Updated: Dec 17, 2021
EVENT DATE : 30 NOVEMBER
DEBATE SUMMARY- BRANDS
We often find brands readily jumping onto the social justice bandwagon. Many say that brands reflect the evolving aspirations of the modern consumer, who demand brands be more conscious and more sensitive to the socio-political context. But a closer look at the backlashes and controversies that brands increasingly find themselves navigating, tells us that socio-political campaigning can be a risky territory to traverse. The question arises- Should brands take a stand on socio-political issues?
Shweta Kothari(SK), Moderator: Let’s quickly deep dive into the bigger question should brands take a stand on social issues? Is it good for business, and the people? Either way, we are seeing that trend.
Jessie Paul(JP): Brands have always had a position, but the reason is “I go where the eyeballs go.” Also, brands don’t have morals, people behind them do. They express a view if their decision-makers, stakeholders want to express a view. It also varies from country to country because brands are tempered by their key stakeholders.
Prakash Bagri(PB): The fact that brands need to move profitability is something that has been part of discussion for the better part of the last three and a half decades. Sumantra Ghoshal and Christopher Bartlett first mentioned it in their seminal paper on the subject. Does it make sense for the brands has been researched, because there has been a very strong association with brand purpose and profitability. Having said that, the current environment has brought it into the mainstream- societal issues, woke consumerism and the fact that we live in a digital world. Some commentators even call purpose as the fifth “p” of marketing. It also leads to people desperately trying to acquire purpose. The stand which I am going to take is that purpose is not a one-night stand. And to that extent, a brand has reason to take purpose if it comes as an integral part of overall brand offering. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t stick. The role of a brand is not to take a stand on every issue.
SK: There are brands who are heavily invested in political parties in both sides in the United States. We saw this trend up until 2006-2010 where brands were wary of making a very strong political stand. Why are brands today more ferociously taking a stand, and do you think that this is sustainable going forward?
Daniel Korschun( DK): I’ve been studying this since 2014-15. When I began, I was mostly convincing people that brands can take a stand. Gradually, we saw brands showing commitment. What I see as the driving force behind this trend is- One, that consumer and employee desires and preferences, their expectations that brands behave morally has been ratcheting up very quickly. It’s much more a conscious part of how people consume. On the other hand, in the US, we have this polarization. People are becoming more extreme on the left as well as the right. So, there’s a pressure to brands on how to respond to stakeholders. For me, because these are such long-term, pervasive trends, I don’t see any escape for companies, and they cannot be neutral on every topic.
SK: Do you think the brand consciousness a part of the generational change? Do you think this has been a part of history or is a recent occurring?
DK: It’s impossible to separate government from business. It’s been around for a while, was mostly used as a tool. The history of it is more about lobbying and being behind the scenes and people were a bit hush hush about it. With the more recent generations, there’s more pressure to bring the stuff out in the open, and I think it’s a good development.
SK: What’s the problem with a brand coming up with a brand coming up with an advertisement showing two women celebrating Karwa Chauth? We are living in a time with the demand for brands to be more inclusive. But then, there is backlash and inadvertently brands are made to pull down those advertisements. Additionally, do you think this is a deliberate tactic to put the spotlight on the brand?
Madhu Viswanathan(MV): As echoed by Daniel, a lot of what we’re seeing is the reflection of the customer base. Brands are made up of people, explaining their activism. Going back to what you asked, in some ways, controversy always works, that’s why politicians use it. And in today’s world anything can become controversial. I don’t think brands plan on controversy, but some times it ends up working in their favour. For instance, Nike or even Underarmour, they do pick up on controversies. The problem is when unplanned controversies happened. Is this going to become a norm? Yes. Brands are going to get much better at doing these things and I don’t see this changing. We expect our brands to signal who they are.
JP: An unplanned controversy is actually a marketing disaster. Having said that when Myntra did the first lesbian couple ad, they’d launched Anokhi in 2014, I put together a cause matrix- and the two axis is novelty and social acceptability. Any brand marketer can do the same and be better at understanding their audience- is it going to be something that makes your shops get burned or, something that makes your ad go viral? If you just stumble across a disaster, then you are tone deaf.
MV: Socially acceptable is a very broad category. If the goal is to have a successful ad, sure you can work along those lines. But, if it is about saying this is me and I want to raise these issues. And I think that would be a very different way of looking at brands.
