Over the years, The Times of India – the country’s leading newspaper – has been at the forefront of brand activism with its popular campaigns raising pertinent issues. Malcolm Raphael, senior vice-president and head – trade marketing, innovations, creative strategy – tells WARC more about this and initiatives like Teach India and Aman Ki Asha

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how brands in India can take a stand and communicate effectively. Read more

Key insights

  • Brand activism is not only about creating good-looking communication but is backed by brand purpose with intent and action.
  • Consumers expect brands to drive social or environmental agendas but it is easy to catch those that are merely offering lip service.
  • Causes raised by brands need to be relevant and not appear opportunistic; collaborating with relevant stakeholders will help tackle the issues more effectively.
How would you define brand activism in relation to brand purpose?

Brand purpose as a concept began to gain popularity about five to seven years back. The trend started with campaigns winning awards across the world. You saw a lot of purpose-led campaigns winning at (events like) Cannes Lions; there were a lot of discussions happening across panels etc.

This was when brand purpose, although it has existed for a long time, started gaining momentum. Like any other trend, it became a fad as a lot of brands got on the bandwagon.

The key difference between brand purpose and brand activism is that the latter is purpose with intent and commitment to do something. It’s not just creating good-looking communication, but it’s also about backing it up with action.

How does this manifest in the work that you and your team do?

The Times of India being a newspaper brand, we’ve been practising this for many, many years now. Print is at the forefront of culture change or influencing culture and opinions. Unlike other consumer-related brands, we are best poised to be a brand activist taking up issues that are extremely relevant to any given period of time.

Teach India, for example, actually started with teaching English but today, has become so entrenched that you can teach any language to the underprivileged. Teach India has been a huge success. We continue to do it across metros, Tier I and II cities, and even certain rural markets.

Lead India has been another phenomenal success. It was at a geopolitical level and about discovering the future leadership of the country. A lot of people who went through that programme were recognised and entered public life.

Aman Ki Asha was another fantastic initiative that was about bringing India and Pakistan together through cultural and creative aspects.

More recently, we did Lost Votes, which raised the issue of why people who are not living in their place of origin can’t vote. The Election Commission (of India) has now taken note of it and initiated steps to find ways to ensure that even migrants can be a part of the voting process.

The most recent and a very successful campaign has been MaskIndia. Early into the lockdown, we came up with the idea of MaskIndia to encourage people to create their own masks at home. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself tweeted about it. A lot of brands partnered along the way too.

These are some of the very large brand-driven, brand purpose initiatives that we have done. Being a newspaper, it is easy to tie-in purpose with action. Brand activism becomes a lot easier for us because we are able to generate that momentum.

Malcolm Raphael, SVP, The Times of India

How did The Times of India identify what it needed to stand for and how does that fit with the larger corporate mission?

Being a publication house, we have our ear to the ground. We know the topical issues that are coming up, we know the pulse of the market. We try to bring those issues upfront through our campaigns.

Lost Votes, for instance, was done a few months before the general election happened (in India) while MaskIndia was a very topical and essential initiative that we took on.

It is not just things we do from an opportunistic point of view; we are trying to make a genuine difference in the market.

Apart from these initiatives I have mentioned, there have also been other intellectual properties (IPs) and campaigns – such as Times Power of Print – where we have had brand sponsorships. One of them is organ donation. These ideas could obviously get triggered through conversations with certain categories and clients. Organ donation was again a point that needed addressing. Thanks to our campaign, the needle moved from 4,000 organ pledges to almost 1.7 lakh (a hundred thousand) to 2 lakh in a span of four years. That is the kind of impact we are able to have.

Times Power of Print is a unique initiative where we invite creative minds to build impactful print campaigns that can make a big difference. The briefs are purpose-led and the winning campaign is supported both by us and the sponsor. We are in the fourth year and got a fantastic response with 983 entries.

The primary objective of this year’s brief from Croma is very topical – to shift the mindset from “Wearing a mask to protect me” to “A mask is essential to protect the world from me”. The first three years tackled varied subjects like “Educate the girl child”, “Educate parents on good food for kids” and “Disposing e-waste in a responsible manner”.

How important is it for a brand to be sympathetic to social issues and how should it approach communicating it?

