Namah Chawla

Inside the HUL Vim Black campaign: The what, how, who, and why at all

Deepak Subramanian, executive director, HUL and GM -South Asia, homecare, on the satirical ad that received criticism over the weekend for getting its messaging wrong.

Dishwashing brand Vim from Hindustan Unilever (HUL) recently launched a digital campaign, titled #VimBlackForMen. The days that followed saw the campaign receiving polarised viewpoints as the ad did not quite sit well with the audience.

The campaign is a continuation of the brand’s long-term theme of addressing gender stereotypes. In November 2020, the brand launched a series of ads with cricketer Virender Sehwag to break the stereotypes, when it comes to dishwashing. In 2021, Vim used an arranged marriage set-up to build on this theme.

What is different this time around is that while the campaign was well-intentioned, its execution made quite a few eyeballs roll and triggered many conversations on social media.

The product was available for a few hours on 'The U Shop' for Rs. 0 but soon after went out of stock. An afaqs! reporter ordered this product and received it. It contains Vim's lemon variant.

Vim has now clarified that the campaign was a 'joke' and that the brand 'was not serious' about the 'black pack'. People can still be seen arguing about the need for a different packaging for men, associating the black colour with men, and whether the brand is unintentionally promoting a reverse social practice, etc.

In a conversation with afaqs!, Deepak Subramanian, executive director, HUL and GM - South Asia, homecare, addresses the what, how, who and why at all of the #VimBlackForMen campaign.

Edited excerpts:

What was the insight behind the #VimBlackForMen campaign? What did the brand's research suggest and what did you wish to communicate through this campaign?

The brand’s journey starts back into one of the human truths that is the unfortunate reality of the responsibility for taking care of all the household chores falls on the shoulder of the woman in our society.

We observed a small change that happened during COVID. Due to work from home, we saw more men sharing the load of household chores. Now, two years later, while many things have changed, but men are no longer that involved, when it comes to household work.

The important point that came out in our research was: what can Vim do to ‘de-genderise’ household chores? How do we convince men to do their part?

In the brand's research, women revealed that sharing the load means that there is an implicit understanding that it still starts with her. She must do it and somebody is going to share her load. As a brand, we are on a mission to get everybody to own their chores, be it the men or the children. Everybody needs to take up their own responsibilities.

What outcome did the brand anticipate from this campaign? Was it targeted to just men, or did the brand also wish that women, who mostly buy Vim, take part in this conversation?

With Vim, which has a very big footprint, we wish to reach out to everybody. Our primary users are, unfortunately, women, and with time, we want more men to become our users and also own the act of dishwashing.

Long-term objectives, like these, don’t happen by doing one campaign. They require long-term commitment. For this campaign, specifically, we wanted to trigger a discussion. We were clear that the controversy and debate around this was critical. That is why the stimulus that we put out was deliberately meant to provoke and trigger a conversation. By all means, it has been quite successful for the brand.

"The stimulus that we put out was deliberately meant to provoke and trigger a conversation. By all means, it has been quite successful for the brand."

While the major onus of getting household work done falls on the shoulders of women, washing one’s own utensils is more prevalent in middle and lower-middle income groups. People who can afford a house help, usually get it done through them. What is the brand’s TG and what was the reason behind casting Milind Soman, as most of Vim's primary TG may not resonate with him?

The campaign used Soman for his appeal to the higher socio-economic group. Be it the design or deployment of the campaign, the focus was on a certain section of the country. The insight behind this audience is that while they have house help, their mindsets are not different from the rest of India.

"The insight behind this audience is that while they have house help, their mindsets are not different from the rest of India."

Soman is a ‘man’s man’. He is on a mission to get people to own their fitness journeys. He is credible and his experience in creating ownership overlaps with Vim.

Social media has mixed reactions to the campaign. Did the brand expect such reactions? For example, few people are of the opinion that it is high time gender roles should be normalised in Indian advertising, instead of brands reiterating gender stereotypes...

There are two kinds of conversations happening right now. I care more about one and honestly, I care less about the other. A LinkedIn conversation involving a marketing expert, where we see some chatter, is the one I care less about. I care more about how the consumers react to this. And, consumer reaction is exactly what we expected.

Women absolutely love it because they understand it. This is because we worked on the insight of household chores not being about a man helping a woman. Instead, Vim wants to say that it is high time that men start taking accountability for their own work.

We have done a lot of social listening on this. It is the men who are somewhat uncomfortable. The negative sentiments are coming more from the men, as per our analysis. About 91% of the comments and shares are positive. The themes of the chats include ‘equality of chores’, ‘a very progressive take’ and a ‘well-delivered sarcasm’.

"The negative sentiments are coming more from the men, as per our analysis. About 91% of the comments and shares are positive."

While Vim did clarify the ad later, but is it okay for a brand to advertise a non-existent or fictitious product, even if it is a part of a campaign that is supposed to be taken as a 'joke'? Did the brand have any apprehensions, especially since a few people were actually keen to buy ‘Vim Black’ from ‘The U Shop’?

We may have clarified later, but it was a part of our campaign. The objective, first, was to trigger a conversation for the first two days and then do the reveal. Just to clarify, it is not that we woke up two days later to a backlash and then suddenly had a response. It was supposed to happen this way.

Second, we did launch the black pack on e-commerce platforms. So, it wasn’t that we advertised a fictitious product. We actually created it. We created about 3,000-4,000 units that were sold out in less than an hour, unfortunately. We had limited supplies of the product, given that its role was to just trigger a conversation.

What was the reason behind doing a digital-first campaign, instead of doing a mass media campaign?

The brand wanted to focus on its execution and, hence, its first attempt was to see whether it can trigger a conversation and, through it, start impacting the behaviour of a certain section of society.

There is no better way to provoke social conversations than digital. In terms of targeting and leveraging the medium to trigger conversations, digital is perfect.

Purpose-driven advertising or ‘causevertising’ is a trending theme that many brands use these days. What, according to you, are some key factors that brands need to keep in mind while dealing with such ad narratives or sensitive themes?

It’s important to link product functionality to the brand purpose. Quite often, there isn’t a clear link between the two. The brands then end up creating advertising that does nothing for the product.

For all our brands, we try to articulate the story at three levels. What is the functional benefit, the emotional benefit and the societal benefit? Great work, in terms of communication driving performance and results, happens when these three are aligned. If there isn’t a key link between the brand purpose and product functionality, then it doesn’t work.

Second, brands need to do stuff and not just talk about it. The Vim Black campaign, for example, is a case where we did something to trigger a conversation. Good brands, with purpose, have a very strong element of a ‘brand do’ to support the ‘brand say’.

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