PB: I think brand purpose cannot be seen as a marketing campaign issue to be decided by the CMO. And that’s where it gets screwed up. We then see brands having to withdraw advertisements. Because the purpose is not integrated with the brand, rather it’s merely part of the campaign ,this is something we have to realize. I object to brands taking a political stand because brands don’t have a role in politics. On the other hand, our society has become polarised, so every issue has a for/against vis. a vis the political stand, and therefore we expect brands taking a political stand. But a brand which adopts a cause because it’s a great campaign is bound to have mud on its face at some point. It’s important have to recognize what they stand for, make it a part of their DNA, and sure then stand on rooftops and talk about it. But you cannot be an activist just for the heck of it.
SK: When an advertisement goes a wrong, we see the repercussions out on the streets, anger flaring up on twitter. Does that happen in US? And if it does, do brands cower under pressure as they tend to do in India?
DK: These are so far much more extreme cases than what we see in the US. The worst it’s gotten, is people burning their shoes on social media. We’ve had individuals making threats, but so far it has not gone to that level. One thing I want to bring up is why consumers care about this so much. From my research, sometimes is we overemphasize the importance of people agreeing with the stand. People are trying to build a relationship with the brand and they’re looking for clues to know they can trust the company. If a company is open & consistent about the way they talk about their morals, then people are more willing to trust them, even if they don’t agree with them. It’s when brands are viewed to manipulate or trying to push their values on people that these responses often happen. In the US, people who are using this window to make the company tick, I as a consumer will ask if they have been honest with me about the issue.
JP: You cannot have violence against a brand unless the state either directly or indirectly is inactive. That is specific to a country. So that is a government machinery problem. Second, as to why a brand should do this? While some brands focus on the core, functional benefits. Then there are the surround kind of brand who makes use of storytelling. So, if you’re a surround brand, sooner or later, you’re going to have to tell a story which a bit more edgy.
SK: It was early in 2000, and a detergent maker made an advertisement with a Hindu boy playing with a Muslim boy. I don’t know whether the backlash to what we’ve seen with the Tanishq advertisement. So, has it got to do with the socio-political climate today, or is it always a difficult territory to walk on?
MV: Definitely some areas are much more polarised and sensitive than others are. But we were much more vocal than we were twenty years ago. We have generations of people who have grown up in very different circumstances, who have the freedom to think. That of course leads to a lot of debate. I do believe that there’s no escaping that. If you choose to be silent, that also sends a signal. The lines are not very clear when it comes to politics.
SK: Do brands backtrack because of the larger society or because of fringe elements? What explains consumers’ behavior in India, what makes us come into the streets, why do we torch shops and beat up security guards?
PB: I completely agree with Jessie on the issue blowing out because of failure of the state machinery. There are fringe elements across the globe, but sometimes their noise gets amplified. In certain cases, brands backtrack because the fringe elements get a free rail. Having said that, some brands manage to survive despite the fringe environment. These brands have acquired the credibility to become a commentator- take Amul for instance, which talks about each and every subject. Religious harmony is safe topic, gazillions of brands have portrayed it. It is important for a brand to realize, that this is what you stand for, and you need to stay committed to it. Don’t go cause-rapping, then you’ll influence the society that you actually have a role to play.
JP: Brands like to take a stance because that’s the only way to get organic PR today.
SK: If organic PR is the reason brands are indulging in advertisements which have a larger repercussion on society? Is it right on the brand’s part to impose their views on customers?
DK: The company should be responding to the stakeholders themselves. You can’t be sensitive to people’s needs if you don’t account for their politics, their morals. This is a conversation that needs to keep going on between the brands and consumers. I don’t think it’s a good idea for brands to become pushy but they should show they mean what they say. For instance, consumers would often admire a company taking a risky stance- it shows they care so much that they’re taking the risk.
SK: Are consumers driving brand value, or are brands changing society?
DK: I see brands as value aggregators. They aggregate the morals of all the stakeholders they touch. Consumers and employees attribute morals to brands.
PB: Brands end up taking a political stand for their employees. Employees of a brand become important in a knowledge economy, because the IP of the brand resides with the employees, and they can choose to walk out.
SK: It has become very fashionable for brands to call themselves sustainable even when they are the worst polluters . How do you call out this hypocrisy?