It really depends on the category that you are in. It might not always be easy for a brand or even right for it to address social issues if it doesn’t make sense from a business point of view. Eventually, all brand purpose and activism do have a direct or indirect impact on the business. Sometimes, people get confused between CSR, purpose and activism.

CSR obviously is the non-profit, altruistic thing brands are doing but when you do something from a purpose point of view, it definitely has to have a business impact. Again, Unilever comes to my mind. Paul Polman was so focussed on driving sustainability that there was organisational change.

It is a very important point brands and companies must follow – there has to be a direct outcome. It can’t be a marketing idea that just gets limited to communication. It has to come from the CEO because it has to impact your approach to everything.

It could start from the way you select your suppliers, vendors, your sourcing, distribution, packaging, and right up to your product innovation. And that obviously gets translated into the way your employees think and how you operate in the market. The consumers immediately realise whether you are true to your purpose or not.

As a brand championing a cause, how do you ensure you are relevant and genuine without seeming gimmicky or opportunistic?

During the lockdown, we were having a lot of conversations with clients. Initially, brand managers were very sceptical about how to react to the pandemic. Brands did not want to be seen as opportunistic.

So, before one ventures into doing something, one must sincerely think if the brand is going to be able to genuinely act upon and implement what will be communicated.

There are several examples of brands that make fancy-looking ads without any actual action on the ground.

When brands are pushed against the wall, it is very easy for them to come back with some fancy communication, which might be reactive or opportunistic. But it’s very important to think through before doing that, to know if one is able to walk the talk.

In the current scenario in India, would you say that it is getting difficult for a brand to stand for something when you know you can’t please everyone with your message?

It is that side of social media where everybody has an opinion. It is a tough one. Brands should be cognisant of the fact because this is also a cultural and socio-economic shift.

But can a brand still stick to a stand despite the brickbats?

There are a whole host of topics a brand can touch upon and where it can make a difference. It has to be relevant and not opportunistic.

It can be a collaborative effort. It would be wise for brands to collaborate with relevant stakeholders and see what is the best way forward.

We tend to miss out on this aspect several times. If you do that, you’re taking into account everyone’s sentiments and issues. That way, one will be able to create something that is more acceptable, and at the same time, will be able to make a difference.

How did the pandemic affect your strategy when it came to the brand’s purpose-centric initiatives?

It became imperative for us to be able to instil confidence in consumers. In the initial phase of the lockdown, a lot of people stopped getting newspapers at home. The situation has changed now; our recovery has been really good across markets.

Bringing back confidence, from a safety, hygiene or economic aspect, was important for us.

There was a lot of fake news and the newspaper countered it as the most trusted medium there is. We played a crucial role in ensuring sanity was maintained through reflecting what was actually happening on the ground.

Sticking to being the harbinger of truth has always been our biggest focus and that is becoming increasingly critical in today’s world.

What role does marketing play in ensuring consistent progress to shore up the business and a programme’s longevity?

The marketing discipline has changed a lot over the last two years. Marketing initiatives can no longer happen in isolation. They have to be in line with business objectives and be inclusive.

It is crucial that marketing creates programmes that are able to drive various aspects of your business because eventually, campaigns are designed to drive business achievements.

Long-term versus short-term is becoming very challenging for companies because over the last few years, there seems to be a highly short-term orientation to business. Especially with startups, with a lot of investors pushing for not just quarterly results but even monthly movements. It then becomes very difficult for marketing and brand managers to manage the long term.

It is said that not all brands need to have a social purpose and such endeavours should be undertaken only when a brand is in a position of strength. Would you agree?

I would, unless your business itself is rooted in a social purpose. For example, I came across a brand on social media that employs visually impaired people to make their products. There are a lot of such businesses that are anchored in a social purpose. Obviously, they don’t have scale; they are able to make a small difference only in their sphere of influence.

But it makes a lot more sense for a brand of size to have a social purpose because then, the impact is much greater.

Then what happens to these small brands? Are you saying they should completely stay away from taking up causes?

Definitely not! Collaboration becomes a vital point for them. Then, they can amplify whatever it is that they are doing and possibly also replicate it in multiple markets.