In-depth: Are brands shying from creating campaigns around religious festivities?

In an exclusive conversation with, experts deliberated on the reasons why many brands have started refraining from creating campaigns around religious festivities

Sakshi Sharma
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In-depth: Are brands shying from creating campaigns around religious festivities?

Social media has enabled people to voice strong opinions/criticisms on all subjects, following which more and more brands have become cautious about the content they put out around religious festivities. Rather, they are now choosing a safer bet by creating ad campaigns around non-festive occasions.

This year, Holi and Women's Day coincided and it seemed that the volume of Women's Day ad campaigns was greater than the campaigns created around Holi. On the other hand, two brands - namely Swiggy and Bharat Matrimony - came under fire on social media for their Holi-related ad billboards and campaign, respectively. Both the brands faced boycott calls on Twitter for “hurting religious sentiments of Hindus”.

In an exclusive conversation with, experts stated that some brands seem to lack conviction in their ideas and they should refrain from putting out pointless statements. While others said that certain well-intentioned but unconventional campaigns have failed to resonate with Indian audiences.

Ramanujam Sridhar

Ramanujam Sridhar, Founder and CEO, Brand-Comm PR, said, “There are two factors that are in place here, one is that people who are active on social media have become a lot more polarised on certain issues. They seem to have very strong views on subjects.”

“Some of these things may not even affect them. For example, I see an ad by Tanishq and then I write very strongly about it irrespective of the fact that I may never buy Tanishq jewellery in my life. That's the new dimension that marketers need to take into account - that people who are not your customers are having a very strong point of view about your communication and are in turn influencing others.” 

Hamsini Shivakumar

In the view of Hamsini Shivakumar, Founder, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, all religious occasions used for commercial purposes have become a touchy topic nowadays, with the established presence of social media trolling especially on Twitter.

“Advertising commercial messaging needs to stay secular and tell stories of human emotion without getting into the 'religious' side of the festival. For example, Diwali as a symbolic space of families, meeting up, sharing, caring, home etc would be acceptable and enjoyed by the audience. But if the brands were to start featuring religious symbols or preaching to people on "how to celebrate Diwali" (no crackers, be environmentally friendly etc), people are going to take offence,” Shivakumar said.

Samit Sinha

Samit Sinha, Founder and Managing Partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, believes that earlier advertisers didn’t shy away from depicting Indian festivals in their advertising, regardless of religion and indeed often showed members of all faiths participating in all the festivals.

“Today, religion has become much more politicised and the internet makes it easy for anyone with a vested interest to create a disproportionate amount of noise. In addition, television media, competing for TRPs, finds that it suits their cause to further rake up controversies and make mountains out of molehills,” he added. 

According to Sridhar, brands have to be more and more cautious about whether there is any other creative route they can explore.

“One needs to understand that it's not so much about the personal belief as it is about the brand. If the personal belief has something to do with the brand, then it's fine, otherwise many of these people are making pointless statements which unnecessarily antagonise people and get them to do some sort of controversy,” he added. 

He went on to add that brands need to step back and check if the message they are conveying is relevant to their selling proposition or their cause. For things which are done either for sensation or for a topical reason, they can keep it in line with their brand message and promise. 

Vivek Srivastava

Similarly, Vivek Srivastava, Advisor and Former Managing Director, Innocean India, said that repeated misadventures by brands who assume ‘woke tones’ in the garb of targeted disparaging messages have made aware consumers question their motives and avoid their overtures. Moreover, brands have been found to be indulging in a spray-and-scoot approach. They seem to be lacking conviction in their ideas, making it seem like they are following the trend than doing anything meaningful.

Furthermore, he stated that for a while brands were lulled and misled into believing that disparaging the religion-cultural occasions makes them endearing. However, matters of faith are always like skating on thin ice. 

“In fact, the younger and older lot of consumers believe in them with equal fervour hence lampooning or sensationalising things or tarring the whole community or gender with one motivated brush isn’t a good approach ever. A better approach is to look at acceptable signs of progressive practices that have made a difference in real life and are gaining traction,” Srivastava added. 

