The heating political climate and increasing nationalistic fervour in the country is turning out to be a headache for international FMCG giant Hindustan Unilever. The advertisements of two of HUL products -- Red Label and Surf Excel -- are facing the backlash of right wingers as well as homegrown competitor Patanjali Ayurved led by Baba Ramdev.
In the last few days, #BoycottHindustanUnilever has trended on Twitter several times.
The Surf Excel campaign, which has had more than seven million views on YouTube and talks about Hindu-Muslim unity in the backdrop of Holi, attracted the wrath of the right wing on Sunday. In the ad, a young Hindu girl, dressed in a white T-shirt, chooses to get stained in Holi colours in order to protect her young Muslim friend who has to go to the nearby mosque to pray.
A section on Twitter claimed that the ad was not showing the majority religion in a good light. Later, Ramdev also tweeted against the ad.
हम किसी भी मजहब के विरोध में नहीं हैं,— Swami Ramdev (@yogrishiramdev) March 10, 2019
लेकिन जो चल रहा है उस पर गंभीरता से सोचने की जरूरत है, लगता है जिस विदेशी सर्फ से हम कपड़ों की धुलाई करते हैं अब उसकी धुलाई के दिन आ गए हैं? #BoycottSurfExcel #BoycottHULproducts #surfexcel https://t.co/SGOraCtUoW
However, Vasan Bala, a member of the team behind this ad, tweeted, hinting how creative expression is being held to ransom these days.
Proud to have been a part of the #SurfExcel Holi commercial. An amazing and a brave team behind this!— Vasan ????????L???? (@Vasan_Bala) March 10, 2019
Unfortunately to convey compassion, tolerance and love one needs to be brave these days.
Talking about the reason of such extreme reaction to an otherwise appealing ad, Santosh Desai, Managing Director and CEO, Future Brands Consulting, said, “We are nearing elections. There is a whole constituency that is ready to pounce on anything that it perceives is even slightly not favourable to the Hindu sentiment.”
Last week, The Red Label ‘ApnoKoApnao’ ad faced the wrath of the right wing. It also became a corporate battle as Ramdev attacked the multinational giant.
जो हमने @HUL_News की कुम्भ मेले की Advt में देखा है- इनके लिए देश एक बाजार है, हमारे लिये देश एक परिवार है lआज भी करीब 50 लाख करोड़ की अर्थव्यवस्था परइन विदेशी कम्पनियों का कब्ज़ा है, हमे संकल्प ले कर के,इन विदेशी कम्पनियों को अंग्रेजो की तरह भगाना होगा #BoycottHindustanUnilever pic.twitter.com/o3cDUcziDk— Swami Ramdev (@yogrishiramdev) March 7, 2019
The Red Label ‘ApnoKoApnao’ ad shows a man abandoning his father at the Kumbh Mela and is later seen coming back looking for him. They unite, and share an emotional moment with two cups of Red Label Tea.
The advertising attempt of the brand is strong from an emotional connect point of view. But it went wrong only on one front -- the holding company Hindustan Unilever (HUL) tweeting on its Twitter handle and also mentioning at the end of the ad that the Kumbh Mela is a place where a lot of old aged people are abandoned. The brand Red Label and HUL are facing a lot of flak from Patanjali and consumers alike over the statement.
My direct question to MNCs is to tell what's their contribution in the economic & cultural development of India?— Tijarawala SK (@tijarawala) March 8, 2019
What's their capacity to make disparaging comment on this glorious culture?
Is India just a place to loot for them?#BoycottHindustanUnilever @yogrishiramdev @ANI https://t.co/P5VvaYi8TW
ऐसी अनोखी होली किसी ने नहीं खेली होगी..— Tijarawala SK (@tijarawala) March 9, 2019
घर-घर में विदेशी सामान की होली होगी.!#BoycottHindustanUnilever #BoycottHULproducts @yogrishiramdev @Ach_Balkrishna @bst_official @PypAyurved @PYogpeeth @PypAcharyakulam @ANI @AvdheshanandG @BestMediaInfo @EconomicTimes @ratnabhushanET https://t.co/bu6fSdxYMW
When contacted, Patanjali spokesperson SK Tijarawala did not comment on the issue.
Should brands avoid festival-culture focused advertising?
Experts say brands should not unnecessarily create something that’s not associated with the product and should pre-test a concept that can draw extreme reactions.
Desai said, “In general, I am sceptical of the cause of advertising campaigns. In most cases, it is a cheap way to try and buy emotional equity for the brand by associating in a shallow way with some deep and real social issue. Brands tend to arrogate to themselves the right to give moral lessons to the world, without doing very much about the problems that they make ads about.”
“A brand adopts a ‘purpose’ and proceeds to exploit the issue for its own benefit. And when it goes into such big social areas without any real sort of commitment or ownership and engages in some token virtue signalling, what can happen is that, without realising it, it steps into sensitive areas -- and then it complains when there is a backlash,” he added.
“The TVC is part of a social outreach initiative for sure. The pain it has created all around does certainly seem unintended. The brand has, however, erred,” said Harish Bijoor, brand expert and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults.
