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In-depth: Does #BoycottBrand affect a brand's life?

Brands face social media boycott over various allegations or for freely expressing themselves on social, political issues. While this trend can definitely tarnish a brand’s image, tries to figure out how much this impacts business and why brands seek their right to free expression

Social media platforms provide an opportunity for a dialogue between brands and customers but the growing trend of online abusing, bullying, unnecessary trolling and boycotting of brands certainly raises questions about the nature of free speech.

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The boycotting of brands on social media is nothing new. Earlier, P&G, HUL, J&J had been targeted at the global level and very recently it has been Tanishq and Bajaj in India.

According to global reports, 53% consumers believe brands can do more to solve social problems than governments and interestingly, almost two-thirds or 64% consumers worldwide now purchase from or boycott a brand due to its stance on social or political issues.

While at times brands are pressured to take a stand on social issues in the era of easy outrage, in return social media gives consumers or even general users the power to spread their disapproval of a brand's take, which can then spiral into a bigger controversy.

So isn’t selling a quality product enough for brands to please customers? And how much apprehensive should brands be to express opinions on these platforms, which can delight and annoy users at the same time?

And the biggest question— how much does this impact the business of these brands in both long and short term?

With increasing consumer sensitivity — propelled by social and political nuances — people are becoming more vocal, conscious and truly sharing their unabashed opinions on many fronts.

Rajendra Agarwal

While some brands that already have grabbed the consumer’s share of mind can play it safe, newer ones need to be disruptive to command their presence. In the wake of social media, the negative rub-off effect and devalue goodwill, they could be short-lived but will considerably impact sales by a niche group. However, at the grassroots level, the brand/s may still continue to grow, said Rajendra Agarwal, Managing Director, Donear Industries.

One cannot deny the fact that the brand perception is incredibly important and a deciding factor for purchase.

“Brand scrutiny is tough on the brand image and creates a stickiness in the minds of the consumer. With such easy access to share and troll and create memes and what not — it's very important for brands to counter intuitively and salvage the situation. This hashtag has certainly fuelled a movement online and could have a lasting impact on brands,” he added.

Harish Bijoor

Harish Bijoor, Brand Guru and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., agreed that the #BoycottBrands movement is harmful to brand image.

“A whole set of consumers are sensitised to reconsider such brands in their buying basket. If the charge is real, serious consumers actually look at these brands as pariahs. If the charge seems frivolous, consumers shrug it all off and move on. Brands love a neutral audience and hate trolls and the mechanism of trolling for sure,” he said.

Samit Sinha

On the contrary, Samit Sinha, Founder, Managing Partner, ‎Alchemist Brand Consulting, believes that the call to boycott brands on social media often acts as a free force-multiplier to increase immediate awareness of the brand.

“Unless the brand is guilty of a serious transgression in the eyes of the vast majority — which is not the case in most instances — the brand’s business only stands to benefit in terms of high recall value, a fact that seems to elude the army of trolls who initiate, exhort and spread the noise to boycott the brand,” he said.

So, unless the brand’s communication is found to be genuinely offensive by most people, it has no impact on the brand’s image and value.

“On the contrary, sometimes it helps the brand acquire short-term salience,” he said.

Poulomi Roy

Also, these superfluous online trolling, Poulomi Roy, CMO, RSH Global, believes cannot take away the good products and work from brands.

“The problem is the moment you start having a conversation on social media and even if you rationalise the point of view, there will always be people who won’t think rationally or break out of their cocoon. Everyone has an opinion but there will be a set of people who will find negativity in everything and we only fuel this entire thing by actually giving into such conversations. As a nation, we are losing onto the perspective of what is important.”

She said that such boycotts don’t impact the business significantly.

She rather advised, “A brand is either selling a service or a product and to sell, marketing is the tool, and interesting storytelling is a part of it. Brands need to disengage themselves from trolls and choose what narrative they want to be a part of. There isn’t a significant drop in sales for brands to be impacted by trolling. The brand image will not get tarnished if there is quality in the product or service being offered. It doesn’t happen over a day; the brand legacy is built over years of work and you can’t take that away by baseless boycotting.”

Kashyap Vadapalli

Echoing the same views, Kashyap Vadapalli, Chief Marketing Officer at Pepperfry, said a brand is responsible to its customers and it needs to fulfil the promises as a brand in terms of what it delivers and not to give into the minor disagreements.

“When any brand puts out content on social media, their job is to understand who their customer are, what they like and do not like. It is impossible to please 100% of the users/audiences. There will be 10-15% who will be unhappy for some reasons. I think it’s really the 80:20 rule. If 80% feels there is something wrong, then as a brand you misunderstood your customer. Unfortunately, what happens is even a 10-20% unhappy users can generate a lot of noise which I believe will be short term. Majority of the users should stand by your communication and understand your value and products,” he shared.

Sharat Dhall

Social media is here to stay, said Sharat Dhall, COO, Policy Bazaar.

He advised brands to look at social media just as another medium of communicating with customers and it will remain as the medium where people express themselves.

While in the past, brands, including Nestle, Johnson & Johnson, HUL, have been boycotted for the quality defects and pricing, many brands, including PhonePe, Vicco were boycotted  because of their association with Bollywood celebrities (on nepotism debate) — which basically has nothing to do with the product.

Similarly, Bajaj was boycotted for its views on the latest debate on toxic content on news channels.

As it demonstrates the risk to the value of their brands, would it be right to relate such boycotts directly to the change in consumers’ behaviour too?

Roy clearly stated that these trolls are not consumer sets. In fact, there is only small group of people who are getting into this and this has nothing to do with consumers.

“Brands do not sell ideologies but commodities with the help of storytelling,” she added.

Agarwal said that there have always been critics for any kind of media publicity. The difference being now, everyone has the opportunity to be vocal with high chances of being seen.

“As brands, we need to be cognizant of any communication triggers that could lead to trolling and appeal to consumers accordingly,” he added.

It is sad that these days it is ridiculously easy for just about anyone to create a storm in a teacup.

Sinha believes that sometimes it’s better for a brand to just wait and let the storm pass or in instances when the storm looks like it is gaining momentum, to come up with a counter-narrative.

He explained, “In these days of post-truth politics, fake news and the underlying business model of social media companies which thrives on these, consumers are finding it increasingly difficult to separate facts from fiction. Instead consumers are choosing to believe whatever that supports their pre-existing opinions and prejudices. Therefore, the room for pure objectivity is rapidly shrinking as is an increase in polarity. It is becoming harder for consumers to stay in the middle-ground.”

Will brands shy away from being purpose-driven or support social causes with the mere fear of a backlash on social media?

Sinha said that brands, most certainly, will re-think of being purpose-driven for the fear of a backlash.

“Brands will become increasingly mindful of the social and political climate and will tend to become over-cautious about treading on the potential minefields of collective sentiments, especially anything that has even the slightest whiff of religion and other such touchy identity markers,” he said.

Agarwal insisted brands should see the bigger picture of the psychographics of India and cue in on insights that don't necessarily have trigger points and yet stand out from the crowd.

He said, “I think most traditional brands may choose to play it safe during the festival season, and the new-age ones — and those that can piggyback constructively on this will leverage this proposition.”

However, in any position that brands take, there will always be people who will like it or dislike it and brands should be ready to face that there will be people who won’t agree with it, suggested Dhall.

“When you are trying to establish an identity and getting into some purpose, then you need to evaluate it. It is a choice that brands need to make in terms of what kind of purpose they are speaking about and establish an identity for and view the pros and cons of doing it and then take a call on whether or not this is something core to the brand and the business,” he explained.

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