A brand championing a cause is not a novel phenomenon. But as consumers become more vocal about environmental, political and social causes, there is pressure on brands to speak up too. While many worldwide are answering that call, most Indian brands have stayed silent. In this India Spotlight series, WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das asks if it is time for Indian marketers to be bolder.

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

Spearheading a cause in society has long been an excellent tool for brands to remain in the public eye. To be relevant, with the heart in the right place, is seen as a harbinger of behavioural change.

If there ever was a time to be outspoken and be heard, it is now. The world around us is changing by the minute. The year that went past was a stormy one, to say the least. There are issues galore that the public is talking about, and social media is only making things more transparent with public opinion now sharper and louder.

People want brands to take a stand

Take the pandemic as an example. GWI data shows how Indian consumers expect brands to show support, with 80% of Indian internet users saying they prefer brands that communicate how they are helping customers and responding to the coronavirus; 85% of them approve of brands that are directly contacting customers to do the same Furthermore, it has been noted that Indians are 30-40% more likely than the global average to strongly support these measures. These are insights that can’t be ignored.

This could be an opportunity for brands to rise to the occasion. At a time when product differentiation is getting more difficult, a stand on an issue could set one brand apart from another. To be taken even more seriously, add some action to the message.

Several leading global brands have identified this opportunity by taking a public stand on contentious issues. They have met with applause as well as criticism, but most have remained undeterred.

Nike, with its Colin Kaepernick campaign, summed it up best: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

Nike had its shoes burnt post-campaign, its stock tumbled but it stood its ground. There were naysayers but there were also those like actor Jim Carrey who famously told TV host Bill Maher: “I went out today and bought me some Nikes.”

Was it worth the burnt shoes then? Strictly from a marketing perspective, it probably was. From a cause perspective? A definite yes.

A different story in India

Closer to home, jewellery brand Tanishq was recently taken to task for its stand on inter-faith marriage. Tanishq, unlike Nike, withdrew its ad.

The Nike campaign is more than just about the brand thinking out loud. It can be seen as the true purpose of cause marketing.

In India, the story is a tad different. Brands there are still wary about being outspoken and the Tanishq case is a clear example. With little escaping the public eye these days, being vocal about issues that plague society has often proved to be risky business.

One can understand a brand’s apprehension because it could face a boycott or get into legal trouble. That said, should the Indian marketer choose to stay silent and go about its business the way it always has? Or should he become braver? The risk is apparent everywhere, not just in India. But this country’s issues are as unique as its people.

Brands walking the talk

Spotlight India features two brands in action – The Times of India newspaper and Tata Tea. Both brands have been at the forefront of activism. The former has run numerous campaigns to highlight social issues, like the very popular Teach India.

Said Malcolm Raphael, senior vice-president & head - trade marketing, innovations, creative strategy, Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd. (Times Group) “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”.

Tata Tea, on the other hand, is synonymous with its Jaago Re (Wake up) campaign. Over the years, it has lent itself well to the various causes and campaigns that the tea brand has championed.

Puneet Das, senior vice-president, marketing – beverages, Tata Consumer Products noted, “The causes brands take up should somewhere be ingrained in what is core to them; at least, to the category or the immediate domain. It shouldn’t be something far off. Then it’s CSR. That’s the difference between a CSR and a brand cause”.

Risky but necessary

Local strategists who contributed to this series unanimously agreed that brands do need to take a bolder stance but were quick to point out the risks involved.

  • Don’t play safe: Ankit Singh, senior vice-president – strategy, Leo Burnett India doesn’t shy away from saying that a public stance could invite trouble but being safe is the easy way out. You don’t want a marketer to choose that route, not anymore.

    Singh said, “In a country where getting offended seems to be a national hobby, it’s never easy to go against the majoritarian stance. Most of the category leaders in India have never taken a socio-political stand. In India, a brand can do very well by sticking to a neutral position or creating ‘safe’ emotional communication”.

  • Take in the details in the bigger picture: Ajeeta Bharadwaj, chief strategy officer, Wondrlab, had this to say about the Tanishq campaign: “What the world saw was the haters.”

    But she added that what fewer people are privy to is that the brand’s stand evoked such powerful positive sentiments among believers that they rose to show the love and the brand sales went through the roof.

    To her, this was not an engineered effect but the organic response of the believers that turned a Tanishq purchase into a symbol of support for the cause.

    Incidentally, Wondrlab recently acquired What’s Your Problem (WYP), the agency responsible for the Tanishq campaign.

  • It just makes business sense: Ashraf Engineer, a former journalist and a senior PR professional pointed out how being seen as a responsible brand has a direct and positive impact on the business.

    The principal consultant at Pitchfork Partners said, “While there is some debate over whether it has an impact on earnings, it can be argued that brands that take a stand are seen as better corporate citizens and ones that see their role as more than offering a product or service. By extension, such an image should benefit them on the business front too. If we accept that customers will be increasingly belief-driven going forward, then how can brands afford to not exhibit their beliefs?”

  • Activism must go beyond advertising: Brand activism today is much more than communication; like it always should have been. It is about going that extra mile beyond advertising.

    Brand strategist and chief executive officer, BBDO India, Suraja Kishore rightly remarked: “Brand activism is no more about ad campaigns driven by the marketing department. It is about belief and values manifested in action by everyone in your company across the ranks.”

The term “brand purpose” may be in vogue now but it doesn’t supplant “brand activism”, which has been around for much longer. And both are equally relevant because as the experts tell us, stand up for a cause not just because it’s fashionable but because you believe in it, and it makes sense for your brand to talk about it.

And back it up with action!