Surf Excel and Brook Bond Ads: A miscalculated move or clever strategy?

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Published: March 18, 2019 12:51:33 AM

HUL has been in the eye of the storm after its ad films for Surf Excel and Brooke Bond Red Label generated extreme backlash on social media.HUL has been in the eye of the storm after its ad films for Surf Excel and Brooke Bond Red Label generated extreme backlash on social media.

‘Sometimes, a brand can get it wrong’

By Samit Sinha

There are enough instances where courting controversy as a deliberate strategy has proven to be unwise, be it celebrities or brands. Take for example Janet Jackson, whose career was severely affected after her ‘Nipplegate’ controversy during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show.

Sometimes a brand too can get it very wrong, as was demonstrated by Ford in India for its Figo model in an ad created by J Walter Thompson (now Wunderman Thompson), which depicted former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi in the front seat with three women tied up in the boot of the car. Even United Colors of Benetton — which uses ‘shockvertising’ as a strategic marketing ploy — pushed things too far with its Unhate campaign. Of course, there are also several instances of brands that took calculated gambles by being provocative, which paid off — from KamaSutra condoms in 1991 to the latest Gillette Toxic Masculinity campaign.

In many cases, the controversy is unintended. Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL) Brooke Bond Kumbh Mela ad or the Surf Excel Holi commercial, which seem to have upset some people, are most likely two such examples. I doubt very much that anyone in HUL would have been reckless enough to take the risk of jeopardising the future of two well-established brands targeting the masses for the sake of a short-term gain. In any case the backlash appears to be a case of a politically motivated storm in a teacup, and is unlikely to have any lasting impact on the fortunes of either of these brands.

The author is MD, Alchemist Brand Consulting

‘Consumers may feel manipulated’

By Neena Dasgupta

Historically, religion has been a sensitive topic in India, and while we have come a long way, brands should avoid treading on this path, especially making a social commentary on one or giving a contrasting view of two religions in their ad narrative. There is a very thin line that separates the communication from being seen as a great social message to being perceived as wrongful depiction, misrepresentation of, or offensive to one’s personal faith, orientation or religion.

This kind of a reaction is not specific to India. For instance, in the US, Starbucks faced a major blowback for a social campaign called #RaceTogether, where the brand encouraged people in its coffee shops to start conversations about their race. It was perceived by many as misguided or offensive, trying to bank unfairly on a social cause. The campaign lost out to its critics even if its intent was noble.

Increasingly, brands are trendjacking social, cultural, religious or even political trends to bolster their image as socially aware or socially responsible in the minds of consumers, only to have it backfire in cases such as the one above. When brands try to leverage any of these aspects to market their product or service, consumers may feel manipulated, or feel that the brand was out of line with the treatment of the subject and reduced their deeply personal sentiments to a marketing tactic.

A brand marketing or advertising exercise should therefore be focussed on how, through its products or services, the brand can offer a solution to the needs of consumers in the most relevant manner.

The author is CEO and director, Zirca Digital Solutions

‘Focus should be to restore brand trust’

By N Chandramouli

All controversies, big or small, hold the potential to balloon uncontrollably out of proportion within a very short time. However, if there is an existing controversy that a brand has come under — especially if it does not have to do with poor product quality or an outrightly callous approach — then the brand’s response to the controversy can help create a positive attitude among consumers who may have been initially against the ad.

There are hits and misses in the world of brands globally, too. The Kendall Jenner-Pepsi ad is an example of how a misplaced creative seemed to trivialise an important issue of #BlackLivesMatter. They had to pull down the ad after severe protests. Then there is the contrasting case of Airbnb’s #WeAccept ad that bravely confronted Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees. This was a case where, despite many protests against the ad, the brand kept to its core message and gained a more emotionally connected audience.

Controversies as a rule, especially the kind that HUL has been subject to with the Kumbh Mela (Red Label) and Holi (Surf Excel) ads, have as many for as against the ad. In this case, I would argue that both supporters and naysayers would be in equal number. To turn those who are against, fully or partially, towards the brand’s point of view should be the objective of the brand facing the controversy. The focus in all such cases should be restore (and maybe improve) the brand trust through well-thought-through messaging that is empathetic and sincere enough to connect with audiences.

The author is CEO, TRA Research

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