Storyboard | How brands can control narratives and fight cancel culture

Indian brands are facing social media outrage and boycotts more than ever before. Here's how marketing experts believe brands can carefully tread the tight rope

Updated: Oct 27, 2021 11:25:11 AM UTC
Recently, Tanishq was targeted again over its festive ‘Utsaah’ print ad where a model was shown wearing traditional attire and jewellery sans a bindi

The season of boycotts is back. Fabindia is the latest in a series of brands, which have been in the eye of social media storms, either for hurting sentiments of a particular group of people or misrepresenting a religious tradition. The reasons are plenty but the objective of these social media users is to ‘cancel’ and boycott brands.

In Fabindia’s instance, the brand came under heavy social fire for using the term ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’ for its festive season collection. The brand had to delete a promotional tweet for the collection after it was accused of “defacing” the Hindu festival of Diwali by calling it Jashn-e-Riwaaz. Netizens slammed the brand for "unnecessarily" imposing "secularism" on a Hindu festival and asked for a complete boycott of the brand. There has been no formal statement by the company on the issue at time of filing this story.

Last year, Tata-owned jewellery brand Tanishq had to deal with social media uproar over its ‘Ekatvam’ campaign for featuring an interfaith baby shower ceremony. Recently, Tanishq was targeted again over its festive ‘Utsaah’ print ad where a model was shown wearing traditional attire and jewellery sans a bindi. This comes shortly after Manyavar, the homegrown ethnic wear brand, featured actor Alia Bhatt, who portrayed the ritual of Kanyadaan “in a negative light” in its commercial film, according to those who found it offensive. Edtech brands Byju’s and Unacademy, and food delivery app Zomato are a few other brands that were a target of both real outrage and bot-rage in the last few weeks.

Realities of being on social media

Branding and marketing experts believe that there is no one-rule-fits-all in such cases. Sometimes, a brand could be well-intending but hasn't read the room adequately well, says Karthik Srinivasan, a communications strategy consultant. Fabindia’s episode is one such example, he says.

“It seems harmless on paper, merely using an Urdu language expression that amounts to something adequately traditional, but the sentiment around the language and how it could be blown out of proportion when layered on top of Diwali is something easy to guess, if someone has been reasonably clued into the current situation in India,” Srinivasan points out.

Amer Jaleel, group CCO and chairman, MullenLowe Lintas Group believes that brands are the face of businesses. In his view, most businesses consider the risk of a public confrontation too much of a risk and rightly so. They have stakeholders and stockholders to answer to.

“But some brands can take a cautious punt on the controversy that such events can generate and benefit or earn respect. The best players of this game actually engineer the entire end-to-end scenario—the placement of the asset, the hue and cry over it, and the withdrawal or the aggressive support of the ‘brand belief’. You have either an intolerant or a gullible audience out there depending on how well you press their buttons,” notes Jaleel.

Fabindia came under heavy social fire for using the term ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’ for its festive season collection

Rapid-action teams and other practical strategies

Usually, brands expect and plan for the best-case scenario, but in the current scenario, good agencies and teams are required to manage the fallout if things go wrong.

Ahmed Aftab Naqvi, CEO and co-founder, Gozoop Group believes that a good online reputation agency is a must for every brand today. Brands need to put up a rapid action team in place with people who have the right expertise to handle crisis situations online.

“The brand needs to listen and monitor every conversation and craft a plan to address the crisis. It is not about standing by their work or caving in, it is about doing what is right. If the brand has hurt sentiments, apologise and take responsibility. If the brand believes they haven't done anything wrong, then either fire a silver bullet and take a strong stand or at times just be silent, which could be gold in such scenarios,” remarks Naqvi.

Though, immediately giving in to “trolls” is not a good idea, warns Parixit Bhattacharya, managing partner—creative, TBWA\ India. He suggests that internet trolling doesn’t last long because it feeds on hype, and brands should wait it out to see if things escalate. Bhattacharya accepts that creative teams are more cautious than ever about the creative choices they are making for brands.

“Most creative and brand teams today are cautious about the choices they make—from story, casting, language, settings, to wardrobe. But how do you fix some funky connections in someone’s head? We have to live with the possibility of something triggering an irrational response in someone,” he adds.

Lie low or activate brand advocates

In the face of a backlash, experts believe that most brands should ideally lie low until the dust settles. On the contrary, brands can also choose to activate a community of brand advocates who strongly feel and believe in the brand/story/campaign, suggests Unmisha Bhatt, chief strategy officer and director—India & MENA region, Tonic Worldwide.

“When they stand up for the brand being bashed unreasonably, it makes a better impact and is an authentic voice as compared to the brand defending its case. The economy is usually negligibly impacted unless it’s one of the highest contributing brands in the category. Even in that case, there are multiple brands in the competitive set who are waiting to grab the share of the pie which will reflect back in the economy. Situations like these hurt the spirit of the country more than the economy,” Bhatt says.

Brand experts and digital specialists are of the opinion that consumer activism is on the rise, and there is no way brands can hide from it. Therefore, the need of the hour for companies is to have a robust crisis management mechanism in place and accept the realities of doing business today. Jaleel tells Storyboard, PR companies are now offering specialised service which includes figuring out what will result as an outcome of releasing a piece of work.

“The biggest difference social media has made to communication consumption today is, in a private viewing you are not compelled to react whereas in today’s public viewing you’ve got habituated to post a response to what you’re feeling,” he concludes.

The bottom-line: In an age where you tweet first and think later, brands and agencies would do well to think through every possible scenario before hitting the share button.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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