NEW DELHI: Marketers cannot afford to sit on the sidelines of the current debate about net neutrality, which observers suggest has itself had an impact on the brands most directly involved.

Brand consultant Harish Bijoor told Best Media Info that Airtel and Flipkart had come close to becoming "the poster boys of the 'biased-net' movement". And even though they had retreated from their original positions, "both brands have a canker on them as of now".

Santosh Desai, MD and CEO of Futurebrands India, agreed that their brand images had been affected but doubted there would be any long-term damage, partly because they were well-established brands and partly because "only a certain portion of their audience has an issue" with the subject.

Ecommerce business Flipkart last week stepped back from talks with telco Bharti Airtel about using its Airtel Zero platform, which would see Flipkart users access its app contents free, the company paying the data charges involved.

Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal has meanwhile emailed customers outlining the company's position and affirming a commitment to net neutrality, although campaigners have been quick to dismiss his claims.

Impact laid out the implications for marketers of not having net neutrality, which it said would make things more difficult for brands both large and small.

For the latter, it explained, "there is the prospect of being unable to meet the financial standard set by the giants in your field", which would be able to pay for priority bandwidth.

Larger brands, meanwhile, face taking a hit on ROI and profitability if they have to pay for users' data charges.

"For an international brand, this could get a bit complicated," Impact noted, "as each ISP around the globe will have to be paid in order to ensure that customers always have access to the brand's products, services and content at reasonable speeds at the regional level."

At the same time, it pointed out that new opportunities could arise. If brands were subsidising access to a platform like YouTube, non-ad-supported services like Vimeo could well embrace the option, so opening up new inventory to media buyers.

"Ultimately a brand could end up with a higher proportion of all screen time available to advertisers and the ISPs could spend the incremental revenue and reinvest in providing bandwidth so that consumers have a great experience. That could be a decent value exchange."

Data sourced from Best Media Info, Economic Times, Exchange4Media, Impact; additional content by Warc staff