The Budweiser controversy — A cautionary tale in cause advertising

Authenticity is paramount and feedback is gospel, opines industry

e4m by Mansi Sharma
Published: Jul 19, 2021 8:27 AM  | 6 min read

It might have been a deja vu moment for Budweiser India. In less than four months after the Messi mural controversy, the brand had to pull down another one of its campaigns after being called out by netizens. 

An extension of their organic #StrongerTogether campaign, the new exercise was an attempt at expansion by the brand using influencer power. 

However, the "tone-deaf" and "classist" nature of a post featured on Humans of Bombay about actress Sanjana Sanghi and her "selfless caretakers" did not sit well with the netizens. In less than 24 hours, it was pulled down. 

While Budweiser chose to maintain its silence on the matter, the chatter that arose around the campaign once again highlighted the pressing question in modern marketing: "How to pick the right cause and execute the campaign well for a brand?" exchange4media figures out.   

What is the Budweiser controversy? 

Several influencers and digital activists, on Wednesday, called out the "insensitive" nature of a post under the brand’s #StrongerTogether campaign, which featured actress Sanjana Sanghi and her story of helping her ‘selfless caretakers’ in getting vaccinated. 

The post was an extension of the brand campaign, wherein it engaged netizens to generate leads around Covid resources a few months ago. Since the initial attempt was completely organic and gained huge traction, the brand probably tried to build on that using influencer power, urging people to help the underprivileged get vaccinated. However, the execution couldn’t do justice to the noble cause. 

Logicserve Digital SVP - Creative, Social, PR, Marcom Manesh Swamy says, “I am sure the brand has good intentions for the campaign. However, I think they couldn’t deliver the thought during the execution of this campaign. Being a beverage brand and given the extra layer of surrogate messaging, they could have been more careful.” 

Communications Consultant Karthik Srinivasan elaborates, “Budweiser's public-facing ask from this campaign was very straightforward and normal: CoWIN allows up to 4 people to be registered for vaccination, so they asked one person to register self and 3 more 'buds' (understandable use of the word), share a pic of all 4 to win branded merchandise. 

"It was only their influencer engagement that went completely awry, involving domestic workers and sharing a photo with them. This was totally unnecessary and amounted to using them as mere props for a branded campaign. There is also the classist angle and power equation when an employer is asking his/her domestic worker to pose for a photo for a brand where the brand incentivizes the influencer but not the actually economically disadvantaged citizen.” 

Brand-Nomics MD Viren Razdan adds that the campaign looked like a clear case of a brand trying to buy emotions. “It's tragic that such a big brand would blatantly attempt to garner some mileage and acquire a sense of purpose superficially.” 

The curious case of cause marketing 

Cause marketing is one of the buzz-iest trends in the marketing space. However, executing it is not a cakewalk. Many brands have ended up faltering in their attempts to stand out with their campaigns in the space. 

Some of the examples could be Pepsi’s attempt at promoting Black Lives Matter with a spot featuring Kardashian supermodel Kendall Jenner; Mastercard’s 2018 Fifa World Cup, wherein the brand received huge backlash for its proposal to donate 10,000 meals to starving in developing countries for every goal scored by Messi or Neymar Jr in the tournament; BrewDog’s campaign of the same year in which they tried to address gender pay gap by releasing a range of beer called Pink IPA; and most recently, Thums Up’s attempt to promote and support Indian Olympians with their #PalatDe campaign. 

So, how to do it right? 

Razdan notes, “ Brands have to choose a purpose, if it does not fit into their overall positioning DO NOT make a pretence, in such an open environment it's very easy to damage your goodwill. Brands have to show depth and not treat this like a topical advertising campaign with short term returns based on hollow actions. Be there or stay out.” 

Srinivasan says that after picking the cause and curating an idea, it is always advisable to bounce the thought with as many people as possible. 

“This is not new at all - most ad films are tested with multiple audience panels to gather feedback before they make it to TV or print. But, because social media campaigns are seen as cheaper media compared to TV or print, they don't go through multiple levels of filters to check for counter-arguments, criticism, blindspots, or blunders. Ironically, more than TV or print ads, social media blunders are more likely to go viral in the fastest possible time. The simple answer is that brands and agencies should proactively seek views on a proposed campaign while also cross-questioning every premise they have themselves.”

Swamy agrees, “I feel that every campaign should be filtered through a risk analysis process at an agency level and the brand side. The current time is very different. Being humane and compassionate is the need of the hour. Every campaign needs to be scrutinised with the lens of the user’s perspective. Brands need to question themselves about how they are helping, empowering, or delighting their fans and consumers.” 

In case of a backlash, brands can keep their response strategy ready, he opines. “Radio silence doesn’t work on social media, especially in the current times.” 

Lessons for creators 

The Budweiser campaign has, therefore, opened up lessons galore for the creators. 

Swamy notes, “If done right, influencer marketing has worked wonders in this past year for so many brands. If kits are a part of a campaign, brands should check if it’s relevant to the ongoing time as well as the message they are trying to convey. Sending free beers and t-shirts to post a picture with your household worker doesn’t work for a campaign like this. Hence, the reaction of the influencer community looks valid here. All the successful influencer marketing campaigns work because it helps everyone right from the brand to the influencer and consumers. As long as the balance is maintained, the results are sure to be good, and you will witness a significant impact.” 

Srinivasan says, “All that the creators need is a better sense of self-awareness before conceiving, creating, or sharing content. Of course, despite all that, we all could make mistakes because we are only human. But every kind of feedback could help us reassess our content strategy and improve for the better.” 

Razdan adds: “Creators have to make sure that authenticity is paramount to any brand story, weak plots will get caught out and fall like a house of cards. However creative you might be, if it has a weak foundation, be prepared to clean the debris and remember brands scarred will always take a long time to heal. Cheating breaks trust.”

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