How does a brand safeguard itself against outrage?

Brand outrage

For a brand to face outrage against a campaign is not a new phenomenon, however, it is one that needs to be navigated with care, we explore.

Polysemy refers to the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or a phrase. In the world of linguistics, it is a space where meanings can be seen merging as well as emerging. In the world of mass media though, it is a rocky path for creators to tread on. Could a particular word or visual be interpreted in a manner that they never intended? Is there a possibility of outrage that a brand would have to deal with on the business end just because someone on the other side of the screen had a differing opinion about the issue? How do they safeguard their business against it?

A few weeks ago, Kent RO had received backlash for putting up a distasteful ad. Voltas Becko was chided for being sexist while selling dishwashers and Audi for using imagery of a child in an indecent way. In all these instances, brands had to apologise and acknowledge their mistake. Broadly speaking, none of these instances had any obvious hue of politics (assuming personal politics to be separate from communal politics) in the discourse.

However, if one were to look at the reported fate of Tanishq, the most recent brand to be on the receiving end of outrage for a campaign, a different pattern emerge. They had to face severe hatred for a narrative portraying an inter-religious relationship. Even politicians could be seen commenting on the issue. The advertisement had to be taken down.

This is not the first time a brand has faced such a response based on a narrative portraying religious sentiments or faith. Surf Excel and Brooke Bond Red Label have also had their share of waves of outrage. A few years ago, Snapdeal had to face a lot of flak based on a statement by Aamir Khan. These instances of outrage against brands are evidently political in nature.

The question remains: Regardless of whether the outrage is right or wrong, how does a brand safeguard its business interest? Till what point can they stand by their campaign’s narrative? Where do they draw the line and call it quits?

Arjun Kumar, Senior Creative Director, Dentsu India feels that when brands have a strong POV, they must stand by that POV if and when they received backlash. “I feel we underestimate our audiences in this respect because brands that stand by their campaigns are respected in the long run and appreciated by like-minded people. Isn’t attracting like-minded people the name of the game?” he says.

Acknowledging that religion is a sensitive topic and one that must be handled with respect and care, Kumar explains, “As long as the message is unifying and not divisive, relatable and not preachy, brands should be ok. In any case, ‘haters gonna hate’.”

Communications Strategy Consultant Karthik Srinivasan feels brands should seek feedback at the script, production and pre-launch stages and to be fully aware of what to expect. They must not wait for the last step (release of the campaign) to be caught unawares.

“A good starting point is to discuss the draft script threadbare from multiple perspectives and smooth out the problematic zones. It could still evoke outrage, however, because someone influential could pick an angle to outrage and colour the final communication through their perspective. All the more reason to be on guard to track reactions in real-time,” he tells us.

Further, he lists out a few processes brands can include in their to-do lists to ensure they are able to navigate sensitive topics with ease:

  • Keep a close track of social media sentiment after launch, particularly if the campaign is expected to have high-frequency feedback. While it need not necessarily be indicative of actual, ground-level action, social media sentiment is a good barometer to sense the overall sentiment.
  • If there a near-unanimous denouncement and that too around specific points that everyone feels to be wrong, the best way is to apologise gracefully, withdraw and move on.
  • If the reaction/outrage is a mix of for and against the brand’s narrative, then the brand has a choice — pick one of the sides and stand by it. If there is a logic in the ‘for’ agreement and the ‘against’ is baseless, the brand could stand its ground. However, it would be more nuanced call as trolls could mount to the same kind of attack offline too if they are politically motivated.

As more and more brands get boycotted for putting forth bold narratives, it is perhaps important to keep in mind the impact of such instances on the equity of a brand. A good first step is to always take a step back and look at the bigger image. The brands must brainstorm, based on what they learn after social listening, and decide on when to speak about the issue, in what capacity and how much.

If they feel a mistake has been made, an apology can go a long way in helping retain brand loyalty. In some instances, silence can be powerful too. However, the best way to safeguard against outrage lies in preparation for the worst, execution with good intent and leveraging the powers of advocacy if and when required. It is important to be able to measure the risks against potential returns, not just immediately but in the long run too.

Another key aspect is to keep brand persona at the centre of any decision the team might take in the aftermath of a wave of outrage. Tanishq has been known for crafting magical campaigns that lyrically tread through religions and cultures, highlighting bonds and relations. The most recent campaign could be seen extending the same warmth that one would expect in a typical Tanishq ad. However, things clearly didn’t go as intended.

[Update] Tanishq’s statement on the controversy around the ad:

“The idea behind the Ekatvam campaign is to celebrate the coming together of people from different walks of life, local communities and families during these challenging times and celebrate the beauty of oneness. This film has stimulated divergent and severe reactions, contrary to its very objective.

We are deeply saddened with the inadvertent stirring of emotions and withdraw this film keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well being of our employees, partners and store staff.”


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