"In a digital world, consumers are aware, cynical, distrustful": D Shivakumar, Aditya Birla Group

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Kochi | In Digital
Published : February 21, 2019 05:21 AM
What matters to people, and consequently brands, in the online world? Ex-Pepsi hand and present day executive president at Aditya Birla Group D Shivakumar gave some tips on stage at Kochi last afternoon.

At the 44th IAA (International Advertising Association) World Congress, Kochi, ex-Pepsi, ex-Nokia hand D Shivakumar, present day group executive president - strategy and business development, Aditya Birla Group, spoke about brand trust in a digital world. Here are the highlights of his talk.

D Shivakumar D Shivakumar

Not like one needs any more jargon in the context of brands and the digital universe, but D Shivakumar proudly introduced his own little acronym: DUCA - Digitally Unacceptable Content and Attitude. As his talk took shape, the meaning of his acronym became clearer.

"Today, brands and consumers know a lot about one another. In a digital world, society is your stakeholder - not your board," said Shivakumar.

He shared some numbers to lay the foundation for his case: 2019 will mark the first time half the world's population is on the internet. It's also the year that 36 per cent of the world's population is on social media of some kind. This pool of people includes infants, so the actual numbers are, arguably, even more compelling. Today, 46 per cent of all advertising, globally, is digital. Over the next two years, the number will go as high as 50 or even 60 per cent.

"In a digital world, consumers are more aware, more cynical, more distrustful..." he cautioned, "Don't treat social media as 'quick media' - often, brands think they're being cute, but the backlash is huge..."

Shivakumar's lesson for brands on Instagram is "optics matter". In general, the tip for Indian brands on digital is: "If you really have a story to tell, then length does not matter; people will watch it."

He highlighted a counter-intuitive fact that is relevant to brands looking to try out influencer marketing on social media: the top influencers on Facebook are not Bollywood celebrities. And then, shared a couple of not so surprising facts: "Influencer marketing is all about genuine relationships" and "When an influencer is paid to post something on social media, consumers want to be told it's a 'paid post'".

In the online world, consumers have formed a "union"; it's a "collective space", more than an individual one. If a brand makes a blunder online, the team must respond "within 48 hours". In this context, he spoke about the difference between ethically versus legally sound action on the part of brands. "All legal action is not ethical but all ethical action is legal," said Shivakumar.

Though this goes against the grain of what old, legacy brands appear to be doing these days - trying hard to shed the heritage cloak in a bid to be cool - online, it turns out, "heritage helps build trust". It's okay to be boring but it's not okay to be unreliable.

For a moment, Shivakumar wore his ASCI hat and and spoke about the need for marketers to self-regulate as far as possible and outline, and follow, a clear set of "social media posting guidelines". And these can be as simple and obvious as - don't let junior people handle your social media! To back this seemingly plain piece of advice, Shivakumar spoke about a scary - and in retrospect, hilarious - incident during his time at Pepsi. After the Supreme Court de-criminalised homosexuality, a mid-level employee at the company posted 'The Supreme Court is so gay' on social media, through Pepsi's official handle. This was a mistake that could have cost Shivakumar his job. It didn't. Luckily, the team recanted it in the first hour and apologised to all concerned.

ALSO READ: "Today, Twitter is the most widely read 'newspaper'": Venkatesh Kini, Coca-Cola

Sample some of his entertaining examples of online blunders brands have made in the recent past - blunders that cost them heavily, but taught the rest of the word valuable lessons:

Benetton's tone deaf 'No Girls Allowed' (or was it 'Girls Not Allowed'?) advert was slammed recently. When the zeitgeist is about encouraging gender diversity and building an egalitarian, gender-neutral society, a message like this, however well-intentioned, is nothing short of an anachronism.

Burger King offended many with its inappropriate 'Free Whoppers for World Cup Babies' post (2018). In jest, the post incentivised getting impregnated by victorious footballers. It was deemed offensive for obvious reasons. As AdWeek reported last year: '...the motivation behind Burger King's offering was to procure "the best football genes" and "ensure the success of the Russian team for generations to come." Critics of the social media ad called it sexist and offensive to women, and the post was soon taken down.'

Dolce & Gabbana's post about shoes for 'thin and gorgeous' girls was slammed (2017). In the era of anti-body shaming messaging, this fashion brand stood out for perpetuating stereotypical standards of beauty.

Among other brands Shivakumar enumerated were artificial sweetener Splenda, Snapchat (asking people to 'slap Rihanna' cost the company $800 million) and Lockheed Martin (weapons manufacturer that encouraged people to post photos of themselves with the product; a picture of a piece of a bomb in Yemen was what it took for the brand team to realise their mistake), and Amazon (founder Jeff Bezos' tweet about a vacation backfired).

Arms maker Lockheed Martin's campaign that backfired. Image taken from Arms maker Lockheed Martin's campaign that backfired. Image taken from

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