Creating content around Women’s Day safer bet for brands; Well-intentioned campaigns failed to resonate with Indian audiences

Nisha Sampath

Nisha Sampath, Brand Consultant and Managing Partner, Bright Angles Consulting, said that during the pandemic, brands focused a lot on Holi, especially since the pandemic restricted celebrations. This year, probably the focus may have shifted to women’s empowerment. Maybe, if brands need to decide where to put resources, International Women’s Day feels like a ‘safer bet’.

Srivastava said that Women’s Day accords to brands and marketers a definitive opportunity to highlight their efforts in the areas of gender inclusion. Subliminally it aims at building a constituency amongst empowered and emerging women folk. In many ways, it pushes the social discourse in a positive direction. Festivals often serve the limited purpose of just sending out goodwill gestures and greetings.

He also said that first and foremost commitment to social causes doesn’t begin with creating great ads. Rather it emanates with tangible and affirmative steps taken on the ground across the business value chain and the community impact. Advertising merely serves to share the good outcomes and human stories of progress and change. This helps build real conviction around the brand premise.

Shivakumar said that brands focused on Women's Day communication because, for most of them, females are the direct target audience as shoppers or buyers or influencers on purchase. They hope to build a better emotional connection as a brand with their audience by creating Women's Day communication.  It gives them an opportunity to go beyond product sales pitches to more human story-telling.

Jagdeep Kapoor

According to Jagdeep Kapoor, Founder Chairman and Managing Director, Samsika Marketing Consultants, with Women’s Day emerging as an important day due to the Indian environment in sports, culture, education, corporate and entertainment, it is ideally suited for brands to leverage the day for enhancing their brand equity.

Aarti Samant

Aarti Samant, Co-founder of Sorted and independent digital marketing consultant, believes that “If you are a brand planning to advertise in India, it's important to note that the Indian market prefers a cautious approach when it comes to sensitive topics like religion.”

“Unfortunately, in recent years, some well-intentioned but unconventional campaigns have failed to resonate with Indian audiences. These ads were perceived as being against Hinduism, resulting in a rise in boycott culture. This trend has a negative impact on brand efficacy, particularly for mass brands. Perhaps that is the reason why brands preferred to have a rather gender-centric campaign like women’s day instead of Holi,” she added. 

Furthermore, sharing her experience, Samant went on to say, “In 2019, I was involved in the #BuraNaKhelo campaign for fbb. At the time, Holi and International Women's Day coincided, and the campaign aimed to create a safe environment for women during Holi. Our research showed that almost 99% of women had experienced incidents of sexual harassment or eve-teasing during Holi. The campaign was created with the intention of promoting women's safety, but even then, we faced a significant amount of trolling and negative feedback for appearing to speak against a Hindu festival.”

“We decided not to bring the campaign down as we truly believed in our cause and we also received an equal amount of love from women forces and younger audiences,” she added.


Lloyd Mathias

Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and Angel Investor, believes that Women’s Day is always an attractive proposition for brands to weave their relevance into. Women are one-half of humanity. So it's natural for brands to develop campaigns around it. However, when it comes to festivals brands are a bit more circumspect given that trolling of brands and the boycott culture is sadly becoming commonplace.

Brands refrain from creating content on such occasions due to ‘cancel’ culture

Sampath said, “The cancel culture on social media is definitely making brands pause and think twice before venturing into a territory that could be controversial. No brand wishes to antagonise any section of the audience if it is avoidable.”

“It’s always recommended to be sensitive to cultural and social media trends while creating content around religions or religious rituals. Testing content with consumers before releasing is also a good practice. India is so diverse, that something that works in the North, might offend sentiments in the South or not work at all. Hence, segmenting content by region is also a good idea,” she added. 

As per Shivakumar, there is no point in spending time, effort and money in making ads which have to be taken off the air. Brands are wisely choosing to sidestep the minefield and stay focused on their core product propositions and selling messages. A few high-profile cases such as Tanishq and Ceat have been the red flags, she added. 

On the contrary, Kapoor said that brands are not refraining. Other opportunities are changing the proportion of conventional and unconventional celebration days. The importance of conventional festivals is as strong as earlier.

In view of Samant, although some younger, progressive citizens may be receptive to these campaigns, traditional mass audiences have not been as accepting.

