Making a case for brands taking a stand on social issues

Experts weigh in on brands broaching social and ethical issues in their communication to cater to changing consumer sentiments of our age

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: Jul 20, 2020 2:50 PM
Communications

Gone are the days when brands chose to take a neutral stance over socio-political issues. Today they are not only adept at sensing changing consumer sentiments but also vocal about issues that concern them. Current issues like the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions across the world have changed the course of communication for corporate and brands, and it has also caused a change in the sentiments of consumers. They are extremely critical of the "what", "why" and "how" of brands communications. 

Here the "what" stands for ways in which the company/organisation is dealing with the crisis and helping its stakeholders - customers, partners, and its employees - sail through the slump. The "why" defines the company’s values and priorities, that informs its approach towards the situation, and most importantly, "how" explains the approach itself - is the company being empathetic? Is it taking the right steps for the long term success of the company?  Seemingly, as responsible corporate citizens, companies are trying to effectively address these questions, through their communications strategy leveraging various platforms. 

We have tried to trace some of the reasons for the substantial change in the brand’s communication.

Has social media changed the narrative of communication?

Paresh Chaudhry, Group President, Corporate Brand Custodian, Adani Group believes that the fluid nature of social media has made it a perfect communication platform for storytelling, product launches, and brand initiatives. He said, “In the post COVID era of e-commerce, it's clear that social media marketing is not just an option anymore, it's a business-critical operation. Especially, in times of crisis, it’s important that people get credible information, amid the clutter of fake news threatening popular sentiments.”

Roma Balwani, Director, Brand & Communications, Vedanta Group highlighted key campaigns during the pandemic. She illustrated, “Pre- Covid, Vedanta’s brand tag line ‘Desh ki Zarooraton ke liye’ was visible through an integrated media campaign and we had boosted it with a robust digital strategy to augment the brand proposition, ‘All that we consume above the Earth comes from below the earth’.

Balwani added, “Vedanta brand is well-positioned as a socially responsible organisation with a focus of giving back, which is the DNA of the founders of Vedanta. Social media has made the narrative real-time, agile and engaging with a universe of stakeholders. Social messaging has to have strong moorings to reflect the culture of the organisation and that’s what Vedanta set out to do. The core of all the businesses at Vedanta is to create awareness with the public at large on how mining has changed over time.”

Prasidha Menon, Global Head of Communications - OYO Hotels & Homes also weighed in on the darker side of this medium. She said, “Social media is today flooded with fake news and misinformation, causing mass anxiety and uncertainty – running in parallel to the pandemic. Trolling is common and sometimes brands are targeted and thrashed for no real reason. As more and more people turn to these platforms for their daily news and information, it is imperative for the brand to also have a strong online reputation management programme that helps it cut through the noise, and promote,  protect and control its narrative.”

 “OYO is running campaigns featuring ‘Heroes of OYO’, our asset partners that have taken the extra effort to bring to life our value proposition of ‘sanitized stays’ for our guests. This, in turn, resonates with other hotel owners, while at the same time, reassuring our customers that they are in safe hands,” highlighted Menon.

How brands ensure effective social messaging on social issues?

With consumer becoming belief centric, they want their brand too to resonate with their belief. A purpose-driven brand may attract more consumers than any other brand. Several studies have shown that consumers want their brand to take stands on social issues that are triggers to society. In fact, people now take no time in changing their brand preference and choose the one which mirrors their own beliefs. Menon too seconds this fact and says, “Today’s consumers are conscious of the brands they opt for. There’s an expectation from brands to be socially responsible and take a stand. In my opinion, taking a stand doesn’t necessarily mean making bold statements, it means having the intent, ability and passion to act on it too.”

Globally there has been unrest on various social issues, many brands have shown solidarity and denounced the immoral practices. How brands are ensuring effective social messaging without engaging in any conflicts?

Bhaskar Majumdar, Head - Corporate Affairs, Communication & Digital Media, Egis India said, “It is absolutely indispensable for brands to realize that all advertising and marketing (and PR) need to function responsibly and carefully as we are now in the midst of a global health crisis. All promotional activities, therefore, need to carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages while planning a way forward. We need to be sensitive, ethical, and pay close attention to shifting social and cultural behaviors.”

“The COVID 19 crisis has put the world in its deepest phase of introspection. We have therefore witnessed global movements such as black lives matter and the pride movement. I believe that brands be responsible and vocal. They should take a stand irrespective of the fear of being called out. And, it is good to see how brands have been brave too in taking this approach. For instance, they have been redesigning logos to support social distancing, using pride colours and showing solidarity for black rights movement”, added Chaudhry.

Highlighting the importance of compassionate communications, Balwani added, “Brand values are best leveraged during trying times. Conflict can only bring controversy, so promoting harmony is key for compassionate communications. Conflict issues are best left to those who believe in a cause they champion. For organisations to survive and sustain their brand attributes, they have to keep their communications humane, constant, humble and focus on achieving a larger purpose beyond business.”

How are brands ensuring the sentiments are positive and high?

During the course of the pandemic, consumers want positive and motivating content to feel better. Brands have been stepping up to ensure positive sentiments.

Chaudhry stressed on brand’s messaging. He said, “I have always believed that brand messaging becomes impactful when we communicators engage with people as citizens and not consumers. While our communication strategy is anyways aligned to this philosophy, the COVID19 outbreak presented a new opportunity to introspect and infuse compassion in what we do as a diverse conglomerate.”

Throwing light on the endeavours of the Adani Group he added, “Our chairman Gautam Adani, a thought leader himself, led from the front by penning his thoughts on the positive discoveries of survival and triumph in the post COVID world. The Linkedin article inspired our overall communication roadmap wherein we celebrated frontline heroes, narratives of business excellence and continuity and thought-provoking innovations in everyday life. The approach resonated well with people which is reflected in the unprecedented engagement received by our latest film on COVID19 – Hum Mein Hai Vishwas. This film has got over 13 million views, 215k likes, 1.9k comments and 8.5k shares. “

“We had to push the reset button as we saw crisis communications was the order of the day during the pandemic. Vedanta moved the needle of messaging from crisis to compassionate communication. It was needed as it was authentic, real and evolving as the situation was dynamic. The brand remained true to its calling of ‘giving back’ to the community at large”, added Balwani.

Stressing on technology, she added, “Our leadership was in a war room mode virtually and all monitoring was done by leveraging our robust IT systems and soon new apps were created by our IT teams to monitor and report on dashboards. The Internet of things was truly leveraged during this new normal and we are now getting used to a new way of communicating the trust of the brand with technology enablers”. 

As survival of the fittest has become the need of the hour now, brands have to comply with the consumer sentiments. With changing market dynamics, brands also need to show they have a spine in the most sensitive manner. 

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