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In a three-second GIF (graphics interchange format) Facebook advertisement for personal care brand Dove body wash in the US recently, a black woman was shown taking off her brown shirt to morph into a white woman in a lighter shirt. The ad stirred up a protest on social media with consumers branding it as racist. The global consumer goods firm Unilever, which owns the brand, promptly withdrew the ad and apologized. According to a report in The New York Times, Unilever wrote on Facebook: “Dove is committed to representing the beauty of diversity. In an image we posted this week, we missed the mark in thoughtfully representing women of colour and we deeply regret the offense it has caused." It quoted Marissa Solan, a spokeswoman for Dove, as saying that the GIF “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong and, as a result, offended many people."

The truth is that the bombardment of marketing messaging, which had already reached mind-boggling proportions before the advent of the Internet, has today increased exponentially through digital media. This is making it extremely difficult for marketers to ensure that their messages get heard in the din, creating huge pressures on marketing departments of companies as well as their communication partners to constantly come up with messages whose content or style will help cut through the noise, says Samit Sinha, brand expert and managing partner at Alchemist Brand Consulting. “The Holy Grail on the Internet is viral messaging and it is now widely accepted that the messages that tend to get shared extensively usually fall under the categories of very useful information or alarming “facts" or side-splitting jokes or controversies. In the mad scramble, good sense is sometimes the casualty," he says.

In the case of the controversy around the Dove campaign, perhaps it was a combination of intense zeal on the part of the creator of the campaign to make it go viral and a lapse of judgement on the part of the approving authorities, Sinha feels, adding that possibly the original intent of the creative was innocuous.

Once in a while, what starts out as a fairly straightforward campaign idea in the mind of its creator can take a different form during the execution process. But the fact that the final edit was allowed to go through by an organization that prides itself on knowing the pulse of its consumers would still suggest impaired judgement, he says.

Brand expert Sanjay Sarma, co-founder and chief executive at Design Worldwide, agrees. Dove is a highly evolved brand from a mature advertiser who is extremely cautious about its brand communication—from tonality to colours to context. “The ad was meant to show gender diversity in its original form, but unfortunately came across as racial in its adaptation. It’s a case of contextual misrepresentation. We can all learn from it, and move on," he says.

The two experts, however, feel that the impact on the image of Dove will not be long-lasting as it’s not a fly-by-night operator. It’s a strong brand with a solid foundation. “But this is a classic lesson for everyone who asks ‘why invest in brand building’? This is your answer. It is during weak moments like these that the strength of branding shines the strongest. This reinforces that the sum total of a brand is much larger than its parts. There is a great learning for all of us here."

Of course, episodes such as these in the age of social media are challenging. Clearly, social media is a very powerful tool that has the potential to make or break a brand. That is because it can make a trickle turn very quickly into a tsunami, unconfined by geography. Like any powerful tool, it needs adept handling and can be dangerous if left to amateurs. “In today’s hyper-connected world, while it is impossible to cater to everyone’s sensibilities without becoming banal, it is nevertheless critical for brands to employ an active social barometer, at least so that it does not alienate its own constituency. Social and cultural sensitivities are changing quite rapidly and brands have to stay in step to remain relevant or they risk rejection," says Sinha.

Sarma says that brands should only touch upon sensitive issues if it comes naturally to them and not because it is a trend to do so. The issue should connect with their inner core.

On their part, consumers have always been “aware", “informed" and “intelligent". But with the advent of social media, Sarma says, they have become more “sensitive" and “touchy" about their social and cultural identities. A sudden call to ban or boycott a brand for an irrelevant reason can become a movement in no time and cause immense damage to years of hard work. “On the other hand, some brands with a cultural affiliation can take an unfair emotional advantage—Ramdev’s Patanjali is a classic example—without being proven to be any superior than competition," he adds.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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