What should a brand do? Karthik Srinivasan shares his views.
In the recent spate of 'You're with us or against us' binaries, actor Swara Bhasker found herself in the centre of a controversy. She, like many of the other celebrities, participated in the social media-led protests against the obstruction of justice in the horrendous rapes in Kathua and Unnao. The placard that they held in the protest included the word "'Devi'-sthan Temple", which is from the FIR filed in the ghastly Kathua incident. The online crowd was quick to note the inclusion of a Hindu temple in the placard and extrapolating that to be an insult to Hinduism itself, called for a boycott of a few actors whose films are due for immediate release - Swara Bhasker, Kareena Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Kalki Koechlin and Huma Qureshi, to be specific.
The boycott was initially meant to be a clarion call for 'Hindus' to not see films starring these actors. One such film was a sitting duck of sorts, involving 3 actors in the list: Veere Di Wedding, starring Sonam Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Swara Bhasker (not to be confused with the Jimmy Shergill and Pulkit Samrat starrer Veerey Ki Wedding which released on March 1 and was 'boycotted' by the audience for quality-related reasons). But, before the June 1 boycott of Veere Di Wedding could materialize, another opportunity fell on the lap of the outraged party: Swara Bhasker's Twitter-based promo of Amazon's IPL Chonkpur Cheetahs campaign.
So, Swara tweeted as part of the campaign. The outragers noticed that a brand is engaging her for a promo and called for the brand to remove Swara from the roster else they would boycott the brand! Opinion pieces were quickly written in support of the motion and Amazon quietly complied... by simply deleting the tweet where they retweeted Swara's tweet! The outragers noticed this act by Amazon and started celebrating.
But then, another thing happened. Some people called out Amazon's lack of spine for not backing Swara and used this as a call for boycotting Amazon! That this second movement didn't catch enough traction for Amazon to react again in some other way perhaps comes as a relief to the brand.
While Swara is in the eye of a storm, Amazon is being threatened with boycotts and app-uninstalls, for both signing up Swara and for not having a spine to support her! Here's your chance to pick an appropriate idiom to describe the scenario the brand is in:
Option 1: Between the rock and a hard place
Option 2: Between the devil and the deep blue sea
Experience dictates that option 1 is safer. If you pick the second option, you may be questioned, 'Who is the devil and who is the deep blue sea?', with the obvious follow-up, 'How dare you call X the devil?'.
The most famous Indian case study on reputational dent to a brand as an incidental occurrence to a celebrity's utterances is the Aamir Khan-Snapdeal imbroglio. Back then, in November 2015, Aamir did remain the brand's ambassador, even as many people either downvoted Snapdeal's app in the app store or vowed to never watch Aamir Khan's films in the future. The brand chose not to comment on the situation, but they did not renew the actor's contract in February 2016. While one could argue that Snapdeal's debilitating financial condition could be the reason for the contract not renewed, most media coverage on it added a prominent mention of the November 2015 social media protest.
So,people now have a way to hurt brands as an indirect attack on celebrities they don't like. The idea is to boycott products or uninstall apps (both are not digitally visible symbols of protest), or downvote apps (mighty visible digitally in the app stores, and through app reviews).
The key to all these protests is a lot of people coming together to support a cause. The Swara Bhasker case is an interesting new twist because it has fuelled the other side to fight back with the same weapon -brand boycott.
Brands use celebrities for visibility, because their faces and presence help the brand communication to be consumed more predictably in an increasingly content-overdosed world. We have long gotten over 'trusting' celebrities with our purchase decision. We do not necessarily believe that Shah Rukh Khan drives an i10, Amitabh Bachchan uses Lux Venus vests and briefs, and Shilpa Shetty cleans her own vessels with Exo dishwash bar, enough to personally recommend it to her neighbour. But we remember these advertisements more than the ones that do not feature celebrities.
But when the visibility-gathering celebrity is under for fire for taking a stand, that rubs off on the brand now in unintended ways. So, what can brands do? Sign up celebrities who don't open their mouth at all outside of the screen? Or, drop the celebrity in question when things get ugly because of them? The end result is that the brands avoid taking a stand, either for or against a cause the celebrities espouse, because both can impact large consumer bases.
This is quite a conundrum!
It was always assumed that for both brands and consumers, in the end, it is all about value. For brands, the celebrity offers the utility value of recall and breaking the clutter. For consumers, what they seek from brands is better value, in the form of better pricing, service and variety. That explains why Salman Khan continues to endorse so many brands despite his brush with the law many times - it continues to work for brands, there is not enough traction for boycotts of one or more such brands or those brands are good enough for consumers to not bother about who they use as brand ambassadors.
Remember, Aamir's Dangal, that released towards the end of 2016 (12 months after his 'intolerance' statement that led to Snapdeal being slammed, along with an Aamir-movies boycott call) was his-and Bollywood's-most successful film ever (including a smashing success in China) and more recently, he signed a mega endorsement deal with the Chinese smartphone brand Vivo.
And, if Snapdeal is in doldrums today, it is not because of its Aamir Khan association; it may be more to do with its prolonged marriage rumours with Flipkart and Amazon, and fast drying funding. On the same note, Vivo hasn't (yet) been affected by the Aamir connection (though that may truly be tested only if he makes another statement that may potentially rile one segment of people; chances are and going by history, he may make such a statement around August-September 2018, given that his next film, Thugs of Hindostan releases in November 2018).
Right now, the motto for brands seems to be, 'This too shall pass'. But increasingly, staying away from taking a stand and remain mute may become more and more difficult for brands, particularly because they are being pushed from both sides of a cause's spectrum.
A more evolved consumers set is seeking more than value, from the brands they buy into. They are asking that corporate CEOs (CEO activism) and brands take a stand and demonstrate their commitment towards chosen causes. Two recent, highly talked-about examples include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff's stand against the US state of Indiana in the form of cancelled company events and 'economic sanctions' if they didn't amend the state's Religious Freedom Act, and two of the largest investors in Apple-New York-based Jana Partners and the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) who collectively control $2bn of Apple stock-urging the company to take action against smartphone addiction among children.
In a way, brands are now being treated like elected representatives-elected by votes vs. selected by purchasing power-held accountable and questioned for being silent.
(The author is an independent communications consultant on digital/social media marketing & PR)