Anand Siva
Guest Article

Much ado about a bindi

As #NoBindiNoBusiness trends on Twitter, our guest writer examines this dot in Indian advertising, over the decades.

Three things have shaped the psyche of the Indian consumer. Cinema, sports and advertising. Cinema and sports, a.k.a. cricket, have been obsessions – and have shaped the thinking around fashion, romance, careers, et al. And between cinema and cricket, they have done a body of good to the world of advertising! Can we even imagine the fate of many brands without the face of a star?

In this space, women have played a stellar role. They have helped millions of other women rediscover themselves, break the mould, and go beyond their limitations.

Anand Siva
Anand Siva

If the genius of Alyque Padamsee had not ushered in Karen Lunel into our living rooms, we’d still be reluctant to show skin in TVCs. And, if the same man had not shoved the attitude of a Kavita Chaudhary on us as Lalitaji (Surf), the move from men to women as intelligent decision makers would have been a longer, laborious path.


Shimona Rashi as the Cadbury girl, or the many iconic ads of Red Label and Tanishq have all portrayed women as the game changers. They have shown a mirror to a society cast in orthodox thinking, and helped shed baggage of a forgettable past and perils of living in a society denying women a right to be as they please.

Much ado about a bindi

With time, advertising only got bolder – and stepped on the throttle to challenge the status quo. As social hierarchies changed, decision making moved from men to women to kids, from the mother-in-law to the daughter-in-law, the memsahib to the maid, from the boss to the employee.

And, advertising was quick to see the change and propel it. To their credit, advertising and cinema played important roles in bridging the many divides that were slowing this country, especially the scars of partition that left a nasty residual mawkishness among us.

And then came circa 2018.

We know the change in the political landscape that changed the cultural and social fabric of the country. New symbols of patriotism emerged, new representations of religions and cultures, and a new value system that places one community on top and everything else below.

Much ado about a bindi

And, with that, the relationship between brands and society changed. From a state of brands deciding the change they wanted to bring in, the daring liberties they took in creative representations to appeal to people’s psyche the powers shifted. Today, a section of society dictates what a brand must do, can do and cant do.

As someone who has had his ear to the ground to help brands manage various brand crises, I can see a seismic shift. Till four years ago, ORM (online reputation management) teams were asked to look for people’s concerns with a brand, product, service, retailer – everything around the business ecosystem. Simple KPIs tracked response to ads, virality and looked for insights to make the next campaign better. Concerns were around the product experience. Period.

Not anymore. And, brands must wake up to that reality. It’s no longer about what is said or what is sold. It’s about how they are interpreted and chosen to be interpreted.

For people with a different agenda, every loose link is an opportunity to be exploited. And, the tricky part is that trouble could brew from the least common denominator – in my view, the non-consumers. Threats to taking on smart advertising has moved from guerilla marketing by competition to the unknown force that hits like a tsunami.

All the talk of Fabindia gaining by the controversy is silly – no brand gains from a backlash. It shows poor judgment of social sentiment, foolhardy risk appetite, puts people and places at high risk and, the worst fallout, the management in an obligation with powers that matter, left holding the wrong end of the rope.

These are not the times to plan for eventualities, but pre-empt them. Even at the cost of creative expression. No ORM team or PR firm can be ready for these assaults on a brand, and that’s simple to understand. These threats are no longer mere boycott hashtags, but physical damage and personal injuries. And no extent of cajoling on a tweet can stop that.

I have set up many war rooms and worked with stalwarts to tide through brand crises. Those work only when the battlefield is of the brand’s choosing, which invariably is a store front or the social media landscape. The moment that barrier is breached, it ceases to be a brand crisis. It is an existential crisis.

Which begs the question: do brands today really have ears to the ground? I reckon the ones that are listening, are listening to just their customers – those who say the things they want to hear. Social listening canvas need to change. Political, socio-economic factors, public health, climatic, cultural, religious sentiments – all of them matter, and matter a lot.

Pretesting must include public sentiment as a layer, not just testing of creative expression of storytelling. And, if the dare to risk is high and not negotiable, be ready to be in the eye of the storm, and hope that with the calm will come a healthy balance sheet.

The author is, CEO, Customer Shastra, a customer relationship management consultancy.

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