Just 10 days back, HT Media CFO Piyush Gupta told the investors of the company that radio had been a bit of a challenge in spite of their best efforts and the radio revenue failed to come up to speed as much as the company would have liked to.
“There is a marginal decline of 4% with revenues tracking to Rs 40 crores, and operating EBITDA at Rs 3 crores with a 7% margin as against a 17% margin last year. Sequentially, of course, they were up 12%," he told investors in an earning call.
It was in this context that the market believed when Ramesh Menon, the CEO of Audio Business at HT Media Group, took to LinkedIn to announce that the company was ‘shutting down’ Fever FM.
However, it soon turned out to be a marketing gimmick.
This reminded the industry of exactly similar stunt by Emmanuel Upputuru about seven years back to relaunch his creative agency ITSA.
In 2017, Upputuru published a resignation letter addressed to his employees on his own company’s website.
Several industry experts reacted to Fever’s move by saying that it was in bad taste considering it belongs to the legacy print brand Hindustan Times which enjoys a high level of credibility.
“It was HT’s credibility that the market took this gimmick as a credible news piece for a while,” said an industry observer.
Many others were of the view that the market regulator Sebi may pull up Fever FM’s parent company HT Media, which is a listed firm, over this stunt.
Experts believe that the use of such a marketing ploy by a reputed organisation not only creates negative buzz in the industry but also questions their overall judgement and brand integrity.
While speaking about Fever FM’s marketing ploy, Samit Sinha, Founder and Managing Partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, said, “I don’t approve of such methods, though I understand where the need comes from. In the increasing clutter of marketing messages that we are surrounded by, it is becoming really difficult to stand out, so the desire to resort to gimmickry is obviously very tempting.”
He also mentioned that if the gimmick is clever and strategic and relates to the core brand idea and personality, it can pay rich dividends. But oftentimes, they are just gimmicks for the sake of gimmickry, which have no connection with the brand per se, and are therefore not in the best long-term interests of the brand and sometimes can even immediately backfire by their inability to read the room, so to speak.
In the view of Hamsini Shivakumar, Founder, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, Marketing gimmicks were earlier called PR stunts. Now, the entire focus is on gaining consumer attention, a very scarce resource, and talk ability or buzz for a short while.
"It was okay earlier to pull off some fake or false stunts to serve this purpose - all for a laugh. With social media, the pressure on brands for daily if not hourly relevance/salience is very high. Hence the appeal of PR stunts," Shivakumar said.
"The issue today with such PR stunts based on fakery is that we already live in a world of disinformation, misinformation and AI-made content. This has completely erased the line between truth and falsehood. Fakery is no longer something light and for laughs. It's not a joke," she added.
Echoing a similar sentiment, Vivek Srivastava, Founder-Director, Integrated Brand Heuristics, said that any campaign that is not thought through and done without strategically presaging the impact on the brand equity is bound to be disastrous.
“A couple of tactical moves that turn out well for some marketers should not be construed as a replicable model. In this age of all feeling the urge for momentary glory, brands are no different when it comes to fishing for likes or views or shares without realising the real implications on business or consumer proclivities. This takes us back to the core of creativity: A consumer-centric idea that makes the brand effortlessly glide in the mind space. Not just a crass or uncalled-for intervention,” Srivastava said.
“Marketing annals are full of such instances. Brands from apparel space like Fab India to jewellery giants like Tanishq to Surf Excel, all have suffered trying to get that glory in the garb of moment marketing or social correction messaging. Zomato too got a lot of flack for their ‘MC BC’ messaging, but they rode through it,” he added.
Nisha Sampath, Brand consultant and Founder of Bright Angles Consulting, believes that in general, brands should avoid any tactical route that could erode trust or damage brand equity. She said, “While a lot of startup brands may be willing to take a risk, an established brand should not. Particularly in India, backlash from users can be very strong and can quickly escalate through channels like WhatsApp. More than the brand, even celebrities stand to lose when they participate in such gimmicks.”
