Accelerating digital engagement, brands practice the art of being social

Social media is not for the faint-hearted advertiser. An occasion to engage may just as easily turn off many.
As Indian consumers accelerate their digital journey under a lockdown, brands are learning to mind the language. Not only are they looking at popular causes that would give them greater sway over their rapidly swelling online communities, they are finding ways to do that without offending their followers. 

One way is to align with causes that are more universal in their appeal and less controversial. Cleanliness, health, gender equality, environmental protection and such other issues find huge support online and are not as polarising as religious equality or race or even freedom of speech. For instance, this year brands such Mother Dairy, SBI Life and a number of online educators all stepped in with messages for World Cancer Day. A larger number were involved on World Environment Day. 

Brands have also mourned over the loss of eminent personalities (Irrfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor) and celebrated the birthdays of popular sports icons (Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli), in their online avatars. Fevicol (Pidilite) has been active on all such occasions, as have Amul, Mother Dairy and others. Such occasions present a moment of solidarity and helps get a look-in from the mass of followers these personalities have online. 

However social media is not for the faint-hearted advertiser. An occasion to engage may just as easily turn off many. Ambi M G Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder, says “Using social media communities is a double edged sword for brands. When things are going well you get a lot of ‘free-ride’ benefits in terms of organic shares. But when things turn, you can get a lot of negative flak.”

For instance, in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, several brands such Nike, Netflix, Adidas among other global labels ran their anti-racism campaigns in India too. However, support for the same movement and the desire to appease similar large online communities led HUL down a different path, forcing a change in the name of its popular fairness cream.

K V Sridhar, a senior advertising professional says, “In 90 per cent of the cases it is the people who put pressure on the brand. People could be NGOs, consumers, activists or regulators.” For HUL it was consumer activism, but not from those who consume the product. In the case of Patanjali’s Coronil, the pressure was regulatory. “It depends on how much pressure is required for a brand to seek course correction,” says Sridhar and points out that one needs to sensitise creators of brand campaigns to social media etiquette.

Is there an argument for brands to stay away from social media platforms, given the thin lines they walk between popularity and outrage? Parameswaran says that being absent in social media is a non-starter today. “I have a three step formula. You can stay out of social media completely, but be on an active listening mode to step in and put out the fire. The second is partial engagement, stay out of things that seem controversial and be ready to face the music. The third, where brands like Nike have gone boldly, is to define what your brand stands for and be upfront about it. Depending on the product category and the brand you will have to take your pick. A dishwashing liquid can take the first approach. But a youth brand will have to take the third approach,” he says.

Community pitch

As the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital all around, a slew of causes such as the environment, race and gender equality, domestic abuse have become important talking points for brands looking to stay relevant amidst the crisis

Green planet: On Earth Day this year (June 5 2020) numerous brands made a pitch for the environment, Fevicol, Decathlon, ITC and a host of other small brands used the occasion to align their brands with the climate change and cleanliness 

Equality: A popular cause among brands of all shades and hues for years now, it has become even more important this year; beauty brands have LGBTQ citizens speaking for them while many have campaigns against domestic abuse and some such as Godrej Appliances make the case for shared housework during the lockdown 

Racism: While in the West this is a conversation around colour, in India, it assumes connotations of caste and gender. The Black Lives Matter movement has already impacted conversations, around these lines, with HUL renaming its fairness cream and J&J pulling it off the market completely


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