In-depth: Are brands losing empathy in pursuits of being ‘always on’?

Recently, a personal care brand's moment marketing attempt to appear savvy and compassionate backfired, resulting in unexpected scrutiny and moral judgment on social media. In this story, industry leaders emphasise the importance of compassion in marketing and discuss key considerations for navigating the challenges of moment marketing

Akansha Srivastava
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Delhi: Sometimes, in their quest to be 'always on' and to differentiate themselves, brands end up crossing the lines of ethics and empathy.

A personal care brand recently found itself embroiled in social media backlash due to a print ad in a national daily. The brand's attempt at moment marketing to appear savvy and compassionate backfired, leading to unexpected scrutiny and moral judgment on social media.

While the brand has not yet issued a public apology and may choose to remain silent until the social media criticism subsides, industry leaders are expressing frustration against brands that prioritise publicity over sensitivity and empathy.

"It's a people business, and your primary quality needs to be empathy," said Amer Jaleel, Co-Founder of Curativity. "Too often these days, a resounding collective slap is delivered, and the brand gets labelled as lacking a filter or, worse still, being cringe-worthy."

Highlighting one of the reasons why brands are increasingly resorting to poor taste in their creative endeavours, Jaleel mentioned that the demand for people to generate content for brands has surged to such an extent that the quality standards have significantly declined.

Explaining it further, he said, “I don’t mean by intelligence but by sensitivity. The most fundamental problem in brand work today is the level of talent that has become common in the advertising and marketing fraternity.” 

This problem is becoming even more prevalent due to the trend of moment marketing. To capitalise on every popular discussion, brands rush and often end up positioning their communication in bad taste.

Ajay Gahlaut, Independent Creative, said, “It is only to be expected in this ‘keeping up with the Jones’ environment that brand managers find themselves in.” 

Tara Kapur, Marketing Head - India, Duolingo English Test, believes that being 'always on' is challenging for brands and not necessary. 

She stated, “Brands have a specific purpose in a consumer's life; they don't need to be everywhere. Focus on moments that are relevant to your product and identify the right touch points, instead of adopting the 'spray and pray' approach that many brands are using today.”

At the end of the day, a brand is a commercial entity, and most consumers understand that the majority of a brand's activities are designed for profit. 

Gahlaut remarked, “There is already suspicion and cynicism when a brand appears to support a cause. If the brand custodians are not sensitive, they can cause significant damage by aggressively advocating any cause in an inappropriate manner, regardless of their sincerity.”

He suggested that when engaging in moment marketing, brands should carefully consider the implications of any social commentary they wish to promote. “A rule of thumb is, if there is even a slight chance of controversy, it's best to avoid it,” he advised."

However, this shouldn’t stop brands from taking a stance on serious issues and topics, provided they walk the talk, according to Kapur.

She said, “Before taking a stance, brands need to ask themselves certain questions - 1) how authentic are they being when they are putting out a message, is it something they truly stand for? 2) how far are they willing to stand by the message they are endorsing, even when there could be business repercussions or backlash? 3) what is the best way for them to convey that message without it feeling like there's an ulterior motive?”

She added, “For most brands, it's not easy to find the right answers to these questions, and that's where they fail. 

Citing the example of a serious issue that gained widespread attention, such as Black Lives Matter, Kapur mentioned that some brands handled it correctly while many others did not. The brands that handled it correctly stood by the cause unequivocally, whereas others merely paid lip service.

I understand the appeal of being edgy, witty, and grabbing fleeting attention," commented Jaleel. "But that's precisely the issue with moment marketing—we tend to forget that it's temporary."

"If you're aiming to court controversy, then it's better to fully commit and do something that truly stirs up public sentiment and fully capitalise on it. Be bold all the way. Ethics be damned," he asserted.

In the example of the personal care brand taking the opportunity of the social media trolls around the facial hair of a girl topper, Kapur thinks that the medium they picked, the logo force-fit, and the lack of authenticity in messaging, gave an impression of them having other objectives, which is why the negative reaction.

Even veteran ad man Ramesh Narayan believes that the aforementioned personal care brand represents a new low in advertising. He emphasised, 'Advertising should steer clear of personal matters unless there is explicit consent from the individual to use it in paid communications. In this case, it's evident how sensitive this issue could be for a young lady.'

Vikas Mehta, a senior brand consultant, also believes that the personal care brand's actions were deliberate, aiming to generate buzz on social media. "If you're willing to sacrifice your ethics by claiming 'I care' just to get more people talking about it, then that's what most brands engaging in such controversies are doing.”

Mehta further emphasised that this issue is significant enough for organisations supporting gender equality and women's welfare to intervene and address the matter with the brand.

Narayan further noted that if research shows consumers are willing to pay more for brands that contribute to social good or protect the environment, it's natural that they would not tolerate a brand perceived as uncaring or opportunistic.

Another seasoned ad veteran, Prabhakar Mundkur, did not mince words, calling the ad gender-biased. 'Most women I showed the ad to were completely disgusted. If anything, the brand's approach with this ad has alienated its target audience.'

He added, 'Advertising is also about aesthetics, and ads like these violate the principles of aesthetics, which concern the nature and appreciation of beauty.

Brands do walk a tightrope when it comes to moment marketing. Listing down a few check pointers, Priyanka Gill posted on LinkedIn: