How 'purpose' can be a double-sword

Social media does behave in many strange, and unpredictable, ways. But calls for #BoycottRedLabel last week by Twitterati, that too with unprecedented vehemence and vengeance, for an ad that ran in 2018, exactly a year ago, left many industry watchers utterly puzzled. During Ganesh Chaturthi 2018, tea brand Brooke Bond had released an ad that was supposed to promote inter-religious bonding. In last year’s commercial, an old Muslim murti-maker was shown helping a young Hindu executive choose the right Ganesha idol for his home. The buyer almost pulls out of the purchase when he realises that the man selling him the idol is a Muslim. It all changes after the murti-maker serves him a cup of Red Label Tea. Well, a year later, Twitterati have suddenly remembered the commercial and gone ballistic over it, criticising it for showing the majority Hindu community in a negative light.  

For India’s bellwether advertiser, Hindustan Unilever, calls such as #BoycottHindustanUnilever and #BoycottSurfExcel seem nothing new ever since it changed gears in its creative orientation across its brand portfolio in the past couple of years and started putting out advertising that is supposedly “progressive”, “positive”, “inclusive” and “secular” … communication that gives its brands a “purpose” beyond functional and aspirational product promises.

Unilever’s father-son Kumbh Mela ad earlier this year also for Brooke Bond Red Label kicked up a veritable storm in a tea-cup; its Surf Excel ad where a young Hindu girl, dressed in a white t-shirt, chooses to get stained in Holi colours in order to protect her young Muslim friend who gets to go to the nearby mosque to pray in impeccable whites also got badly trolled. Last year, the CloseUp #FreeToLove campaign on a Hindu-Muslim live-in couple and another on same-sex lovers also ignited a massive mess. So in pushing “purpose” Hindustan Unilever does not seem to be unduly worried about courting controversy. In fact, some would say it seems to be deliberately inviting trouble to make the advertising “famous” and push the envelope on being seen to be “purpose-driven”.

While the Indian subsidiary of Unilever may be defining “purpose” in its own unique and somewhat acrimonious way, if we were to go back in history, in the 1890s, Unilever founder William Lever set the company’s “purpose” as “making cleanliness commonplace”. In 2010, the consumer goods giant further honed this “purpose” to better respond to a world that is “starting to exceed its capacity”. Under this revised “purpose” of “making sustainable living commonplace”, Unilever has three targets to measure its progress against: improving the health and wellbeing of one billion people, reducing negative environmental impact and sourcing raw materials in a sustainable way while enhancing livelihood. None of the Indian brand advertising seems to resonate with the global parent’s “purpose”. Or maybe, we don’t understand.

Not very long ago, Gillette ran its famous “We Believe” campaign asking “Is this the best a man can get?”. The campaign created not just ripples, but a storm globally, earning the shaving products brand many kudos for propagating a higher “purpose” for itself. But now, just months later, it seems a large part of Gillette’s all-male audience got put off by the “attack on men” and distanced itself from the brand. Many in fact seem to be attributing a US$ 8 billion non-cash write-down for Gillette by parent P&G to the after-effects of the higher-purpose ad campaign which in retrospect was perhaps not as smart as it first seemed.

Starbucks’ global statement of purpose, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time” was blown to smithereens when two black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia after the store manager called the police claiming that the men had not made any purchase but were refusing to leave. CEO Kevin Johnson apologized for the racial profiling that had occurred at Starbucks and all Starbucks stores were closed down for a four-hour, in-person training against racial bias. But the damage was already done.

Back to Hindustan Unilever. The colours of Holi being called daags was seen as offensive in the Surf Excel ad. The Hindu girl taking all the hits of the Holi colours to make sure her Muslim friend got to his namaz in unspoilt whites was seen to be an attempt to portray that white purity in the Muslim prayer is sacrosanct. Also that namaz is more important than Holi. The biggest objection of course was that the entire “sacrifice” was being made by the Hindu girl. Why could the narrative not have been reversed? The brand’s higher “purpose” is quite nicely stated — Agar kuch achha karne mein daag lag jaaye toh daag achhe hain – the moot question is why is Unilever mixing “purpose” with religion and communal sensitivities? Methinks this is a path best avoided, lest “purpose” boomerang like in Gillette and Starbucks.
The writer is an advertising and media veteran Email:

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