Brands and endorsers: When the going gets tough

By: and |
New Delhi | Published: May 8, 2018 12:04:43 AM

BrandWagon gets two experts to share their thoughts on what happens when endorsers express their views about social issues and the brand suffers a rub-off effect despite not partaking in it.

N Chandramouli,, brandsN Chandramouli, CEO, TRA Research

It was in 2016 that Aamir Khan was dropped from endorsing Snapdeal after his personal views on ‘intolerance’ in India led to polarisation of the public for and against him. 2018 feels like déjà vu, with Swara Bhasker and Amazon, wherein Amazon users have threatened to boycott the app — both for associating with her as a brand as well as, conversely, for subtly distancing itself from the celebrity after she aired what she felt on an issue (the Kathua rape case). BrandWagon gets two experts to share their thoughts on what happens when endorsers express their views about social issues and the brand suffers a rub-off effect despite not partaking in it

‘Clearly acknowledge the brand character’: N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA Research

A brand and humans are similar in many ways. To have a strong identity, both need to have fortitude and grit to stand by their convictions, values and beliefs. A brand and a person reveal their character by the stand they take and it gets even more exposed when the stand taken is in the face of extreme adversity.

We already know Bhasker’s stance. Amazon’s reaction, when it faced the brunt of ‘uninstall’ threats by belligerent sections of the audience who bandied her association with the brand was to, swiftly but discreetly, disassociate with Bhasker by deleting the promoted tweet she had been signed up for. With this one muted delete click, Amazon ended up displaying the character of its brand, which many will paint as insensitive. Some even went to the extent of calling the brand spineless. The threat to ‘uninstall’ came again — this time from a more deeply hurt customer base of Amazon who was aligned with her tweet and thought.

Customers buy brands (and from brands, in this case) they perceive to reflect their own personalities. And when a brand personality dissonance is encountered, the pain felt can be real and deep, often leaving lasting trust wounds. The immediate solution for Amazon in such a complex damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t situation is not easy. The only way to handle it, in such a case, is by clearly acknowledging the brand character Amazon wants to project of itself, and then to take a strong, convinced stance on it. No matter which stance Amazon takes, it has led itself into having a sharply divided audience. That cannot be undone. Now it is just a matter of knowing and understanding which side it wants to be seen with. The need to protect the brand’s customer trust at any cost is perhaps best understood only by those who have lost it. Regaining trust for brands after losing it can be extremely tough and tedious, apart from it being costly, causing direct and real market erosion. The real need is of a voice for the brand in its own internal debates, one which can give a sane but strong opinion in all matters which impact the customer trust quotient.

‘Keep your ears to the ground’: M G Parameswaran, Founder, Brand-Building.com

Amazon’s reaction to the boycott by a fringe group against Swara Bhasker was a bit of a surprise. Maybe the Indian management was trying to be cautious. In contrast, the reaction of Ola (against a random person’s comment about cancelling the ride because of the religion of the driver) should be held up as a great example to emulate. Shouldn’t a brand stand up to what it believes and articulate it clearly?

Coming to news reports and social media frenzy, brands have to develop a way of figuring out the right response at the right time. It is reported that the news cycle today can last from 10 minutes to 10 days. The cycle changes ever too often. I wonder why Amazon had to rush with its response. If Bhasker was under contract with it (and today, contracts mention a lot of conditions that the celebrity has to adhere to), it could have got the actor to clarify her tweet: the fact that she was not defaming all people of one religious belief.

All said and done, it is a difficult task to figure out when to react, when to keep quiet. Maybe Amazon acted a little too early as a measure of abundant caution. I am sure it knows the social media game better than me and has experts at its disposal who can advise it on the topic.

That said, we are living in a world where anything can become news and the truth can get submerged in negative sentiment. Brands have to learn to do the following:

* Celebrity contracts have to be a lot more stringent to protect the reputation of the brand

* Celebrities need to be cautioned about negative consequences

* There has to be a playbook that should be brought forward if there is a social media storm

* All options should be examined before expressing regret or cutting the cord with the celebrity

One lesson that all brands need to learn is that you need to keep your ears to the ground on a 24/7 basis and have a playbook that can be used at any time.

— Compiled by Meghna Sharma and Shinmin Bali

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