Kartik Johari
Guest Article

Real Brand Voice: Please Stand Up

The author shares his experience of sailing his brand through high tides of social media trolls.

Imagine if you are a common villager minding your own business, living your life as you normally do, talking like you normally talk, and suddenly, around the corner you see a hoard of red trolls about to besiege your land and home, leaving only blood and wreckage in their wake!

Some brands faced this momentum recently, when online trolls intent on “protecting” Hinduism besieged their digital territory. To be fair, some brands may have deserved a negative response, but this current vehemence is too much to bear. It’s often fun to see brands troll each other. Indian brands have gotten the hang of it but the current hard right turn that the troll army has taken is appalling to say the least and sets a dangerous precedent. For a resilient nation that prides itself on its secularism, we seem to become offended very quickly with decreasing tolerance levels. Social media now seems to be the preferred playing ground for the troll army who is now the bully on the playground who no one wants to stand up to.

We have seen a repeated MO (modus operandi) by now, that the online mobs deploy. We recently faced the same on one of our posts for RIO Heavy Flow Pads. Asking a simple question regarding menstruating women during Navratri was enough to sound the clarion call.

The MO remains strikingly simple, and thus works so effectively. It is “remarkably” similar to how bees attack! When a bee stings a predator and flies away, it releases a scent that attracts the entire hive to the location, ensuring that the lingering threat is dealt with viciously. Exactly the same process is followed by online trolls. When the first “person” finds a post that irks, he unleashes his “witty” barb and slams a few choice #tags and @tags to bring in more people. That’s it. Indian trolls are already a highly organized and sensitive hive. Within 60 minutes, depending on the affront of the post, you can have a few hundred to a few lakh engagements; a Social Media Manager’s dream.

The comments are usually along the same few veins; i.e:

a. “Abhi tum log ko hum dikhayenge”;

b. Do you even know? Please first go research,

c. I have never…..,

d. You MuslimLovingBigots,

e. You dare talk about Hindu culture?

And finally, f. BoyCott/Ban/Police Case.

What very clearly comes across first is the confidence and utter disregard for human communication. Anonymity breeds this, and thus is to be expected. Second is the volume, which quickly overwhelms the SM (social media) executive, who is usually just some terrified kid who’s showing this to his boss (who’s secretly terrified too, but can’t show it) who has to figure out how to handle this.

The volume is driven consistently by ‘Copy-Paste’ posts. The same copy is bombarded on your page 100s of times, interspersed with original posts and random abusing.

The immediate response to ban the ad to stem the blood loss, especially from it spilling over onto the main brand page definitely makes sense. However, it is a marketer's responsibility to know what you are making. If a piece goes through multiple hands and approvals, marketers should know what to expect.

And frankly, I don’t always blame the trolls. Vitriol and hate should never be accepted, period. But sometimes, brands need dramatic feedback. Two recent cases perfectly highlight the dichotomy. Eros’s recent vulgar posts needed public backlash and disapproval, yet Tanishq’s ad should have been supported. Well, Tanishq should have supported it. How can India not support cultural harmony? Our land is the most diverse subcontinent, with each state having the intricacies of entire countries. We’ve always existed together; we will undoubtedly continue to do so. Coming from one of India’s largest and most respected corporates, how can then Tanishq not call this out?

A couple of years back Fortune cooking oil’s Durga Puja ad got trolled and pulled off. But that was a stray incident. Of late, the trolls seem to be winning. When did we become so scared of voicing our thoughts? For an industry that thrives on creativity and unique articulation of the brand values, when did we start letting trolls win?

Every brand owes its audience authenticity and courage. You need to speak with the gravity and responsibility that your brand deserves. It’s one thing to be witty; completely another to be offensive and salacious. Speak from a well-researched, well-intentioned position, without meaning harm. If you have nailed it, then stand by it. You owe your audience that.

While there were moments where I myself wanted to troll a few brands because of the callousness of the content they put up, I do believe brands who are true to their audience should stand by their communication. I for one am not backing down from raising a relevant question to break taboos against menstruation.

I have immense respect for Tanishq as a brand and they had the unique opportunity to be a trendsetter yet again with the recent controversy. An inter-caste or inter-religion conversation is always a tricky one. However, it baffles me why such a respected brand would not stand up to the trolls. Would that not have endeared them further to their audience and gained long time respect instead of short-term PR burst of ‘removal’ of post that they did getting them a few pity posts of encouragement within the community? They stood for confidence, truth, harmony, trust and authenticity (I might have missed out a few).

(The author is vice president, Nobel Hygiene, a personal hygiene brand.)