Branding with a Social Heart

Published: December 19, 2017 12:44 AM

Being socially relevant is turning out be as important as being emotional and rational for brands in their attempt to make a positive impact on consumers.

Brands have been trying to jump onto the social ‘brandwagon’ to reap opportunistgains;and i would blame marketing and brand managers for this.

Ambi Parameswaran

The former global creative director of Foote Cone & Belding, Jonathan Harries, had an interesting observation about the need for brands to be both rational and emotional in their appeal to consumers. His quotable quote ran something like this: ‘You have to embed both rational reasons and emotional truths in your brand message because a consumer who buys a brand for rational reason is never too happy and the consumer who buys it for only emotional reasons is never satisfied’. The yin and yang of branding for decades used to be rational and emotional reasons. But some years ago, marketing pundits figured out there could be yet another reason for a brand to be loved by consumers — and this could be achieved by getting more relevant with growing consumer activism in social media.

The three-legged strategy

Harish Manwani, now non-executive chairman of Hindustan Unilever, had made an interesting observation at a branding conference, some years ago. He said that all successful brands of the future will sit on a three-legged stool. The first two are what we examined earlier: rational and emotional legs. But the third is about becoming important as well; and this is the social leg. All brands have to give a social reason for their existence. It could be a ‘green’ promise, a ‘social commitment’ or something that the consumers can relate with.

Unilever has tried to make some of its brands resonate socially. For instance, Lifebuoy, the germ kill soap, is actively pushing the hand wash to better child health as a global agenda. For Surf detergent, it is the promise of using less water to do your wash. For Kissan, it is growing tomatoes and keeping our planet green.

Unfortunately, brands have been trying to jump onto the social ‘brandwagon’ to reap opportunist gains; and I would blame marketing and brand managers for this. You have a number of e-commerce fashion brands running campaigns about the LGBT community. Health insurance and mutual fund companies have suddenly discovered the appeal of children with disability to push their offering. Brands turned green on World Environment Day and became women-friendly on World Women Day. But will these ‘flavour of the month’ campaigns featuring the social cause of the season do any good? Yes, these nicely made digital films will add to the portfolio of filmmakers. And with some push, they will end up getting a million or more views on social media. Will all this make a difference to the brand or its perception by consumers? I am reasonably sure that these instant noodle type social campaigns do precious little to brands.

Making a difference

In the book Baked In: Creating Products and Businesses that Market Themselves, ad legends Alex Bogusky and John Winsor extoll the merits of creating products and services that have a strongly embedded marketing component. Nike+, for instance, was a product (or was it a service?) that had an inbuilt marketing strategy. While in no way belittling the job of product and service designers, the authors present a new way of creating products that, kind of, market themselves. I think the concept of the book works better when you look at building social relevance into brands. If I were to ask an Indian consumer to name two brands that in their mind stand for social consciousness, chances are that she will name Tata and Amul. After some thought she may include Fabindia, Khadi, Co-Optex, Lijjat and a few more. Interestingly, all the above mentioned brands did not run campaigns about how they are socially-relevant/conscious. They have the social gene, almost baked into their genome. Consumers know that

Tata Group gives away a large part of the surplus it makes every year to charity. They can see the Tata Cancer Hospitals and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (even if Indian Institute of Science is part of the past). Similarly, consumers know that Amul is a brand owned by a co-operative of dairy farmers; the products are of good quality and affordable, and the profits made by the company go back to the farmer. Amul has also invested some part of its marketing into building this brand narrative. The other brands mentioned fall into a similar paradigm. Fabindia is committed to paying a fair wage to all their weavers and creators. Lijjat is a product made by lower/middle income housewives to boost their family income (your driver’s wife may be one of the many makers of Lijjat papads).

My argument is that in the face of these truly wonderful socially-conscious brands, the attempt by brands to try and embrace causes sounds patently shallow. In fact, if I was to advise them, I would strongly suggest that they save their money from such efforts. If they are really serious about doing something, I would ask them to look for a cause that is somehow connected with their brand (sanitary napkins — girl education, biscuits — child nutrition, cement — affordable housing, and so on); do something significant and stay the course for the next 10 years.

Don’t look for an instant improvement in brand scores or sales or video shares. But wait for the results to show. Or better still — don’t look for the results at all. They will come. I promise.

The author is founder,

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