Aishwarya Ramesh and Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Points of View

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire

What happened with HUL's Holi spot for Surf Excel this week could happen to absolutely any brand campaign tomorrow. What should brands do when a simple advert is monsterised, then bashed on social media?

Surf Excel's newest Holi-themed ad has found itself in the middle of controversy. The ad was released on 27 February and we did a story about it on 06 March. At the time, we had no idea it would garner so much attention on social media.

The ad carried forward the 'Daag Acche Hai' proposition that the brand has been working with consistently over the years. It attempted to promote Hindu-Muslim harmony, but social media reacted adversely and soon, the hashtags #BoycottSurfExcel started trending. The ad is topical to Holi and the brand has come up with similar ad campaigns in the past. In 2017, Lowe Lintas Mumbai created a similar campaign for the Pakistan leg of the brand and it was titled #NekiEkIbadat.

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire

The ad that sparked controversy on social media

We spoke to industry professionals about the campaign and the perils of marketing on digital. This is what they had to say -

Deepika Tewari - Associate Vice President, Marketing, Jewellery Division at Titan

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire

Deepika Tewari

It's not a unanimous view; it's a polarised view. In that situation, wouldn't you stand by people who are rooting for your ad? Why would you succumb to the pressure of people who are dissing your ad? Communication is such a subjective matter. There will always be naysayers. That doesn't mean brands have to pull down the ad. It's not like a legal body or government authority is telling the brand it's anti-national or anti-social... So does the brand need to take a stance by apologising or taking it down? I think it is in continuation with Surf Excel's standpoint of 'dirt is good' (referring to the daag achhe hai communications) and is in continuation of the regular thematic advertising it did for Eid, for example.

Ramanujam Sridhar, Founder & CEO, Brand-Comm

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire

Ramanujam Sridhar

Over the last few years, there has been a conscious attempt by HUL as a company, to talk about sensitive issues by integrating their brand message with it. I don't see anything offensive about the ad, but people's views tend to be quite polarised - I can see that from my various WhatsApp groups; these are the people who are vocal on social media, unfortunately.

I think it's a real stretch to say that this is a reflection of the times we live in. I certainly don't agree with that. I am saying that it's a creative rendition of a thought. Yes, it's about religious unity and the brand message has a slightly different execution. I've spent my entire life in advertising and I wish I'd written an ad like this - that's the benchmark of greatness for any advertising communication.

People might be objecting because of the time of the day - elections are coming up and people think they can make an issue out of anything. If I were the brand manager, I wouldn't be worried about it because a certain level of controversy does help the brand. It's not a global reaction; it's a reaction from one particular section... If I were in their place, I'd lay low for some time... Brands need to be extra careful and sensitive right now. We've seen the damage social media can create to brands and this is real.

Abhishek Gupta, CMO, Edelweiss Tokio Life

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire

Abhishek Gupta

Irrespective of the medium, you will always get different reactions from your target groups. As a marketer, it forces us to be on our toes and makes us vigilant about the kind of communications we're bringing out. Social media gives you feedback and the pulse of the audience, quickly. This is not a case of a cause gone wrong. As a brand, you need to take up a cause and ensure that it fits with your brand. Once you've decided on the cause, you need to stick to it and do something meaningful around it and be consistent with it. The daag acche hai and the goodness that comes out of the stain is a narrative that Surf Excel has been using for quite some time now.

On social media, there are people who support and those who criticise, to the extent of not buying Surf Excel. If there's a fair balance of positive and negative comments, then you should stick to it.

Rohan Mehta, CEO - Social Kinnect, a digital marketing company

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire

Rohan Mehta

Social media has helped brands reach more customers than ever before. However, it has also given rise to two-way streets of communication. In the case of Surf Excel, one advertisement has created a spiral of negative comments simply because expressing an opinion on social media can now be done anonymously and in real-time. In Surf Excel's case, they should leverage the positive sentiment that the campaign has also generated.

These days, it's tougher for brands to separate themselves from real-time issues and current events in the political and social space. With an increasingly conscious and opinionated consumer base, companies should not alienate potential customers and maybe opt for a neutral stance.

When a company immediately offers rebuttals on controversies, it shows its need to keep its reputation clean. In HUL's case, the best strategy would actually be to remain neutral and wait for the controversy surrounding the ad to die down. In the age of the internet, controversies come and go, and this one too shall pass.

Ravi Shankar K, senior vice president - India Online Business - Langoor

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire

Ravi Shankar K

Given the prevalence of social media usage, dealing with its marketing and its downsides need to enter corporate communication playbooks. Brands often find themselves at the receiving end of public ire when they talk about sensitive issues like religion, politics and regional identities. With these issues, it is difficult not to offend one section or another. And because social media gives a voice to the masses, individual opinions coalesce very quickly into mass sentiments forcing the brand to go on the defensive. Corporate communication playbooks are absolutely essential to either avoid or quickly counter these situations.

The brand's reaction, ideally, depends on their stand with respect to the issue. So if the brand is fully aware of what they are putting out and have their convictions in place, they may want to stick with their stand. In some cases, the communication could be mistimed, misconstrued or a plain mistake. In such situations, the brand would be advised to issue a clarification addressing the sentiment and pull out the offending content. Trying to leverage the positive sentiment can potentially result in the negative sentiment lingering longer and even spiralling out of control. So, the primary question to ask is 'why did we do this?' and then tailor a response accordingly.

Prabhakar Mundkur - brand strategy adviser

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire

Prabhakar Mundkur

The atmosphere in the country is a little charged right now, so I would typically avoid advertisements with religious connotations. With the Surf Excel ad, the emotion is a positive one unlike the Red Label Kumbh ad, but once you dabble with a religious theme, you don't know how it might be misunderstood. I would say religion is a sensitive subject right now and best to keep away from it.

Trends on twitter are supposed to have a half-life of 24-minutes which means that half of all the impressions, clicks and retweets your tweet receives will happen in the first 24 minutes and then drop dramatically. So whether you issue an apology or not, the trend is going to die. If the company believes in what they did, they shouldn't apologise. If it was a genuine oversight and they felt it was wrong, then they should.

Rajasekar KS, GM – Marketing at

Brands like humans are sometimes vulnerable. The recent error in judgement by Hindustan Lever is a good case study for marketers, social media strategists and PR folks. On social, if things go wrong it can be a terrible downslide and spiral out of control. Marketing that rides on cultural sensitivities and religious sentiments is treading on dangerous waters.

Learning from Surf Excel's social media fire


The best way out during such situations depends on the social media quicksand that a brand is caught in. If it’s about cultural insensitivity, national pride, religion or racial bias and if the brand thinks that there’s swelling discontent, it’s best to delete the post and lie low, hoping the intensity of the backlash fades out.

Very few brands are able to stand up, defend and build on their proposition; most don’t. If a brand believes in its narrative, it should stick to it. But if something stated on social media is not what the brand really intended and if it feels that people have been offended... then a clean apology is the wise thing to do, without any excuses, but not before clearly stating its position on the issue.

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