Abhijit Chakraborty
Guest Article

Brands under attack – How a smart digital strategy can help

Brands love to see right hashtags trending. But as Tanishq, Netflix, Zomato and others found out, sometimes they end up trending for all the wrong reasons...

Brands usually love to see the right hashtags trending on Twitter. But as Tanishq, Bingo Mad Angles, Netflix, Zomato and Eros Now recently found out, sometimes they end up trending for all the wrong reasons.

With backlash ranging from app uninstalls and one-star ratings to abusive trolling and threats of physical violence, some of these brands have had to pull down their ads and issue clarifications and apology notes.

But can a smart digital marketing strategy protect brands from this kind of severe online backlash, or at least mitigate the harm?

Yes, most of the time.

Let me try and explain without intellectualising the subject.

Not all backlash is equal

Did the brands (and the agencies) in question make decent spots, but still ended up hurting the sentiments of some sections of the society, or did they make something truly silly and distasteful?

Tanishq showed an interfaith family in which a Hindu girl and her Muslim in-laws celebrate her baby shower.

Eros Now released a set of static creatives on Navratri. These creatives had some really immature sexual innuendos.

Tanishq seemed to be targeting a progressive, upper middle class, urban audience.

It's not exactly clear which audience Eros Now was trying to target.

A sound digital strategy can save the former.

But probably not the latter.

In the rest of this piece, I will focus purely on how a sound digital strategy can help the former set – big brands with well-made, well-intentioned advertisements that still rubbed some people the wrong way.

Marketing for the medium, or for the TG?

Do brands make ads for a specific medium, or for their target audience (TG) that happens to be on that medium?

To be clearer, do brands make ads for TV (or digital), or do they make ads for their audience that's likely to be watching TV (or digital)?

The answer is obviously the latter.

And this leads us to a more universal truth – it's the audience that matters.

The messaging should talk to the TG; the format, duration and structure of the messaging can, of course, be tailored as per the exact medium.

But a TG is not a homogenous whole.

I mentioned above that Tanishq was probably targeting a progressive, upper middle class, urban audience. Even if this is a correct estimate of its TG, this is still too broad for a country like India. The total population that could fall in this TG could be many crores!

Solving the TG problem through sharp digital targeting

Digital, as a medium, is very different from traditional forms of media, such as TV, print and outdoor.

Digital channels give brands the ability to reach their exact target audience across multiple channels, formats and devices. Consider the following targeting options:

Option 1 – A progressive, upper middle class, urban audience that could have crores of people.

Option 2 – A progressive, upper middle class, urban audience which has interests in a handful of topics, live in a few handpicked areas with targetable pin codes and use only mid-range and premium mobile devices (costing upwards of, say, Rs 15000) may have just a few lakh people.

Option 1 is a broad TG, whereas Option 2 is much narrower.

Though nothing is 100 per cent foolproof, Option 2 would be a better bet, not just from a business perspective, but also from a brand safety perspective.

Digital media as a testing ground for ads

This is a question that I hear quite often – Digital media is great, but what if a brand necessarily wants to advertise on TV?

Having been part of large marketing campaigns during my previous stints at OYO Rooms, Pernod Ricard and Hewlett-Packard, I understand why some brands can't resist TV.

But the targeting options on TV are limited to picking the right channels and the right slots. For instance, the leading GECs in India cater to the HSM belt that has close to a dozen states and UTs with a combined population of nearly 60 crore people!

In this scenario, digital media can be effectively used to target specific markets and audience cohorts. Instead of buying big media and running the risk of having to pull down the ads later, it makes more sense to invest a fraction of the media budget on digital ads and gauge the reaction of the audience.

Some smart brands have already been using this tactic to select their 'hero' creative from a larger set of creatives, and then over-indexing their remaining media budget on the hero creative. The creatives that don't perform well, or see negative reactions, are removed from the plan altogether.

Tackling backlash on digital

No matter what tactics are deployed, sometimes the storm will still hit brands and hit them hard, as in the case of Tanishq. What then?

It's worth noting that while all other forms of media allow a brand to talk to a consumer, digital (and more specifically social) is the only medium that allows the consumers to talk back to the brands. Therefore, social media sees backlash resulting from not just social media campaigns, but also from TV, radio, print and outdoor campaigns.

It makes sense to have a robust social listening and ORM strategy in place that can identify every single blip on the radar. Not every negative reaction merits a clarification, let alone a pull down or an apology. But tracking the conversations happening around a specific ad or campaign can go a long way in protecting the brand from a full-blown, sustained attack and potential harm to the business.

Like every other creative pursuit, advertising is highly subjective.

Not everyone will like everything that a brand does. There will be instances when a brand will do everything right and still face criticism, and there will also be instances when a brand will get it horribly wrong and will probably deserve a backlash too.

But a smart digital strategy can mitigate, and even avoid, a situation from blowing out of proportion.

( The author is VP, digital and content at Expedify (formerly Brainpan), a Gurugram-based digital marketing and creative agency.)