Examples of brands coming out and participating in the central social conversation in times like these are a few and far in between. But if it were the Valentines Day, the Independence Day, Christmas, Ramadan, Diwali, an F1 Race or even a cricket cup, brands would be out there, playing their part, sponsoring, provoking and participating in all kinds of conversations.
Is our construct of brands so selfish? Are brands designed to be 'fair-weather friends'? And in these days of social media and engagement driven brand building, doesn't it smell of double standards? So many times while crafting a brand's identity, we use words such as "an ally", "a partner" or "a friend". But do friends disappear at most significant points in life, just because they are crummy? It seems that most brands are scared of soiling their hands in the chaos of today's times. As if the blood of unrest will spot the pristinely crafted core values and personalities.
During the recent uprising in India, most mainstream brands have gone about their usual business. In a strange juxtaposition, a leading car company launched its new model with a full back-page advertisement on the day that the front page screamed of the Anna Hazare protest. Brands who have traditionally championed social causes like corruption have been conspicuous by their absence. It's the smaller and the entrepreneurial brands who have been brave enough to make their presence felt. T-shirt brand Tantra for instance has launched an anti corruption range while the gaming portal ibibo has a game Yes Prime Minister which allows you to support Anna Hazare, the leader of the anti corruption movement in India.
Internationally, Levis recently dedicated itself to the cause of rebuilding the weathering town of Braddock in Pennsylvania. The city known for its steel industry has been on a decline. Levis has committed to funding the refurbishment of Braddock's community centre and the city's urban farm. Their latest 'Go Forth' campaign features real people doing real work in Braddock. The superhero TV series the 99 that draws its stories and heroes from the Islamic world is another such response. This series puts positive light on Islam and it's values while giving the modern Islamic youth their own cultural superheroes. These aren't still examples of taking a social stance in times of chaos but they come close to embracing the issues faced by society at a certain point in time, issues that are otherwise complicated for brands to touch.
So what makes the difference between the few brands that are responding to the real time conversations versus the others who aren't? The first big difference is the way we look at the idea of brands. The traditional view of marketing looks at brands as fulfilling need gaps of voracious consumers. It looks at consumers as different from people. So the brand needs to interface only with the consumption side of the people. Whatever else goes on in their lives is of no significance. Thus the brand goes about its business promoting its benefits, regardless of the issues that the society is battling with.
The other difference is nimbleness and flexibility. Brands typically build yearly plans with key predictable milestones like festivals or new product launches built in. This is the blueprint for all the action that the brand then takes throughout the year. As is apparent, there is no room for unpredictability in this plan. Responding to real time conversations needs you to be quick on your feet as these situations are extremely dynamic and time bound. No wonder that the smaller, entrepreneurially driven brands have shown better response in such times.
Most marketers would conceptually agree that marketing today is about engaging people and building communities. But our demonstrated marketing behavior is counter to our conceptual belief. In this new emerging world, brands have to look at themselves as having social identities, not just a positioning in the market. They have to concern themselves with what matters to people, not just the consumption need gaps defined in their identity manuals. This means that brands will have to find a stance towards the most important things in people's lives. The brand in this context is not a well round marshmallow of positivity. It needs to get comfortable with some rough edges. So what if it's an uprising against the government? Standing on the sidelines in the fear of taking sides may no longer be the best strategy.