“They have interpreted some of these campaigns as being "anti-Hindu," without considering the intended message. Also, the influence of Twitter and socio-political agendas are significantly driving these conversations,” she added.

As per Mathias, increasing polarisation and social media proliferation make it easy to incite audiences. 

“Easy social media access and engineered activism provide the much-needed oxygen to fan controversies and keep these issues alive. Brands are beginning to be caught in the political crossfire, often inadvertently,” Mathias said.

“This results in many brands avoiding content around festivals – where there is a likelihood of misunderstanding and emotions running high. Though this is not a mass trend yet, one could say many brands are playing safe these days,” he added.

Sinha stated that “I don’t think that either social media or TV channels are truly reflective of the opinion of the majority of the Indian public. However, it does create a threat perception and often encourages some of the fringe elements in society to foment and incite violence and vandalism against brands. This is what makes advertisers play it safe and avoid advertising that has anything to do with religion, in case they are accused by the vocal minority of “hurting religious sentiments.”

Brands should put money where their mouth is

In Sampath’s view, actions speak louder than words. Rather than relying on only campaigns to show commitment, brands should put their money where their mouth is, and invest in causes. This will create credibility and rule out controversies. 

“Paying lip service to diversity, or inclusivity on just one day of the year is increasingly being criticised by consumers. In the social media era, consistency and authenticity in supporting causes are important,” she stated.

In Kapoor’s view, for any campaign, it is important for the brand to bring out its message sensitively, without hurting any sentiment of any consumer segment. Brands should focus on brand building by attracting consumers to their brand message and not distracting them with other messages.

Shivakumar said, “All religious festivals have now acquired a secular symbolism and semiotic codes for commercial messaging. So, as long as brands stay within these codes, the ads will be acceptable. The problem is that when 50 or 100 brands are making ads for the festival day, your brand needs to stand out from the clutter. In order to do so, brands start breaking the codes and that's when they face the backlash,” she added.

“Social cause communication is tricky. When brands try to lecture consumers on 'appropriate' behaviour it often hits a nerve, it doesn't strike a chord.  Particularly, when brands choose festivals to push their social cause pitch, it comes across as lecturing the public (preachy) on how they should celebrate their festival. Which is bound to be rejected by many, either unspoken or spoken out loud,” she added. 

Samant believes that it is important to understand the religious sentiments and practices of the target audience to create a campaign that is well-received however well-intentioned they might seem on the hind side. While from a marketing lens, they might make sense but we have to accept that the current sentiment does not allow brands to even have a sense of humour around lighter festivals like Holi. 

“Cultural sensitivity as per the current zeitgeist: Keeping in mind current political agendas and cultural sensitivity brands could avoid depicting anything that could be offensive or insensitive to a particular religion or culture,” she added.

Furthermore, Samant went on to say that if a brand truly believes in social causes, it should not solely rely on topical movements or festivals to promote them. 

“Just like how the LGBTQAI+ community should not only be celebrated during Pride Month, brands should not use causes for short-term publicity or brand agendas. It is important for brands to adopt a consistent and genuine belief system that resonates with their target audience throughout the year. By doing so, they can make a meaningful and long-lasting impact and create a thriving community, rather than just superficially using words for impression management,” she stated.

Mathias believes that brands should be more circumspect but not shy away from doing what is right for their business. They need to be conscious of the fact that social media allows consumers to react and share their views, so they need to fully anticipate possible reactions – but in no way should they hold back from doing the right thing.

Furthermore, he went on to say that when it comes to religious festivals there are many aspects that are celebratory without being offensive or judgemental. These can be used as anchors to communication.

“Brands should always be sensitive to the boycott culture. However, they must also recognise that issues and trends on social media are mostly ephemeral, and die down quickly, when trolls divert attention to the next thing,” Mathias said.

“While companies and brand custodians need to be sensitive, so as not to needlessly offend any segment, this should not stop them from doing what is right, in the larger context. It is important for companies and brands to respect the public sentiment.  After all, a brand and a company exist within a larger community and all it does needs to reflect the values of its users and the larger society it operates in,” he added. 

In conclusion, he said that thanks to their reach and heft, brands have become important elements in shaping culture, influencing behaviour and moulding opinion. It is therefore important for them to proactively do the right thing, even though it may have short-term implications for their business.

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