The humanisation of branding

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New Delhi | Updated: September 6, 2016 4:22:10 PM

Coca-Cola’s Sprite came under a lot of fire not too long ago for its #BrutallyRefreshing campaign in Ireland.

The rules, of what is acceptable to what is definitely not a joke to what is mildly offensive, are being rewritten every day.The rules, of what is acceptable to what is definitely not a joke to what is mildly offensive, are being rewritten every day.

Coca-Cola’s Sprite came under a lot of fire not too long ago for its #BrutallyRefreshing campaign in Ireland. The brand was made aware, equally brutally, by the audience about how far from refreshing the ‘sexist’ content really was. An apology was later issued by the brand and the campaign was pulled down.

Brands, day by day, struggle to carve a genuine image of themselves, all the while walking on eggshells to be politically and socially correct across communication platforms. One can only imagine the amount of thought that must go into shaping a brand message when with each passing day, brands are trying to humanise themselves. The rules, of what is acceptable to what is definitely not a joke to what is mildly offensive, are being rewritten every day. Missteps in communication, then, are neither affordable nor forgettable.

Take the GapKids campaign which was seen as a case of passive racism in advertising by a section of consumers. Gap too had to issue an explanation for the campaign although there were defensive voices suggesting there was overreaction at play. Closer home, Kalyan Jewellers, in 2015, had to face the music on social media for its ‘racist’ print ad featuring Bollywood actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

The real test of how well brand custodians know what they stand for or believe in, begins when you are pressed for time but there’s a conversing opportunity available that apparently your consumer set is open to talk about. Oreo made all the right moves with Dunk in the Dark way back in 2013 during Super Bowl.

It is a harder test when your brand wants to converse but the conversation it wants to partake in has nothing to do with itself or the product in question. The less you to try to sell, the more genuine the conversations you have, and the less you seem like an impersonal shop. Brand humanisation is seen as something you list under the ‘soft skills’
section of a brand’s resumé. But it is an acquired skill nonetheless that needs to be mastered.

Pushing the envelope

Lenskart and American Swan were slammed for the clearly insensitive content put out by the brands during the Nepal earthquake in 2015. Apologies issued later didn’t seem sensitive enough to rectify the damage caused, either.
The content that emerges for consumption is the end result of a brand’s communication objective. This begets the question then about the objective in the above-mentioned cases. Was there a pressing need to participate in a conversation about a natural disaster? What could have been the trigger?

Amisha Sethi, marketing head at social marketing agency Frrole Inc, says that brands should follow the ‘If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything’ norm. “If tragedy has struck, a brand should look for avenues to contribute in a positive fashion to alleviate the discomfort people might be in,” she says. “If a brand has something to offer in this regard as assistance, only then does it make sense for it to talk about it.”

There isn’t enough merit in lip service either, so just creating a hashtag and saying you are sorry is not something a brand owner should appreciate either.

EY India’s Social Media Marketing India Trends Study 2016 states that the top two objectives for brands to be present on social media were building brand awareness/highlight brand news at 96% and building a community at 76%. This was followed by thought leadership or building credibility and customer engagement at 72%.

A community that will last is not built overnight. Whatever the communication objectives might be, the consumer still comes first, emphasises Ajay Kakar, CMO — financial services, Aditya Birla Group. After all, a brand’s primary responsibility is towards its consumers. “It must attract and engage them through a meaningful and relevant dialogue. And today, social media empowers brands to have such conversations  directly with the consumer. But what is ‘relevant’ is the moot question,” he says.

The issues that brands need to address or feel the need to have an opinion about, vary greatly. But a growing need to address them is being felt in any case. They range from festivals to gender issues, racial discrimination, women empowerment and anything that is important to any section of the society. This is a step in the right direction feels Rajiv Dingra, founder and CEO, WATConsult. “Brands are starting to realise that having a viewpoint is actually a good thing,” he notes.

“They are no longer seen as inanimate entities, but rather, as identities with feelings. The humanisation of brands started when social media became conversational. The brands that are not humanised are doing run of the mill updates,” says Dingra.

Advertising, he feels, is required to transcend boundaries from being just about the brand. It has to also address socio-cultural issues. The challenge digital specifically presents is that the metrics of likes and shares take the attention away from the softer aspects. It is easier to work with numbers than to go back to the
drawing board and recreate the creative or the communication.

And going back to the drawing board is not the easiest thing to do as Santosh Desai, MD and CEO, Future Brands explains. “Brands have been used to one way conversations from the safety of their positions but now it is like being thrust into a wide crowd of opinion where you are still trying to use your old moves and trying to make your way around.”

And conversing for the sake of it will not work either. The effort has to be genuine. “Brands know that if they want to sit on a pulpit and give out messages, people are not interested. Unless you speak on something that is topical and currently of interest to people and you learn to become a part of the fabric of conversation, it will become irrelevant,” says Desai.

Brands must be wary of half-hearted attempts; they need to give the consumer’s conscience its due credit. Notes Sethi, “The social community you are trying to engage is very conscious, extremely emotional, intelligent and sensitive towards what it likes to and doesn’t like to consume. People can see through your messaging.” If something is too much of a force fit, then one needs to find the attitudinal connect. For example, in The Visit film by Fastrack, the products were not the focus. It was an attitudinal side that the brand was trying to showcase to its audience.

Drawing the line

If you want to engage in everyday conversations, you will make mistakes. We have seen enough examples of varying scales for this phenomenon. Companies in Singapore hopping onto Olympic medalist Joseph Schooling’s win and being flagged for it, is as good an instance as any. One must note though that learning from missteps and never repeating them is more important than not trying. “The standards by which brands, media, politicians etc are judged have become muddy today,” opines Desai. “If you cross a certain line there will be consequences that will hurt, and hurt significantly. You will get negative attention more often with much more intensity but it will equally be transient and not all of it will stick.”

Commitment to being conversant about issues that transcend your selling needs is gaining priority by the day. The next step then is to acquire capabilities of being able to handle communication failures that have happened for whatever reason. Dinesh Mishra, customer practice leader and partner — advisory services, EY India says, “One cannot always get it right, and that is why brands need to accept that it could happen to them. You need to have a good online reputation management system so that if something happens, you are not left running around trying to find a solution at that very moment. You should have a process that is capable of responding depending on the kind of threat the brand faces.”

What we have seen in the recent past in the Indian market is that by the time brands get their act together to respond, the issue has already turned into a firestorm. The right people and the right mechanism are imperative to handling something like this. That said, the opposite holds true as well: one social media campaign or a hashtag done well cannot build a brand either. Brand value is an accumulated stimuli released by the brand over a period of time. One-offs can actually bring in negativity for want of consistency. You cannot rush in to a conversation or out of it. It has to be a genuine attempt. If your communication is not close to the organisational belief at its core, it will very easily come out as artificial. The issues you pick to speak on should be the kind you can genuinely afford to consistently speak upon. Tata Tea’s Jaago Re initiative is a fair example here. All these efforts cumulatively contribute to building the kind of persona a brand exudes. Make sure it’s one worth chatting up to!

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