Festive marketing offensive: Should brands stay away from religion?


Brands need to be extra careful when they pick a purpose and shouldn’t be afraid to course correct if found amidst a controversy, feels industry

Along with being a fiesta of creativity and humongous marketing spends, the Indian festive season has also become a breeding ground of controversies for the past several years. From Manforce’s Navratri campaign to Surf Excel’s ‘Rang Laaye Sang’, to Tanishq’s ‘Ekatvam’, to Manyavar’s ‘Kanyamaan’, to Fabindia’s ‘Jashn-E-Riwaaz’, to the most latest CEAT’s series of festive campaigns to Dabur’s depiction of a same-sex couple celebrating Karwa Chauth; the instances have been many wherein people have found their religious sentiments hurt because of ads. Amidst the furrore of this growing cancel culture and attack on brands because of ads that weave stories around matters of religious significance, the industry feels that brands need to be extra careful when they pick a purpose and shouldn’t be afraid to course correct if found amidst a controversy. 

Strange times stranger challenges

The industry veterans feel that the growing socio-political unrest amongst the country paired with the pandemic-related tensions has led to a higher anger-quotient amongst the masses, which eventually leads to stronger reactions against anything that triggers strong emotions. And brands must be ready to face flak if they pick up subjects that can cause controversy. 

Veteran ad-man and filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar says, “I feel that the people have become highly sensitive these days and they react instantly to everything. The political climate in the country is also impacting how the creative industries are functioning these days. But as a brand, you have to figure out what you have to do and what not. You can’t just give up against trolling and must stand by your convictions. Only your moral compass should decide if what you have done is right or wrong.”

Brand strategist, coach and an industry veteran Ambi Parameswaran highlights that it is not the brands or advertising’s job to change the society and they must keep that in mind while doing purpose advertising and be ready for all sorts of reactions. 

He notes, “Brands, over the last decade, have tried to adopt a ‘purpose’ every now and then to gain currency with the millennials. But when brands try to ‘purpose wash’ themselves it can get called out. That said, we are living in a society that is full of angry young and old people who are trigger happy. To find fault with anything and everything. I hope this high anger quotient is also because of the extended pandemic-related tensions. I hope it eases as normalcy in some form returns. It is therefore ideal that a brand thinks twenty times before trying to espouse a cause in their advertising. As it is we are living in cluttered times with the consumer attention dropping below seven  seconds. Layering the brand’s sales message with a bigger cause could be one way of grabbing attention and infusing ‘virality’ into the ad. But this can come with a cost. Be ready to listen to the feedback and be ready to pull back. Have an alternate execution ready to roll out.” 

It’s okay to stand by, it’s okay to back out

The industry insiders also feel that no one should be judging any brand harshly for stopping or even continuing a campaign despite the uproar it attracts. 

Globale Media Founder Bhavesh Talreja quips, “What is offensive and what is not will always be subjective; it will always boil down to emotions. And since some advertising and marketing strategies connect to people through their emotions, it will always be hard to not, in any way, offend someone. All companies live and thrive under a political system, and have an imperative to not only be correct but also appear to be politically correct. This is a business habit in India. We would not hold grudges on brands like Tanishq and Zomato for having pulled ads out because it’s contextual to the age we live in, and the society we live in.” 

dentsuMB Managing Partner Indrajeet​ Mookherjee further notes,  “In an ideal situation, a brand should hold its ground but sometimes for various reasons they are forced to bring down their communication. While developing the communication, brands need to be mindful of the audience’s sensitivities to not come across as being offensive. (However) the universe of communication is ever-evolving and as long as there is relevance in brand communication pertaining to a specific festive campaign, a brand should unapologetically do whatever is required to sustain or build its positioning amongst consumers.” 

CupShup Co-founder Sidharth Singh also shares similar views. “You need to set sails according to the wind. It is very easy to say that take a stand, don’t give in and stand for what is right. But then, in times like these, we need to also think about what is being perceived as right. This doesn’t mean brands becoming a sitting lame duck and waiver as per whims and fancies of the trolls. This means doing course correction and standing your ground. A recent example is that of Zomato’s. While the brand initially took a prima facie decision to terminate an employee who was caught in a language row, it was quick to alter its stand and call out the bluff of trolls,” he says.

Should brands stop taking strong stands 

If the overall climate is quite volatile and viewer reactions harmful to brand image, should brands stop picking up causes and stick to plain feel-good, simple advertising during the festive season? The industry doesn’t feel so. 

Sarkar says, “It’s like asking if one should stop eating food if they got food poisoning once. As a person, you need to figure out what kind of food suits you and what doesn’t. You can’t stop eating something because others perceive it as harmful. Brands definitely should be chasing that bigger idea, always. They need to stand for what they believe in and what is right for them.” 

Nucleus Managing Partner Tarunjeet Rattan quips, “As a secular country we have always celebrated all festivals and have been a part of each other’s lives through traditions and rituals irrespective of the religion we follow. By creating a campaign that promotes the same, we are cementing that bond that ties us all together. And by the way, a festival and its numerous significance across different parts of our country has existed for many lifetimes. This bond is not so weak that it will be shaken by a brand expressing itself in a campaign.” 

She also feels that brands need to be extra careful around such campaigns and make sure they are not picking up any storyline that can offend the masses. 

“If you want to include a religious overtone to your campaign, be mindful about how you do that. While cultural integration is great and a lot of brands have done that successfully and touched our hearts, stay away from advising or advocating or claiming to know more about the religion. A few good examples that come to mind and are my all time favourites :  Surf Excel – Daag Acche Hai (Holi Ad) and Red Label (Swad Apnepan Ka),” says Rattan.

Talreja, in the same vein, adds, “Although there is no quantitative data to prove this, the fact is when the trollers start the ‘cancel culture’, it affects the image of the brand and eventually the image of the company. Political correctness with ad campaigns very much forms a part of brand strategy in India. Brands have realised that the audience is quite intolerant when it comes to caste and religion. So accordingly, the message that the brands put out has to be very refined and such that it doesn’t hurt the sentiment of any segment as such.”  

This article first appeared in www.exchange4media.com

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