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When should brands speak up, and when should they shut up?

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Come International Women’s day, Valentine’s day, or Teacher’s day, every marketer gets excited and anxious in equal measure.

What should their brand say this year?

The question looms large in all brand meetings, and agencies and brand marketers feel the FOMO, the pressure to say something, anything, to remain relevant.

And a lot of them still get it wrong.

Then there are topical posts. These are trickier still. Not only does a brand team have to decide whether they ought to comment on a topical incident, but they also have to do it under extreme time pressure, because in this age of ultra-fast information distribution, delay means dereliction.

Political stands are at the top of the pile when it comes to sticky wickets for brands to bat on. How justifiable is it for a brand to take a stance on a political topic? How can a brand decide when to speak up and when to shut up? Should an Indian brand express an opinion on the Ukraine Russia war? Should an American brand talk about election conspiracies in another country? These are not easy communication decisions to make.

Repeating this always on, edge of the seat communication game with consumers leads to burnout and lapses in judgement. Even brands who did it right the last time around may not get it right this time.

For instance, Flipkart produced a great Women’s day ad in 2020 but dropped the ball in 2022 with their ill-advised kitchen appliances promotion.

Brands today are held to a higher standard and scrutinized more intensely by consumers. And in an era of information decentralization, when millions of armchair activists have been empowered and emboldened to vocally express their feelings, brands must get every step right.

If not, they are better off not saying anything at all. That’s because while consumers forget silence eventually, they are hardly likely to forget stupidity.

We know that’s a harsh term to use, but that’s the reality. While the occasional faux pas is inevitable, considered missteps like what Dabur’s Fem did with its infamous Karva Chauth ad is avoidable and counterproductive. In this controversial ad, Fem (a face bleach product) tried to touch upon LGBT rights, traditional family values, relationships, and societal education, all the while glibly showcasing skin whitening. Needless to say, the ad invited so much social backlash that Dabur was forced to issue an apology.

It’s not possible, nor wise, for brands to speak out on every issue or event. In some cases, there will be an obvious business opportunity in taking a stand. In others, there may be a moral imperative. 

Thus, the question becomes – when should a brand get involved in a conversation? How should a brand handle social issues? Should it start the conversation, join in one, or partner up with another brand to move a conversation forward? And most importantly, when should a brand shut up?

A simple three-step process to decide this could be:

1. Does the issue lie within the scope of your brand’s premise?   
If the issue does not squarely lie within the scope of the category and context that the brand operates in, it’s better not to talk about it, as otherwise, consumers may perceive the brand as “trying too hard” for awareness. 

For instance, PayTM’s “The Divide” was a relevant message to come out with on International Women’s Day (2021) as it illuminated the influence of gender divide in financial planning in India. 

On the flip side, there is the legendary faux pas committed by Pepsi with its Kendall Jenner “Live for now” ad, where she is shown to stop potential police action against rioters with a can of Pepsi. This drew backlash because of concerns that Pepsi was trivializing social justice movements and trying to ride the wave of Black Lives Matter protests – something that a carbonated sweetened beverage is ill-qualified to advise on.

2. Does your brand have something interesting to say on the topic? 
Even if the issue aligns with the brand’s premise, brands should speak up or join conversations only if they can add something interesting or insightful to the discussion. Brands should be able to contribute towards, augment, or reframe the conversation on a topic to be relevant to it. This doesn’t mean that brands need to change the world with every social media post. But they should not come across as gratuitously piggybacking on a topic for recognition. Coming to think of it, it’s good advice for people who want to join a conversation as well.  

In 2021, the famed footballer Cristiano Ronaldo wiped off nearly $4 bn from Coca Cola’s valuation (temporarily) after he removed two Coke bottles from the table at a post-match press conference. This sparked off a furious debate on the internet. Fevicol, an Indian adhesive brand, jumped in on the topical moment with its own take on the subject. Their social media post showed a setting similar to the post-match conference attended by Ronaldo. Instead of two coke bottles, there were two Fevicol bottles on the table. The post and the caption captured the imagination of the public and enhanced the conversation with Fevicol’s own unique brand of humour while remaining relevant to their premise.

3. Will your brand stakeholders be okay with the brand speaking on the topic? 
Finally, even if the brand’s premise is aligned and you are confident you have something interesting to say, you also need to check if your key stakeholders are okay with your brand speaking out on the issue. This is because today no brand exists in a vacuum. Your suppliers, brand ambassadors, investors, retailers, and even other brands in your portfolio are just as much a part of your brand’s ecosystem as you are. You will need to ensure that they are also on board with the idea that you plan to execute. 
Zomato found itself in a bad spot recently when it aired a series of two ads featuring Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif, and its own delivery partners. The intent was to promote its fast delivery policy and commend the commitment of its delivery partners. However, it quickly turned into a bad call as the internet was flooded with people pointing out how Zomato was allegedly mistreating its delivery partners with low pay and hard work.

Brands need to internalize is that it’s okay to not speak up on every topic. Forced conversations reflect badly on the brand. Even if a particular issue passes all the filters we mentioned above, it does not automatically mean that the brand NEEDS to speak on the subject. Social sensitivities also play a role in taking the final decision, and this is where brands will need to apply human judgment on a case by case basis. 
This year, a brand that really caught our attention with their Women’s day communication is Preganews. Their communication is strongly rooted in the category they are playing in and is a right fit for the brand premise. In addition to the message that motherhood shouldn’t stop you from achieving what you want to, they also bring in another nuance – that a lot of stereotypes about working women spring from women themselves, as is shown by the lady with the laptop who assumes that the protagonist is a housewife simply because she is wearing a saree and has a baby. The ad ends on a strong and inspirational note, hopefully having done its bit to enhance the conversation around pregnancy. 

What is your take on how brands should respond to societal issues or topical matters? Do you have anything to add to our filters? Do you have any great or not so great examples of how brands handled such issues? Let us know. We are keen to hear from you. You can reach us at freeflowing@winnerbrands.in. We read all your mails.

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