In the age of digital media, brands look to master the art of the gab

When the recent controversy over ball tampering by Australian cricketers broke out, Manforce India released a cheeky Twitter ad (#PamperNotTamper) with an image of two cricket balls and said, ‘Pamper, not tamper. Play fair, play safe and enjoy the game of love.’ Air New Zealand too had turned in a quick one, asking the banned cricketers to fly off to a safe haven but that was later withdrawn. These are not isolated examples; as brands look for acceptance and engagement on digital media platforms, no controversy or event or festival is left out of the ambit of their conversation with customers.

In the age of digital media, everyone wants a word in. Sometimes, brands run their social media teams in-house, while many rely on advertising agencies; whatever the route, branded content is de rigueur as is a presence on every platform that customers are on. Online micro-fiction platform Terribly Tiny Tales (TTT) has collaborated with brands including Cadbury and Dove to provide customised posts that explore social issues that also support the brand’s image. TTT’s collaboration with Accenture touched upon women empowerment in the workspace while its collaboration with Dove and L’Oreal tried to expand the definition of beauty.

While two-way communication does mean that brands and customers are engaging with each other more frequently, the danger is that marketers may end up building a tower of babble and stray far from their core values. “Social media has allowed stakeholders to have conversations more openly, swiftly and anonymously with the brands they engage with. The instant reactions of customer, employee, investors etc. can now go out to thousands within seconds,” said N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA, a brand insights agency.  While this is a mutually rewarding development, it is fraught with risk.

Finding the right voice and tone on social media is critical. For example, a Zomato ad in 2017 used letters that are short for Hindi language expletives. This raised the hackles of its social media fans, who called it sexist, cheap and crass. The ad had to be pulled down. But another ad by the same brand hit the right notes, it said “I am great in bed”: Breakfast.  There is nothing wrong with using topical events or fads to speak to the digital audiences but brands must walk the talk carefully.

“Brands can do ads based on items of topical interest. Be it a death of a legend, or a royal wedding, or Mars landing. These are one off attempts and should be seen as such,” said Ambi Parameswaran, founder Some brands are even picking up on social concerns around short-term local issues such as exam stress. Social media has been inundated with videos on the ills of stress and how to stay away from it over the past few weeks from brands such as Cello, Lenovo, Mirinda among others.

Such campaigns, if done well, can make for memorable impressions and strong conversations. Sandeep Goyal, advertising veteran and brand strategist points to the way brands reacted after the death of Stephen Hawking, “Star TV replacing the network logo with a cosmic visual representing Hawking over all digital media platforms for a day was done with sophistication and subtlety,” he said.

Topical campaigning is tricky and in vogue, but it is not new. “Amul uses contextual advertising a lot, but always subtly. Some use such instances in a gross manner and suffer negative consequences,” said Chandramouli. He stressed that “not all social matters are for brands to take up and even minor errors get amplified and become sensational causing irritation if not deep harm to the brand.”

The problem is that brands are often forced to voice an opinion or follow a cause. It is the nature of the engagement with social media platforms. “Brands can choose to be quiet and dignified. But when competitors are shouting there is always the temptation to join the shouting match and then to out shout the competition,” said Goyal.

“I strongly believe that brands should take a stand on a social cause only if it makes long term sense. There is no sense in doing a ‘flavour of the month’ social cause related communication. In fact this will serve no purpose at all. Brands have to figure out what is the social cause they want to stay with, and see if it can be woven into the brand narrative for long term engagement,” said Parameswaran.

There is another thing Indian brands are advised to steer clear of by their advisors. Politics. “No brand in India actually has ever tried to play the political card. Even on occasions where Reliance Jio or PayTM tried to use the picture of Prime Minister Modi in their ads, it was frowned upon and criticised. In India, therefore, political alignment is still not the norm,” said Goyal. Most brands do not want to get embroiled in any kind of controversy since India still has a long way to achieve audience maturity, he added. “Too strong a stance can get many opposing reactions, especially if a comment is political. If a brand takes a stance then it must be able to deal with those against the stance too,” said Chandramouli. Controversy can speed up brand awareness and recognition, however, said Goyal. The trick is stay balanced, a dash of humour and a neutral tone, in other words, developing a strong and sound social media etiquette.