Surf Excel ad controversy is Patanjali’s gain; HUL’s ‘fault’ invites rebuke from Baba Ramdev

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Updated: March 12, 2019 11:17:49 AM

While Hindustan Unilever’s controversial advertisements may not hurt the company much, it will definitely allow rival Patanjali to benefit, said Harish Bijoor.

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Hindustan Unilever Ltd has found itself in yet another brand controversy. Shortly after it received criticism on its Kumbh Mela advertisement depicting Indian parent-child relationship, its detergent brand Surf Excel started doing rounds with its ad promoting communal harmony on the upcoming Holi festival.

While certain Right-wing associations didn’t take this well, and with #boycottsurfexcel trending on twitter since, rival FMCG giant Patanjali’s co-founder Baba Ramdev tried to cash in on the backlash faced by both Brooke Bond and Surf Excel. He recently tweeted that he is not against any culture or religion but whatever has transpired needs grave thinking. He also called out Surf Excel for being a foreign company.

HUL’s fault

HUL may have overstepped and made some error in judgment with ads like these, considering current sensitivities in the society, Harish Bijoor, a brand-expert told Financial Express Online. “HUL’s creatives have been hurried. Not pre-tested. And I do believe that is the fault,” Harish Bijoor said. “It is important to keep your fingers on the pulse of the consumer in these rather tumultuous and polarized times. You need to think of your customer and the non-customer equally!” he added.

At least one other consultant agrees. “We need to understand that before being an advantage, creative freedom is a responsibility,” Sparklin Innovations told Financial Express Online. “There is a need for in-depth consumer research, across the industries, to increase the cognizance around customer sensitivities and design campaigns which are well suited to their emotions. Especially in a culturally rich nation like India where everyone has the freedom to express their opinions and emotions,” Sparklin Innovations Pvt Ltd added in its response to Financial Express Online.

Baba Ramdev’s desi card

While Hindustan Unilever’s controversial advertisements may not hurt the company much, it will definitely allow rival Patanjali to benefit, said Harish Bijoor. “Patanjali will be a gainer. Baba Ramdev has been one among the first to criticize the HUL creative as well. Patanjali has the ability to take this campaign at the grass-roots level. And that can impact,” he added.

Baba Ramdev, who was quick to jump onto the bandwagon bashing HUL, may try to gain maximum mileage from it. “Competitors will try to keep the issue alive but public memory is proverbially and really short. This will also pass,” Harish Bijoor said.

What about creative freedom?

Many have sympathised and lauded HUL’s Surf Excel ad saying that it is promoting communal harmony, but the question of creative freedom hangs. Brand consultant Harish Bijoor opines that “Creativity that is exposed through mass media, needs to be restrictive in its tone, tenor, mood and decibel. That’s what we are witnessing with the HUL set of controversies. India today is particularly going through a rather sensitive time in its consumer history. One needs to tread softly, therefore,” he said speaking about the scope of media creativity in the current environment.

Sparklin Innovations also weighed in. “With the newer available mediums, the creativity is not just limited to viewership and has now become engagement, literally. That’s more power and scope to creativity!” it said, adding, “We, humans, are emotional beings and love to form a sub-conscious connection with every action that we do — including buying FMCG goods. Companies need to see the change from viewership to engagement, to build better on that aspect.”

  • First published on on 11 March 2019.

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