On being asked about the inherent risks for brands that go overboard with marketing gimmicks, Rahul Vengalil, CEO and Co-founder, TGTHR, said, "Indian consumers are highly forgiving. We have seen so many issues that brands have gone through in the recent past with their marketing campaigns. However, other than the small blips, the brands have not had any serious erosion."
In yet another example of a bad marketing ploy, Nora Fatehi took to her official Instagram handle to post about how a brand, called ‘Lulumelon’, created a deepfake video of hers for promotional purposes and made headlines.
Later, HDFC Bank accepted that it was its creative AOR, FCB Kinnect, which executed a stunt marketing campaign in collaboration with Vigil Aunty and Fatehi and created a fictitious brand to add gravitas to its ‘What the Fraud’ series.
Sinha said in the case of HDFC Bank’s campaign, not only does it use a deep fake video involving a celebrity, but it also tries to mislead consumers by its cunningly close proximity to the well-established international North America-based activewear brand, ‘Lululemon’.
“This is clearly done to scam unsuspecting people, while also undoubtedly doing some damage to the genuine Lululemon brand, as the difference between Lulumelon and Lululemon may go unnoticed by many people. So, this one is an out-and-out scam and brands, consumers, regulators and platforms all need to become increasingly watchful of such instances,” he added.
On the contrary, Vengalil believes that ideally such campaigns should have been appreciated. However, deepfake is a new feature and not everyone understands this.
"This means that laymen will definitely be scared and create challenges. What the brands should do is ensure that execution is not overwhelming in any sort. I believe this was overwhelming for major users, hence the backlash. Having said that, Indian consumers are highly forgiving and brands will definitely come out of this skirmish," he said.
Shivakumar mentioned that brands which use PR stunts using 'fakes' might lift their salience for a short while but they could also undermine their credibility in the eyes of consumers. Users of the brands' products and services may not be impacted that much because they have their own experiences to go by. However, lapsed users and non-users could start distrusting or devaluing the brand because of its fakery/PR stunts.
Some brands execute marketing gimmicks that manage to capture attention without appearing tasteless or deceptive. Take, for instance, a recent scenario where the video of the cast of the 2009 Bollywood hit ‘Wake Up Sid,’ including Ranbir Kapoor, Konkona Sen Sharma, and Namit Das, went viral.
The internet buzzed with excitement as audiences speculated about a potential sequel, 'Wake Up Sid 2,' seeing the cast reunite on a shooting set.
However, what netizens were unaware of at the time was that the reunion wasn't for a movie sequel but for an advertisement promoting the Oppo Reno 11 Series. This instance demonstrates how some brands can effectively create anticipation and engagement through well-executed marketing strategies without misleading their audience.
However, some brands tend to go overboard and struggle to execute gimmick marketing effectively, resulting in their efforts being perceived as in bad taste.
Earlier, Bollywood actress Kajol announced stepping away from social media. In a post, she shared her decision, stating, "Facing one of the toughest trials of my life. Taking a break from social media." However, it later emerged that this declaration was part of a promotional campaign for her show.
Subsequently, the actress received backlash on social media, with many expressing genuine concern for her well-being and mental health. The revelation about the promotional nature of the announcement sparked criticism, as users felt misled by what initially seemed like a personal decision rather than a strategic marketing move.
Last year, Weikfield Foods rolled out a marketing campaign for Fortified Pasta, executed by Grey and Autumn Grey.
This move was to affirm Weikfield Fortified Pasta's bold nutritional claims, emphasising its rich content of protein, fibre, iron, and absence of refined flour (Maida).
The campaign prominently featured Weikfield CEO, D.S. Sachdeva, undergoing a lie detector test to validate each claim made about their pasta.
Earlier, one of the global employment websites Monster.com rebranded itself to 'foundit.' However, the initiative faced an unexpected backlash when employees from Monster India posted fake resignations on LinkedIn and later announced a rebranding for the platform. It did not resonate positively with people on social media, sparking a range of mixed emotions.