What do Amazon, PepsiCo, Samsung and Manforce Condoms have in common?

By Sankalp Dikshit , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Digital
Last updated : January 23, 2018
They've all faced the wrath of the Tweeple in recent times.

In the spring of 2006, Jack Dorsey, then undergraduate student at NYU and one of the founders of Twitter, described the word 'twitter' as a "burst of inconsequential information and chirps from birds." Little did he know back then that his birds would, someday, no longer just chirp, they would instead spew venom when their feathers were ruffled.

H&M was caught off guard when the brand's ad portraying a black child was deemed racist H&M was caught off guard when the brand's ad portraying a black child was deemed racist

While the world embraced social media platforms as that one-stop-solution to fulfil its unending search for self-validation, brands and advertisers felt the heat from what they consider the flip-side of anything that technology brings along. Recently, clothing retail company, H&M, was caught off-guard when the brand advertised a green hoodie worn by a child of African-American descent with the words 'Coolest Monkey in The Jungle' printed on the front. Tweeple did not approve of this. And just like that, a controversy was born. While the brand faced heavy online backlash, stores were vandalised and the company had to issue an official apology.

Be it the racist Dove ad, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj threatening visa denial to an Amazon official over the 'Indian flag' doormat controversy or IndiGo Airlines caught in an embarrassing moment when a video (shot by onlookers) portraying company employees beating a passenger went viral; marketers and advertisers can no longer lean on Edmund Jerome McCarthy's '4 Ps of Marketing' mix to deal with the new entity - 'the angry Indian on Twitter'. They need new survival-skills in their kitty.

Manish Kalra, chief business officer, Craftsvilla, reiterates the modern age marketing mantra which dictates that the 'Customer is King', offline or online! He explains, "If a customer is irate, one needs to understand the situation and what's causing it; find the reason and rectify it." Agreeing with Kalra, Sidharth Shukla, head, Ogilvy One, North India, adds, "The real tool is the ability to be able to capture the start of that backlash and respond quickly. Removing the content, issuing a clarification or an apology - those just happen to be the formats in which you can respond, but the ability to respond in real-time is the best tool to have."

In an age where every Twitter user is a business journalist in his/ her own right and their social media timelines are their publication, what is the ideal response for a brand? Ashish Khazanchi, managing partner, Enormous, says, "One has to be cognizant of the times that one lives in. Offensive copy picked up by twitterati for the wrong reason can take down years of hard work. Creative freedom for the sake of creativity means nothing; in advertising, it has to necessarily further a brand's cause. Sincerity of purpose and a genuine appreciation of the customer's life are the reasons why consumers choose you and the reason that they forgive you if you ever slip sometimes. However, there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all approach." Khazanchi also believes that "promptness" brings a definite advantage. "To own the conversation before the conversation owns you," is how he puts it.

Siddharth Mohanty, lead, digital strategist, DigitasLBi, follows the strategy of "Stop, drop and roll." He says, "Backlashes are not unlike fire; they are panic-inducing moments for anybody and when not dealt with a calm mind, can spread confusion or misreading of the situation like wildfire within a team at the agency and brand's end. Ensuring that everyone on the team has a clear understanding of what has happened is the first step. In order to spot the issue early on, before the story gets distorted, we use 'Brand Live', our proprietary tool and process to keep a tab on real-time data triggers that help us make better decisions."

A close analysis reveals that brands generally get trapped in a sticky situation of online protests on two occasions; first, when the brands/agencies are directly responsible for the uproar (an offensive ad) and second, when uncontrolled variables damage the brand image (people recording and circulating videos of exploding Samsung phones). Within the second category, a special space is reserved for the ambush marketing attacks that rival firms regularly indulge in (StayUncle's posters that openly attacked OYO Rooms). "Broadly speaking, no one would ever willingly put out an ad which would rile up its customers. Most times there are enough people and levels that get into the communication process to ever allow bad copy pass. It is always an angle that no one in the room ever imagined that comes back to bite you," informs Khazanchi.

It has been noticed that eight out of ten times, brands end up apologising to pacify angry tweeple. But isn't an apology an admission of guilt? Should brands grovel? Kalra feels that it is "okay to apologise" since customers will see humility and will forgive the brand. He adds, "In the digital world, with so much opportunity to personalise, a brand has to be realistic and act like a responsible individual; apologise if you are at fault and clarify if you are not. Take a stand only if you are 100 per cent sure that you are right."

Shukla, however, feels that a clarification can be as strong as an apology, depending on the context. He says, "Agencies are under constant pressure to keep pushing the envelope of creativity while at the same time remaining sensitive to new consumers. However, sometimes mistakes are made or something is overlooked or there is a genuine belief that the idea will work but doesn't. Hence, social is a very dynamic medium; technically you have an infinite audience that will see your content and have multiple interpretations." Mohanty also believes that an apology is more of an admission of error and a willingness to learn. "If the brand and agency believe that putting forth their perspective is likely to find resonance, they should definitely try it," he adds.

Brands like Zomato have utilised such advertising pitfalls to their advantage by issuing public apologies and appeasing audiences in the form of discount offers. This has been done on two occassions by the brand, in the recent past. Shukla maintains that it is not a strategy, but a tactical intervention. He states, "Sometimes a single post or tweet can help define a brand for what they are and what Zomato did is to try and leverage that opportunity, which goes to their credit. Will it work if they do it another time? It might not." Kalra, however, dismisses Zomato's stance. He says, "Customers do not expect you to make the same mistake twice. This can lead to a loss of credibility and trust for the brand which will hamper it in the long run." Mohanty, on the other hand, holds the opinion that Zomato's response cannot be treated as a thumb-rule since not all brands share similar context and brand history as that of Zomato.

So what should an agency do to ensure 'offense-free' copy? Mohanty brings to light that given the multiple cultures and belief systems co-existing, clashes are bound to occur and instead of a vetting process, drawing in perspectives from people of varied backgrounds is likely to provide better guidance. Shukla agrees and adds, "More people need to get involved in the ideation process."

First Published : January 23, 2018
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