested tremendously, in a social and emotional sense?

His thoughts, and my own thoughts in response (which I didn’t tweet), perhaps are a good example of the bipartisan nature of most public issues. 

It has always been the job and the interest of politicians and media to foment divisiveness, anywhere in the world. In the current day, it seems like this whole ‘direct to consumer’ phenomenon has permeated this realm as well. Social media tools, in essence, have become personal media tools, providing a platform to take individual voices (regardless of worth or veracity) to many strangers. 

And because the echo chamber amplifies all voices, from whichever side of the partisan divide they come from, ‘whataboutery’ reigns like never before.

A couple of years back, a detergent brand came out with a lovely long-form film that attempted to bridge the divide between the younger (and more inclined to be agnostic or atheistic) and older (believing) people in the Philippines. 

It was to do with the occasion of Muharram, where people would wear white clothes and publicly self-flagellate. At the end of it, the younger generation ‘gets’ why the older folk do this. Was the ad pointing out that the younger people’s belief system was wrong? (PS: This ad didn’t get mass media support and was shared with me by a colleague.)

If you go back to look at Indian automaker Bajaj motorcycles’ early 2000s reboot of its original ‘Hamara Bajaj’ [Our Bajaj] ad in India, it shows younger people — change-makers of a new India — being respectful about traditions and to older people. 

What bone could one pick with it? In today’s vocally divided world, someone could possibly pick up that Hindus and Sikhs were represented but not Muslims (who are an even greater proportion of India’s population than Sikhs). The younger rebellious sort could point out that the people shown in the ads were not just respectful but they were almost subservient to older traditions and people.

Which brings me to the recent brouhaha about an ad that originally released over a year ago, which saw calls for boycott of the brand trending on Twitter this year.

The critics’ argument against this Red Label tea ad is that it paints Hindus as being fear-and hate mongers, being closed-minded and prone to stereotyping. The larger point the ad makes about promoting openness and communal harmony is not the one these critics want to talk about. 

The inference, regardless of era or geography, seems to be that if a brand takes a public stance about anything, the old cliché kicks in: you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

There’s a healthy number of people on either side of any ideological fence ready to jump in with ‘but what about when…? – if and when a brand takes a stance. In the three examples I’ve quoted above, two feature products that are not social identity markers while one of them (bikes) is.

A fourth, recent, example is the one where Indian food services app Zomato issued a tweet in response to a customer, who had a problem with his order being delivered by a ‘non-Hindu’.Then, the company’s CEO Deepinder Goyal took to Twitter to state its policy and belief about not discriminating on the basis of religion or community.

He was, of course, damned for doing it. But until he issued a public statement, he was damned for his silence. Another client of ours recently had to reject an idea because it brought together people from two communities — they didn’t want to even expose themselves to being subjected to this kind of scrutiny.

So what is going on here? Are we living in distinctly more polarised times? Have people become hypersensitive in a hypercharged world? Is it merely to do with the access to platforms for public expression of real or faux outrage? Or have politicians and media become a lot more deft at stoking our insecurities and manipulating us?

The answer probably has bits of all of the above. Which probably leaves brands with two choices: to completely avoid presenting a point of view on sensitive topics and to find other ways of engaging with customers emotionally and rationally; or to firmly take a stance and stand by it regardless of repercussions, making it an informed decision to take such a social, public stance as key to building the brand. 

Both are strategic choices and both have opportunity costs to them. As the old Bollywood song goes, kuch toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna (people will always have something to say, people’s job is to talk). 

So perhaps brands should adopt the same attitude and say what they have to say, because having conversations is how relationships are built with people. And like with people, if the brand’s conscience is clear, then neither choice should be a difficult one.

Narayan Devanathan is South Asia group executive and strategy officer for Dentsu Brand Agencies, but writes here in a personal capacity. He is based in Delhi NCR, India

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