The week gone by has seen a battle raging in the media (of the social and physical kind alike). This has been a battle between groups of verbose and vocal people who have rallied themselves for and against 'free advertising speech', if I may call it that. The majority of folks, however, sit silent and watch it all pan out. This is entertainment of a kind as well.
The recent skirmish of words began when FabIndia was accused of using an Urdu name (Jashn-e-Riwaaz) for a campaign that was ostensibly for its Diwali collection. A whole chunk of people on social media took umbrage at the fact that the lady models in the advertising wore no bindi as well. And fortunately that is where the deep criticism on the creatives stopped. Folks on social media decided to rally in religious groups and probed deep into conspiracy theories of advertising people, and those who commission these pieces of advertising in corporate companies as well. Many brands were therefore bashed.
The fire of criticism on FabIndia was just about settling, as the brand made amends and pulled out its ad, and in came the controversy of brand CEAT tyres. Out here, there was a message helmed by brand endorser and actor Aamir Khan, which advised folks not to burst firecrackers on the streets. The brand (circuitously and forcibly) tied the message line to the fact that CEAT tyres were tough and could take it all, till people changed their practices.
This CEAT tyres ad was also considered to be Diwali advertising by its timing, and social media groups took umbrage at the fact that they were being told not to use firecrackers. The theme in the advertisement had Aamir Khan dressed in IPL cricket regalia. Never mind that the timing was Diwali and CEAT got into trouble, trolled, memed and pushed into the dustbin of the cancel culture on brands that is just about emerging and growing in size.
Over the recent several years, there are a clutch of nine and odd brands that have emerged to be what I call the "battered brands of India". These are brands that have tried out themes that border on the woke, trying to nudge niche notions onto the masses for wider acceptance. Themes in this genre have included second marriages, same-sex Karwa Chauth, religious groups sharing in the celebration of the opposite group, interfaith marriages and more. These brands have all been battered on social media, to the point of withdrawal.
None of the brands have waited to see the storm tide over. And none have tested to see whether all this is much ado about nothing. Business is more important, and most brands don’t want to test the waters or the patience of their customers who just might be among those asking for a boycott on the brand's offerings. Brands really don’t have the time, energy, tenacity or patience to do this.
Then, why attempt to do the different at all? Why attempt to swim against the tide of mass-think? I do believe there are two segments of people in the brand market of India. One is the niche and the other is the mass. The niche by definition is that small sliver of the population that sits atop Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is a self-actualising set of people, distinguished by the fact that they think differently, after having it all. The other set is the mass. The biggest market for brands in India, needless to say, is the mass market.
Who do we really advertise to? Some brands like Mercedes-Benz and Louis Vuitton would say their market is at the top of the pyramid, while most others will say their market is at the middle, where much of the affordable mass of India lives, thrives and buys. And then there are some brands that cater basically only to the bottom of the pyramid market, with brands that appeal to a different price-quality equation altogether.
The key thought is the fact that there are niche market messages and mass market messages. The two are different and the twain does not meet. A niche market message must use a niche medium to percolate it. Out here, the brand can talk all that it wants to the self-actualising set of folk who consume this messaging. Direct 1:1 marketing, messaging and advertising on niche digital and physical mediums are possibilities for such niche messages. A mass market message can and must use media that percolates and reaches out to the masses. The problem really arises when niche market messages are used on mass market media.
And then there is the movement of woke. A movement that believes that niche thoughts have to be percolated widely to wake up the masses. All the efforts that have resulted in the growing roster of the “battered brands of India” are really attempts at being woke. It seems clear that India is not yet ready for woke. Brands might have to wait it out for a while till they can attempt it once again. For now, woke advertising is an invitation to the cancel culture to kick in. Kick in vigorously.
What’s the end word on all this then? What’s the answer to all the noise around?
I do believe brands are run by companies mandated to be run by their shareholders. Other than that, companies run brands to fulfil the need, want, desire and aspiration of their customers. Brands must therefore remain focused on their businesses. Brands must focus on being that solution the consumer is looking for. Brands must not think far too beyond that. In short, brands must mind their own “business”. Just don’t stray onto the terrain of social, political, economic or religious re-engineering. It’s risky. And it’s not what you are tasked to do by your consumer. Not yet.
Importantly, my advice to brands is a simple one. Just don’t touch two sanctum sanctorum subjects in your advertising: religion and politics. Both these subjects divide people. The basic ethos of a brand is to unite people into its franchise and consumption, and not divide. Why divide, when you can unite?
(The writer is a brand guru & founder of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)