Troll-proof: How should brands approach social media backlash without sullying reputation?

Experts feel that if a brand is not sure, it should not respond, and tread through with due caution

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Jan 7, 2021 8:51 AM
cyber bulling

2020 was abuzz with brands dealing with cyber bullies or social media trolls which was a constant endeavour all through the year. Another year kick-started with Adani Wilmar facing furore. The company had to halt advertisements of its Fortune Rice Bran cooking oil featuring former Indian cricket team’s captain Sourav Ganguly after he suffered a cardiac problem last week. At a time when online conversations have turned into a bruising sport, brands finding themselves in the line of fire is pretty much commonplace these days with their reputations being dragged to the boxing ring as customers clash over political affiliations, religious beliefs and personal biases. As we know it, nuance is a scarce commodity in the age of social media aggression. So is responding or ignoring the perfect strategy for online backlash?

Samit Sinha, Managing Partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, advises that in most cases, silence is the best policy. Sinha feels that reacting to trolling often unnecessarily extends their life, which is usually not in the best interests of the brand being trolled, as it runs the risk of detraction from its own narrative.

“In the Internet universe, attention spans are short and people tend to flit from one subject to another quite rapidly, and therefore only very few topics manage sustained traction. Majority of instances of social media trolling have a lifespan of only a few days, if that. They quickly die a natural death as people’s focus shifts to the latest trending theme. To conclude, my pithy advice would be to wait to see if the issue is gaining traction,” he says.

Another recent instance was the Tanishq incident wherein the jewellery brand was forced to bring down an ad on interfaith couple after vicious trolling says a thing or two about the kind of social media dissent brands have to go through for just about anything. It has forced brands to rethink their strategies to avoid backlash on social media.

Jagdeep Kapoor, Chairman and Managing Director, Samsika, too feels that silence is also a good response at times. “Brands must follow their strategy, their path, their course. Their objective is to serve consumers. Consumers should be attracted by brands. Brands should not get distracted by others. Don’t react. Respond,” he opines.

Various brands like Tanishq, Bingo Mad Angles, Netflix, Zomato and Eros Now had to face social media dissent in the days gone by.

Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and former senior marketer at HP Inc., Motorola and PepsiCo, feels that these days, with increasing polarization and provokable audiences, brands will have to tread on eggshells when crafting their communication. "Brands cater to diverse segments and what seems like a justified stance to some customers may seem partisan and biased to another. In today’s atmosphere, these issues can rapidly spiral out of control. This is a serious issue that companies have to contend with. While companies and brand custodians need to be sensitive, so as not to needlessly offend any segment, this should not stop them from doing what is right, even though it may have short-term implications for their business. It is important for companies and brands to respect public sentiment. After all, a brand and a company exists within a larger community and all it does is reflect the values of its users and the community it operates in,” says Mathias.

While some brands chose to stay silent, a recent instance was when food-delivery brand Swiggy stoked a controversy by responding to a troll account taking an extreme political side. The controversy erupted after a far-left troll account had tweeted a hypothetical argument with a ‘Bhakt’ friend. Responding to the tweet, Swiggy decided that it would be good for their brand to join a troll account in mocking ‘Bhakts’, a label often used by left-liberals to target Hindus and BJP supporters.

The tweet by the troll read, “Had an argument with my Bhakt friend over farmers protest. He said that we are not dependent on farmers for food. We can always order food from Swiggy. He won”.

Swiggy, through its official Twitter account, joined the bandwagon and responded to the troll saying, “Sorry, we can’t refund education”.

Harish Bijoor, Brand-strategy expert & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults, sees social media trolling only intensifying as we go forward. “Competitive times call for an army of corporate-paid trolls even. Social media trolling is a reality. Brands must stay sensitive to trolling, but must exhibit the skill to distinguish between real consumers, hobby trolls and paid trolls of the future,” Bijoor suggests.

To be sure, the increasing social media scrutiny that brands are under has forced them to take a stand. Recently, brands like Bajaj Auto and Parle-G announced that they won’t be advertising on hate spewing channels and a larger overarching discourse on brand activism and polarisation.

N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA, notes that brands should stay true to their character in their journey through trolling. “Brands must remain true to their character, which if is bold and brave, should be to weather the troll action. But if it is acquiescing and accepting, then withdraw whatever offended the trolls. But if they are untrue to their character, then they will have no personality trait to harp upon. Consumers buy into brands because of the trust garnered and the desire generated by the brand. And consumers buy into brands that they believe reflect their own personalities. So, when a brand reacts to trolling in a particular way that is not amenable to the consumer’s personality (whether it be for a good reason or not), they get disenchanted with it and can stop buying or subscribing to the brand. In some cases, the same consumer who is an avid advocate of the brand, can turn into a vitriolic opponent after the brand takes some right/wrong action on the troll, because their beliefs get shaken in the brand, and as a consequence in themselves too,” he explains.


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