Can brands take a political stand?

Any marketing handbook will tell you that brands are apolitical, but consumers in the binary political world want their brands to be political

e4m by Venkata Susmita Biswas
Updated: Apr 24, 2018 8:58 AM

On Sunday afternoon, Abhishek Mishra, IT advisor, VHP, tweeted that he cancelled an Ola booking because the driver was Muslim and that he did not want to fund Jihad. Soon, a section of Ola users on Twitter hoped for an official response from Ola and some asked for Mishra to be banned as an Ola user. Ola responded to the discriminatory tweet saying that the homegrown taxi aggregator does not discriminate based on religion, gender, creed or caste. A section of Twitter applauded the response from Ola even though they expected a harsher response.

In another case of a brand being dragged into a politically charged debate, users outraged against Amazon India on social media for partnering with Swara Bhasker for its IPL Chonkpur Cheetahs campaign. Faced with the threat of users boycotting the e-commerce platform, Amazon India deleted the tweet by Swara Bhasker. Users criticised Amazon’s association with Bhaskar because of her protest against the obstruction of justice in the recent Kathua and Unnao rape cases. Aside from deleting the tweet Amazon India has not yet offered a public statement about the incident. Users who were offended by Bhaskar’s tweet celebrated Amazon’s move of distancing itself from the celebrity influencer.

In 2015 Snapdeal was faced with a similar threat of boycott and app uninstalls after its brand ambassador Aamir Khan spoke out about the ‘rising intolerance in India.’ In response, Snapdeal distanced itself from Khan and later decided to not renew their contract with him.

Any marketing handbook will tell you that brands are apolitical, but consumers in the binary political world want their brands to be political. One brand responded with a politically correct tweet, while the other gave in to the threats.The question is, can brands turn political in a polarised nation?

Here’s what some brand strategy experts had to say:

Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults

When brands stand up for what is right, consumers like it. And that’s what has happened in the case of Ola. A brand must make correct statements and those statements should be politically correct as well. If you can manage to do that, a brand can get away with becoming political.

In situations like these, a brand polarises its customers into two sections. It is for a brand to find out which is the larger constituency that it is catering to. Amazon did the commercially prudent thing and Ola took a stance - we don’t know if its stance is right or wrong.

I believe that brands can avoid becoming political by ensuring that they don’t say anything that is political or religious in nature. Because brands are not meant to upset the social apple cart. A brand is not meant to be political, religious or even have a gender.

My advice to brands is: step up and talk only if you know your customers. If you don’t know your customers just be neutral. In marketing, you don’t do anything accidentally, you do things with purpose.

Ronita Mitra, Founder & Chief Strategist, Brand Eagle

Brands or organisations need not get politically involved. However, it is important for brands to be clear about what their values and personalities are, what the brand focus is and what it stands for. Every action it takes and every celebrity it signs up for endorsement has to be aligned with its own values, personalities and purpose.

In Swara Bhaskar's case, Amazon should have known what kind of a personality Swara Bhaskar is when they signed her up for the endorsement. She is an outspoken person, with strong opinions of her own and Amazon should have been aware of the risks involved. Every response has to be in alignment with the brand personality and purpose. If you believe that someone's position is against what your brand stands for, then you have to stand up for that.

By deleting the tweet in the short term, Amazon may have prevented the loss of some customers etc. but Amazon needs to find out what sort of customers it wants to target. Who are its long-term customers and what is the long-term effect of this?

In Ola's case, the brand purpose was to be in alignment with what the country's foundation is. If the country is constitutionally secular, Ola is supporting that. Ola's action was to express its alignment with the country's values.

Saurabh Uboweja, CEO, Brands of Desire

Generally speaking, brands should be apolitical. Brands are here to do business and not be political. Brands can choose to be political if their brand is inherently associated/led by a person who is politically connected. In other cases like Ola or Amazon India, one should avoid making any direct political statements or controversy of any kind. Sometimes brands court controversy to gain visibility; this is not advisable for large brands.

There are high risks associated with taking a stand on a political issue. As soon as a brand takes a stand, it loses consumers on one side of the spectrum. A brand should take a stand only when it is completely confident of the facts and the cause that is supporting.

Anirban Das Blah, Founder and MD, Kwan Entertainment & Marketing Solutions

Every organisation should take responsibility to clamp down on hate speech. If there is something wrong with society and a brand is in some way linked to that, the brand should be able to speak up about it. Not necessarily from a political or religious point of view but an ethical point of view and when something is wrong on a human level. Brands must always be ethical, and Tata Sons is a case in point. Historically, ethical brands have proven to be more resilient than others.

In addition, I also feel that liberal people must speak up and make brands realise that business loss can go both ways. Just like people on the right find it very easy to threaten economic damage to brands that disagree with them, I do feel that consumers should take a stand against brands that are not ethical.

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