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HUL ads backlash: Not hurting sentiments is a sensible brand strategy, say experts

While the creative ideas might have seemed great on the drawing board – deep, emotional stories that speak of humanity and religious harmony – the final brand communications missed the mark by a wide margin. In the span of just a week, campaigns of two major brands from the Hindustan Unilever stable – Brooke Bond and Surf Excel – have faced severe criticism on social media. 

The Brooke Bond Kumbh Mela ad shows a grown up son bringing his elderly father to the Kumbh Mela with the intention of abandoning him in the swelling crowds, only to realise his grave mistake and reuniting with the hapless old man over a cup of tea. The ad ends with the lines: “Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world. At this holy gathering, many elderly are abandoned by their families. This Kumbh, let’s hold the hands of those who made us who we are” and the hashtag – #ApnoKoApnao. 

With the hashtag #RangLaayeSang, the Surf Excel Holi ad shows a young girl riding a cycle on Holi and daring the kids in her locality to throw colours at her. She faces a barrage of water balloons and colour-filled pichkaris till there are no more of those colourful projectiles left. It’s then that she calls out to her young friend and gives him a lift on her cycle to the mosque for his namaaz in his spotless white clothes. 

While the Brooke Bond ad has faced flak because Twitteratis found it to be insensitive and hurting the sentiments of Hindus, the Surf Excel ad led Twitteratis to question whether it was necessary to bring in a religious angle to an ad featuring small children. Some even complained of ‘love jihad’! 

“Brands must attract, not distract,” said Jagdeep Kapoor, CMD, Samsika Marketing Consultants, emphatically. He added, “Not hurting anyone’s sentiments is a sensible brand strategy. Going out of your way to court controversy is silly, that too for established brands. Wanting noticeability and memorability is understandable, but not by alienating some segments. Credibility is more important and this can be achieved by carrying your segment of consumers along.” 

While the brand positioning must be retained, the creative execution needs to be sensitive. “There could have been a hundred routes for execution, why choose the one that could possibly hurt some consumer segments sentiments?” Kapoor questioned. A brilliant execution enhances the brand positioning by moving the consumers positively and does not reduce its value by having to remove the ad or modifying it. 

Nisha Singhania, Co-Founder & Director, Infectious Advertising, stressed that, “Brands definitely need to be more careful and avoid any type or prejudice or stereotyping. Whilst one should take a stance, one should be careful of not offending anyone.” At the same time, she noted that in today’s day and age, any conversation that a brand has will and should get reactions. “To my mind, a brand with a strong POV will have equal number of haters and lovers, as long as a brand takes a stand and sticks to it, its fine,” she opined. 

While agreeing that the reactions are extreme, Kavita Koserwal, CEO, Orcomm Advertising, felt that brand relevance is the most important aspect. “If you take a cause simply because it is too hot to miss out on without vetting it against your brand promise, it might backfire,” she cautioned. 

Prabhakar Mundkur, Mentor Capitalist & Thought Leader, opined, “I think identity politics in the country means that there will be identity marketing as well. So, marketers need to be careful.” 

He felt that in the Brooke Bond ad, the situation was not relevant to tea drinking. “Brooke Bond, which I personally handled, is an archetypal tea brand. It is a brand which has always been there. It is the shoulder to cry on, the friend in times of need, the epitome of tea values. It is quite simply the most popular tea brand, the social glue of a tribe, which brings a sense of belonging, warmth and support,” he noted. 

According to Mundkur, the TVC felt as if someone wrote a Kumbh story and then tried hard to bring the brand in at the last moment. “I don’t think it works as a piece of advertising. Knowing the mood of the people right now, it is foolish to have any ad currently which has any religious overtones. That comment goes for Surf Excel as well. There is nothing wrong with the Surf Excel ad though. It is a nice ad. But we know how people are thinking today, so I think HUL made the mistake of misjudging the mood of the masses that are polarised right now, maybe almost 50/50. I think no advertiser should venture into this territory right now,” he added. 

Koserwal, too, felt that in the case of the Surf Excel Holi ad, it is unnecessary communal ‘colouring’ of a relevant communication. At the same time, she said, “I found nothing wrong with the Surf Excel ad. It is a simple message delivered cutely through children.” 

Singhania, too, loved the Surf Excel ad and found it to be a beautiful and much needed narrative in today’s politically rife atmosphere of intolerance and hate. On the other hand, she didn’t quite like the Brooke Bond ad as it left her with a “bad aftertaste” rather than a positive feeling. 

In the case of the Kumbh Mela ad, Koserwal said that it was simply a justified objection blown out of proportion. “The Kumbh Mela ad picked a just cause, but like everyone is saying, it has no relevance with the brand and looks forced,” she added. 

Digital marketer Shubho Sengupta remarked that it was not unnatural to be extreme towards these campaigns. He further said, “The research for the Kumbh Mela campaign is absolutely correct, but the thing is that there is a religious angle. Kumbh is a religious event associated with millions of Indians. One has to be mindful of the different ways a piece of communication could be perceived. The agency or brand manager did not think these things through. You could be like ‘I’m Nike and I don’t care, I will stick to what I say’. If a brand is that confident, then it’s okay. But I don’t think HUL can afford to be so confident, especially with the kind of polarisation that is happening right now in India with elections around the corner.”

Continuing further, he said, “I believe there is a good balance between the brand communication and theme of the campaign. The product comes through in different ways. Tea is after all tea, what more can you say about it? The emotion is far more important here. You shouldn’t go by what some people on Twitter are saying.” 

Sengupta added that there has been a huge positive surge towards the Surf Excel Holi film. He noted, “There are hundreds and thousands of people on Twitter. Some may not have liked it and I think there are very extreme fringe far right kind of people. I have a feeling that the people who have criticised the campaign and have called for a ban on Surf Excel are not the core audience for the brand. I don’t think the brand should take them seriously.” 

On the other hand, the Brooke Bond Kumbh Mela film is a little tricky. “You have to be careful when you are talking about such a big event. Some other time, it might have passed, but right now, the context is also very important,” he added. 

“If HUL knew that the campaign would polarise audiences, then I would say hats off. I admire the courage and conviction. But if they did not, then it is a very stupid idea. They should have done more research. We are living in the age of instant judgements on social media. They should have carefully researched all the nuances communicated through the campaign,” Sengupta concluded.

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