Shreesh Shankar, Creative Head, Sukkrish Aadds

With the proliferation of digital media into our lives, Twitter trends and viral content dictate when and where a brand engages with its audience. But should companies speak up in a controversy?

Gone are the days when a brand could choose a time and place to attract attention. With the proliferation of digital media into our lives 24*7, twitter trends and viral content now dictate when and where a brand engages with its audience. While many times a ‘moment’ in the digital timeline doesn’t ask you to take a position such as when a cat video goes viral or India wins a sports tournament, there are also events which ask you to identify what’s your political or moral stand on an issue.

Taking a stand on controversial topics could speak tons about your brand’s identity such as Nike’s ‘For Once, Don’t Do it’ campaign addressing racism after the custodial death of a black man in the United States last month. Since it had the ‘first mover’ advantage, competitors like Adidas and Under Armour were compelled to share the campaign on their timelines.

If your brand blinks at the opportunity to maintain an image of neutrality, a multitude of others will jump onto the bandwagon. If one of them gets sizable traction, you will be left scratching your head over a missed opportunity.

An offer brands can’t refuse

Leading public relations and marketing consultancy firm Edelman’s annual global reports in the past few years have shown that consumers today demand that a brand speaks up about social issues. In the 2017 survey, one out of two buyers were found to be belief-driven, i.e. they choose, switch or avoid brands based on its stand on societal issues. Staying mum is not an option as 65% of the belief-driven buyers said they won’t buy a brand because it remained silent on an issue that it had an obligation to address. As the world gets ever more polarised and the number of choices in the marketplace explodes, the consumer is increasingly concerned with the value system of a brand. Brands can’t just wish away or wait out this trend — the 2018 edition of the Edelman survey reported a massive jump in belief-driven buyers from 50% to 64%.

Double-edged sword

Taking an explicit political position could risk alienating a part of the target audience. Last year, Zomato tweeted “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion” when a customer rejected a delivery by a rider of a particular faith. The company trended on social media for days on end after the tweet and received both praise and criticism.

A similar incident happened with Ola subsequently. A customer cancelled a cab ride because of the driver’s religion. The cab hailing company responded saying, “Ola, like our country, is a secular platform, and we don’t discriminate against our driver partners or customers on the basis of their caste, religion, gender or creed. We urge all our customers and driver partners to treat each other with respect at all times."


Danger of double standards

“The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything," said David Ogilvy, advertising legend.

When French apparel brand Lacoste announced last year that it would swap its green crocodile logo with another endangered species, critics pointed out that the company was selling ‘gloves made from deer leather’ and ‘cow leather handbags’. While virtue signalling might look like a shortcut to win the consumer’s trust and garner attention, brands need to audit themselves first to ensure that they aren’t actually violating the principles that are espoused by a campaign.

While virtue-signaling might look like a shortcut to win the consumer’s trust and garner attention, brands need to audit themselves first to ensure that they aren’t actually violating the principles that are espoused by a campaign.

Don’t trivialise: Pepsi’s double trouble

Pepsi had to pull back an ad in 2017 featuring American celebrity Kendall Jenner after criticism that it had trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement. The company said that it was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding" and “clearly, we missed the mark.” In the ad’s climax, Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a police official during a protest who accepts it with appreciation and the crowd approves. The company received a lot of flak for inaccurate representation of the equation between police and protesters, besides making light of the movement against police brutality and racial discrimination.

Interestingly, the Jenner episode in the US was preceded by a similar one in India two years prior. The Pepsi Thi Pi Gaya commercial which spoofed student protests happening in the country at the time drove away many millennials from the brand. Yet the beverage maker failed to apply its learning from one geography in another.

Nike and Black Lives Matter

Nike’s viral campaign after the death of George Floyd should not have come as a surprise. The brand was simply following up on an unspoken contract — it was putting its reach and marketing might behind a movement that it already had a connection with. Generally, brands try to steer clear of celebrities with strong political opinions. However, Nike turned the concept on its head with its Believe in something campaign with civil rights activist and American football player Colin Kaepernick.


In 2016, Kaepernick knelt down when the US national anthem played before a National Football League match to protest against racism and police brutality. This was repeated by many athletes at various sporting events. Kaepernick was shunted out of the NFL. Nike however leveraged the athlete’s loss into a story about sacrifice and standing up for one’s beliefs. Following the campaign, the company’s stock price took a hit and it faced the ire of President Donald Trump. However, Nike sales grew 31% from Sunday through Tuesday compared with the previous year even though the brand was at the receiving end of a lot of outrage from many customers.

Three golden rules for brands to follow

1) Speaking out could also seem like speaking out of turn. Not all brands are Amul to be able to serve up a hot take everyday for 60 years. It must look like you really care. Heck, you should do it only if you really care.

2) It’s important to know your target audience. Any grandstanding that contests the beliefs of a sizable part of your target group could hurt your brand’s image. It’s important to do a thorough SWOT analysis before going ahead with a topical campaign.

3) You must gauge how much of your brand capital you can expend. For instance, Hindustan Unilever’s products are so deeply attached with our lives that it could withstand the blowback from its Holi campaign around the theme of Hindu-Muslim unity last year. Their advertising agency and marketing team probably accounted for.

While speaking up is becoming important owing to the increased scrutiny on brands due to social media, flippancy and haste are costly mistakes. Your brand needs to be prepared for both positive and negative responses to the campaign. Right from the decision of taking a stand on a social issue to designing a campaign, your brand needs to follow some essential steps to strike the right note.

(This article was originally published at YourStory on 7th July 2020.)

written by Shreesh Shankar