DK: The simple answer is they don’t trust them. In case of Volkswagen, we saw consumers losing trust. The companies that don’t deliver, are bound to be punished because consumers
MV: It’s very hard to disentangle social and political causes. In a good turn of events, consumers are looking for more information, and they are able to procure more information. The Volkswagen issue was a clear case of fraud, they fudged the books and got caught. We are moving to a world where this is going to stay. Brands should be reacting to stakeholders as well as pushing the envelop in certain ways. Brands should be open to recast themselves after the first backlash, which is bound to happen.
JP: Awareness is the most expensive part of your marketing plan. If I am to punch above my weight, I have no choice but to amplify the message. In my view, this is a fairy calculated approach.
DK: We have to be careful as marketers not to chase attention and arouse suspicion. I’d just like to put in a word of caution.
MV: Branding is not transactional. It’s about who you represent. People start questioning if you are representing too many things at different points in time. You cannot equate brands to campaigns.
PB: We also have to keep in mind brands don’t just have to make money for a day, but have to plan for the long-term.
JP: I disagree that brands cannot recover from mistakes, look at Hugo Boss, which is doing so well now. The brand’s owner used to be a Nazi-supporter. It’s so easy to be the flavour of the month.
SK: Do you think the present generation cares more about what the brand brings on the table?
JP: I’d like to refer the three C’s of marketing communication- at first you convince, then you confuse and then you corrupt. Take for instance, the claims of healthy “sugar-free” products that actually contain saccharin or honey. It’s very difficult to read between the lines, even if I’m a concerned individual. As a brand I can always spin you a good story.
DK: If we look at this compared to 20 years ago, brands are under much more scrutiny than before. It’s going to be much harder for brands to do so in the future. There is more evaluation on the moral foundation of the brand by the community at large.
PB: We are living in an age where brands don’t need to communicate. Brands in a network era have to ensure that conversations happening around them add value to them in the long-term.
SK: My last question is about the moral responsibility of the brands. When you a fair share of people who are influenced by you on a daily basis, do you have a moral responsibility towards your consumers?
JP: Morals depend on the owner’s choice. The brands definitely have to comply with regulations. I think if you really want brands to do the right thing, put regulations in place. Second, consumers have to mobilise and say that yeah, you have to do this, otherwise I am not gonna buy you- the only two levers a brand cares about.
DK: The brand is made up of people. I believe that morals cannot be separated from people. Even if you believe that a company is really beholden- shareholders themselves have morals.
PB: Do brands only stand for profit? No. There’s much bigger value associated with a brand, which is to create a value. They don’t need to take a stand on everything. Brands will do well for themselves if they stand for something which is integral to them, they can identify with and which they are in a position to push the envelop on.
MV: Do brands have to take a stand? I think they don’t have a choice. Will they take a stand on controversial issues? Yes, that’s a way to survive in today’s world. But should everybody take a stand on all the controversial issues, that’s definitely not going to happen. Some are good at this, some aren’t. As a brand, you should realise who you are, and pick topics which are consistent with your stance.
In the conclusion of the debate, all panelists agreed that brands need to take a stand in a way that is consistent with their identity, only then will there be acceptability. Socio-political advertising is a difficult terrain to traverse in India, so brands need to understand what their consumers can take at this point in time.
DANIEL KORSCHUN - Thank you for organizing this. I really enjoyed the discussion and learned a lot from everyone. Great to see Madhu and to meet Prakash, Jessie, and Shweta (who I don’t see on this email unfortunately). Links and Recommendations"
NIM Marketing Intelligence Review (November 2021) - written for practitioners
J of Public Policy and Marketing (2020) – more for a scholarly audience but my article is not at all technical so very accessible
Great initiative and I wish you continued success. Find me anytime. -Daniel MADHU VISWANATHAN Thanks for organizing and thinking of me. It was a pleasure discussing the topic with Daniel, Prakash and Jesse. It was excellently moderated by Shweta. Once again, thanks for having me. I had a lot of fun and got to hear some interesting things. JESSIE PAUL Thanks so much for putting this together! It was fun and I enjoyed the company of my fellow argumentative people :) PRAKASH BAGRI Thanks Tiya, Mayank & Yajur for creating the forum and calling us for this particular discussion. It was well put together, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interactions.