“It is important for brands to pre-test concepts such as these that have and hold the potential of creating social tension,” he pointed out, while talking about such campaigns based on social issues.
Shivaji Dasgupta, Founder, Inexgro Brand Advisory, feels that the problem with the ad is not the subject or the outcome. “It is rather the audacious connect between a cup of tea and the decision to take the father back home,” he said.
“I’m not justifying the reaction but that is a political reality. The brand can’t be blind to the fact that in India there is a very strong voice, particularly on Twitter, which is very sensitive about some religious, cultural and Indian symbols -- and to step into it for no real reason, just because they want to make an emotional sounding ad, is very naive,” stated Desai.
And if it is a brand, what has a cup of tea and Red Label got to do with parents? he asked.
“People in the brand business are able to justify this. But you look at it from the other side -- for no reason, the brand is coming and making a gratuitous statement like this which has no relationship to what they are selling. In any case, you don’t solve the problem of abandonment when you drink a cup of tea together, even if you were serious about it. At some stage, brands need to wake up to the absurdity of their lofty and empty posturing,” revealed Desai.
Apparently, the strategy of the #ApnoKoApnao campaign strikes a powerful emotional chord. Then why is it being trolled?
“There is also a competitor that Red Label has (talking about Patanjali), who has a role to play, who has an interest in this subject, and whose stated position is that multinational brands have no respect for Indian values, and are exploitative in character,” he added.
“Emotional chords cut both ways. In this case, it has cut into the brand, rather than into consumers, potential consumers and non-consumers alike,” opined Bijoor.
Dasgupta said, “This being the worst practice in India, which like many others, has been systematically dispelled by education and progression in society. A hard-drawn process. The triviality of a cup of tea in provoking this change is not credible and rather demeaning.”
Desai felt that the brand walked into all of this. “With #ApnoKoApnao, where is the link? It is hardly as if the Kumbh Mela is widely known as a place where parents are abandoned. The larger association, thanks to Hindi films, is of people getting lost or separated. Even if it was true and some people were getting abandoned in the Kumbh Mela, to go into an area like this has got to be for a sounder reason,” he said.
He said, “The larger problem of the ill-treatment of the elderly for instance, is a worthier subject, but the Kumbh is more cinematic. The creative tail is wagging the issue dog. It looks suspiciously like a brand desperately looking for some issue that it can attach itself to.”
“The Kumbh just took place. What is the narrative at play here is that the Kumbh is important to us and the brand is making fun of it or the brand is saying that something is wrong with it. Our culture doesn’t uphold the abandonment of older people,” clarified Desai.
Dasgupta reiterated that brands should stick to their realistic sphere of influence in the causes they endorse. “Going beyond realism evokes disbelief, fury and even disgust,” he said.
“You can argue that this was not the intention of the ad, but as a brand, they have to be potentially aware of the pitfalls of how something can be seen,” added Desai.
Corporate battle being ignited by Patanjali
A couple of years ago, Patanjali was emerging as a competitor to HUL. Baba Ramdev had gone to the extent of saying that in sometime Patanjali will be bigger than HUL in India. However, the homegrown player lost the track around the same time and its sales started stagnating. Now the attack on HUL by Baba Ramdev is seen as a desperate move to play the swadesi card again and drive the sales of Patanjali.
In the last few days, #boycottHUL has trended on Twitter and users have gone to the extent of burning HUL products and putting up videos on Twitter of the act. A few believe that Patanjali has been an equal party to all this.
Is direct trolling and burning of HUL products like this, healthy enough for a competitor to do?
“In this case, the competitor also happens to be a religious leader with strong political standing. Normal rules of engagement do not apply,” Desai said.
“This is very unhealthy because they are inadvertently drawing more attention to HUL and earning them undeserved sympathy,” believes Dasgupta.
But to what extent is trolling favourable and healthy for a brand, till it does not affect the brand's image and sales? Is this trolling really harmful for Red Label or is it just normal trolling?
“If you are an unknown brand and you become known, it can occasionally turn out to be useful. But in this case, Red Label is an old, established brand, it’s not particularly useful. Also, it goes beyond the brand, and affects the entire company,” brought out Desai.
Bijoor believes that trolling is a disease whose time has come. He said, “Brands need to be careful not to play into the hands of trolls.”
Dasgupta thinks that nothing will happen to HUL or the brand and this will pass off.
“While it is unlikely to have any significant or long-term impact, Twitter outrages are loud but transient. At a corporate level, for a multinational company that is very sensitive about its image, and certainly doesn’t want to get involved in any kind of political problems, it is highly avoidable from that perspective. From a communication standpoint and a corporate standpoint, it is very unhealthy. But I would be surprised if it has any long-term damage to the brand’s reputation,” seconded Desai.
What should a brand do? Desai thinks that the brand should withdraw or modify the campaign and it should say that it didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s sentiment; that was not the intention. It was only to exemplify the idea that we should be together with our loved ones. “So, it is important for people to register that,” he specified.
Bijoor, too, feels that in such a case brands must retreat. “Withdraw. And let the tempers cool. To begin all over again, on a different route altogether,” he said.
Dasgupta says that it should be a lesson for all those who seek unreal brand connect.