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'Brands need to be brave'

April 01, 2019 08:34 IST

'When there are people who hate brands, it shows they are standing for something.'
'If you are trying to be everything to all people, you are failing.'
'Brands should be brave enough and take more stands on issues.'

One recent ad that created controversy with many people criticising it and many more applauding it was the Surf Exel ad.

"Out of the millions of Hindus in India, I would suspect only a few dozens might have found the ad anti-Hindu or offensive. The fact is, now the intolerant minority has got a voice to shout out loud and reach a vast number of people through social media," Amit Joshi, professor of digital marketing and strategy at the IMD Business School, Lausanne, Switzerland, tells Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com.

From a marketing perspective, how do you look at the controversy surrounding the Surf Excel ad in India?

There are two ways to look at it. One point of view is, any publicity is good publicity.

Even a controversy, like what Nike is going through in the US, will lead to a conversation about the brand which may not be unwelcome for the company.

But most brands prefer to be slightly on the conservative side.

They would not like to have too much negative backlash or even something relatively trivial which might cut down on the creativity they show or the stand they take.

They prefer to read the mood of the country and the consumer.

Having said that, we have to clearly distinguish between online and offline conversations. What happens lately is that social media had become a megaphone.

 

You mean the battle has moved to the social media platform from the drawing rooms as it gives anonymity?

I think so. What social media has done is it has given an incredibly powerful megaphone to a vocal few.

The consequence is it has become really easy to stir up any kind of controversy to something that is very trivial or non-consequential.

But from a brand perspective, they need to be also careful. Controversy and sales are two different things.

You can have a controversy going on and sales can be unaffected. That is because consumers may forget the conversations or ignore them and move on.

In the case of Surf Excel, there is a negative campaign going on in social media asking people to boycott the brand. Do you feel it will not have any impact on the brand?

I think it will have a short-term impact.

In fact, there are two types of impacts. First is for people who have not seen the ad to try this brand. This is not a bad thing.

Online conversations may drag many people to see the ad but offline, it is not going to matter.

People are not going to boycott a brand because they created one ad that was controversial.

Personally, I wouldn't consider the ad to be incredibly biased or anything like that. Indeed, most people feel that way.

But take the case of the Dolce & Gabbana ad in China which was significantly more offensive (in which a black man was pushed into a washing machine along with the detergent powder and he came out as a fair skinned Asian).

In this case, there was a huge backlash against the detergent brand which can have long-term negative impact on the company itself.

But I don't see that happening in the case of Surf Excel.

If the Chinese ad was termed racist, the Surf Excel was termed anti-Hindu by some Hindus though the ad was trying to create communal harmony. Do you feel not only India but the whole world has become hyper sensitive and intolerant now?

IMAGE: Amit Joshi

Out of the millions of Hindus in India, I would suspect only a few dozens might have found the ad anti-Hindu or offensive.

The fact is, now the intolerant minority has got a voice to shout out loud and reach a vast number of people through social media.

But the algorithms driving this kind of news on platforms like Facebook or Buzzfeed kind of sites, have quickly learnt what kind of news readers are liable to click on.

Once you click, it becomes an echo chamber.

There has always been people with extreme views everywhere with views on everything from politics to religion to sports.

What has happened now is, the fringe is significantly on the forefront and they can influence decisions and policies even in a way that was not possible a few years ago. This is a matter of concern.

The Surf ad was created with a message on communal harmony. Do you feel people are no longer interested in such messages?

I feel consumer still want a genuine message. They want a brand to stand for something.

But consumers do not like faking or 'green-washing', that is, pretending to stand for something just for the sake it. I think consumers can now sense this fake attitude.

At the same time, brands need to be brave. A good brand is one that has its detractors.

But a brand that is okay for everyone is just an average brand.

Take Apple for example, there are people who hate Apple and I think that is the sign of a good brand.

There are people who hate BMW, Google, Microsoft, Disney... when there are people who hate brands, it shows they are standing for something.

If you are trying to be everything to all people, you are failing.

Brands should be brave enough and take more stands on issues.

Do you feel today when people are hyper sensitive, brands have to be careful on the stand they take?

Yes, I agree brands have to be careful today because small things can get taken out of context and leverage in a negative way very quickly.

Brands have to be careful in the humour they use, the message they use, etc.

Yes, we see a lot more sanitised ads probably in the West as well after all the controversies that are going on.

We might see ads treading more carefully hereafter, a little more conservative in the kind of messaging they put out.

We will see two kind of camps. One camp like Nike that will live off with a Colin Kaepernick or a Serena Williams in ads who are kind of polarising kind of figures.

The second camp will play it safe with non-controversial figures. For example, if you have Sachin Tendulkar in an ad, 99% of the people will not be offended.

Do you feel the Surf Excel ad is a good one with a good intention or an innocuous one?

I thought it was fairly innocuous. It was a good attempt at combining the festival of colours with something showing the power of cleaning.

The fact that Microsoft Excel downloads went down shows how stupid the reactions could be!

Do you think this controversy will be forgotten soon?

I think it will be forgotten. I don't think this one has legs to stand on.

It will fizzle out soon and will be swept under the carpet in a month or a week or a few days, till they get another topic to talk about.

Shobha Warrier / Rediff.com
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