afaqs!

Advertising in the time of brand controversy

By , agencyfaqs! | In | October 13, 2003
A look at the wisdom of mainline advertising at a time the brand being advertised is caught in the midst of a bad short-term controversy


In the weeks immediately after the 'pesticide' controversy first blew on their faces, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola responded very differently to the controversy through their advertising. Agreed, a day or so later, both companies came out with almost identical giant-sized press ads in national dailies assuring consumers of impeccable quality standards et al. They even organised a joint press conference - challenging the CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) allegations - at speeds that a Force 10 hurricane would have marveled at. But we're talking television advertising here, for television has always been the lead medium for these brands.

Coke first. The brand's fourth ad in the 'Thanda' series (fifth, if you include the 'paanch' ad) was due anyway, and once the heat of the controversy showed signs of dissipating, the ad made a cautious entry into living rooms in the form of a teaser. The teaser soon unfolded into a full-blown ad, but the point is that even in its full avatar, the ad made absolutely no reference to the controversy the brand and its stablemates were grappling with.

Pepsi, on the other hand, did the opposite. For a very short while, the brand ran a tactical commercial featuring star endorsers Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin Tendulkar, where the question of how 'safe' Pepsi really was was addressed. So you had Shah Rukh telling viewers that his Pepsi was certainly never 'safe'… from the covetous eyes of people (like Sachin) who wanted to get to his drink. Clearly, the idea at Pepsi was to use one aspect of 'safety' to reinforce the fact that the brand was still desirable. And very much in demand.

Two very contrasting styles of approaching the same problem. One steers clear of anything that alludes to the controversy and simply presents a new rendition of a hugely successful theme idea. The other actually draws from the controversy to communicate its core message of desirability. The question, simply put, is which one makes better sense, given the consumer sensitivities involved. Will the consumer choose not to think of the controversy because you haven't brought it to her notice? Or would she frown at what she thinks is an attempt to brush things under the carpet? Would she smile at an amusing interpretation of a serious issue, or would the interpretation only bring the controversy back into focus?

There are, obviously, no easy answers here. However, specific to Pepsi's 'safe' ad, there are two contrasting opinions. While Samit Sinha, brand consultant, Alchemist Brand Consulting, thinks the ad is true to Pepsi's character ("Even when Pepsi is tackling a controversy, it does it in the inimitable, fun Pepsi way," he says), Anand Halve of chlorophyll feels it is "too clever by half, as a convoluted interpretation may only end up confusing the viewer." Whichever it is, the fact is that the 'safe' ad was on air only a while, and has since been replaced by two theme commercials. Neither mentions the controversy.

In fact, both Coke and Pepsi (and 7Up and Mountain Dew and Mirinda and Thums Up) are back on air in full force. Surprising, considering it was little over two months ago that the pesticide controversy surfaced. So how soon is good enough to renew full-scale theme advertising after a brand has had to put up with bad press? And what is a brand to do when a controversy erupts bang in the middle of a big theme campaign? Do you yank the campaign off air or do you simply let it run? These questions assume significance in the face of the latest controversy surrounding Cadbury chocolates. Cadbury Dairy Milk's new theme campaign ('Khush hoon khaamakhaa…') was on air when the wheels came off. And the festive season is extremely critical for the company's season-based gifting brand, Celebrations. What are Cadbury's options?

The issue is primarily one of whether it is wise to advertise. "If you have a rational and strong argument going for you, doing tactical advertising that takes the charges head-on is a good idea," feels Sinha. "Silence could be construed as admission of guilt, and the public expects you to defend yourself. But if you don't have sound arguments, better stay quiet." One big no-no is heaping more theme-based stuff at such a juncture, as that could be seen as "willfully ignoring the issue".

Controversies pack different payloads and make craters of different sizes. If the pesticide controversy is about the CSD consumer's health, McDonald's 'beef fries' controversy was about the larger issue of a community's religious beliefs and sentiments. There's also the question of whether the controversy stems from loss of human life. So, naturally, there is no such thing as 'ideal strategy'. "It's the nature of the controversy and the kind of impact the controversy has on society, and not just the brand's consumers, that should guide the formulation of an action plan," says Rohit Ohri, senior vice-president and area director, JWT India.

Whatever be the controversy and the extent of damage, ignoring it isn't a particularly good idea. Though a lot also depends on the extent of negative publicity. "If the coverage and the subsequent damage is low, and is limited to certain markets, maybe it's best you let it die down and don't stoke things with your defense," Sinha says. "It's a call that corporates have to take." In Ohri's opinion, however, people are always willing to listen to both sides of the story, so the brand must present its version, be it through PR or through paid advertising. He admits that PR is usually a powerful tool in most such situations as the public, in general, tends to believe 'news' more than paid-for advertising. "The important thing is that brands facing controversy need to open up all channels of communication," he says. "They must keep an ear to the ground, and a finger on the pulse. And act with caution."

Everything ultimately depends on how the beleaguered brand responds to the controversy. A healthy and respectful response wins public goodwill.

Professionals love to cite the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol controversy case that rocked the US in 1982, when seven people in the Chicago area died after taking cyanide-laced capsules of Tylenol pain reliever. The organisation subsequently took the much-publicised decision to recall all Tylenol bottles off the shelves and repackage them at a cost of $100 million.

"This is all about consumer confidence and companies' credibility and response mechanism," says a veteran PR professional based in Mumbai. "And in each and every case, what is most important are the three Ts - timing, truth and transparency. Companies need to tell the truth and be totally transparent, immediately. Immediately - that's most important. The initial hours are the most crucial. Most companies try to mask the truth or pass the buck in panic, at first, and lose their cool. When this happens, all hell breaks loose… as appears to have happened in each of the recent cases in India."

Interestingly, Halve believes that the snowballing of these controversies is symptomatic of a larger crisis of confidence. "Trust is the bedrock of a consumer-brand relationship, but when brands do little for the consumer in terms of product improvement or innovation, that intrinsic trust gets eroded. The consumer knows brands are not here for charity, but she expects you to do more than just add bells-and-whistles for her. When she doesn't see this happening, when she sees brands trying to rip her off, she stops trusting. This is the beginning of a brand crisis, so when a real controversy hits, she is more likely to believe the worst. If there's a report somewhere about Amitabh Bachchan being under suspicion for hiding a bazooka, you are likely to be skeptic. But if it's one of today's brash stars, you'll say it's possible. That's the difference. The crisis is not limited to what happened to the brand yesterday. It's about what happens all the time. Continuous confidence building in the corporate body or the corporate brand is not happening any longer."

That, perhaps, explains in part why the pesticide controversy resulted in considerable public outrage. And why the Cadbury issue, in comparison, is being hardly discussed. They'll hate to hear it, but Pepsi and Coke are seen as the quintessential neo-colonial MNC brands. Cadbury, on the other hand, is not only a respected 'Indian' brand, it has the accumulated goodwill of franchises such as the Bournvita Quiz Contest coming to its rescue. For the local consumer, forgiving Cadbury comes easier.

Then again, maybe it's only a question of waiting for the whole controversy to blow over. The average Indian is fairly blasé anyway, used as he is to being greeted by scams and controversies every second morning. And public memory is short anywhere. Case in point: my mother's just back from shopping and has hauled home a bottle of Mountain Dew.

Public memory is short indeed.

(Additional reporting Alokananda Chakraborty, New Delhi.) © 2003 agencyfaqs!

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