NEW DELHI : In a poll-bound and politically charged India, brands are learning to tread with caution, especially in communicating their message. Ahead of general elections scheduled to begin on 11 April, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) has found itself snared in a couple of controversies for its tea brand Red Label Kumbh Mela campaign and, more recently, for the detergent brand Surf Excel.

With over 9 million views on YouTube, the Holi spot ‘Rang laaye sang’ (loosely translated to colours that bring us together) which features an innocent bond between a little Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, has been targeted for Love Jihad vilification on social media platforms.

The campaign message of bringing people together and showing how colours can be an equalizer in society resonated with the netizens but not with the troll army which made #BoycottHindustanUnilever and #BoycottSurfExcel trend. However, there is an emerging parallel narrative on the micro-blogging platform with people standing up for the brand tweeting with hashtags #stopdivisiveness.

HUL said it stands by the campaign adding that in the last decade, the brand has advertised on the philosophy of ‘Daag Acche Hain’ (Dirt is Good). In its various campaigns, the brand has championed ‘doing good’ by showing kids getting dirty while playing, and in the process, demonstrating empathy for the less privileged, respect for elders, loyalty, caring and many other values.

“This is true of our current campaign as well—the Surf excel #RangLaayeSang campaign embodies the brand’s ‘Daag Acche Hain’ philosophy, and captures how the colours of Holi can be a force for good, melting differences and bringing people together. In the advertisement, you see two innocent children who demonstrate friendship and bonding in the true spirit of the festival. This reflects the true ethos of India as a caring, plural and secular society," said an HUL spokesperson in an email to Mint.

Advertising experts believe that the backlash is solely driven by political motives and the sheer size of the company involved. “It’s a charged atmosphere in the country which is fuelling such backlash and once elections are over I don’t think the same ad would generate such a furore. Surf has tapped into this mood with full understanding that by creating such an ad they would be putting themselves at the centre of the discussions in the country," said Shamsuddin Jasani, group managing director, Isobar South Asia.

With a high recall, in the next three to six months the sales of brand Surf Excel is expected to go up as more people come out in support of the brand, noted Jasani.

Jitender Dabas, chief strategy officer, McCann Worldgroup India believes that there’s a clear pattern when it comes to trolling which often picks on people or brands that have mass popularity.

“But if the brand is built over time on having a point of view on issues then it is important to not bow down to such trolling. While it is important for brands to be sensitive to people’s emotions and not go wrong in understanding the cultural nuances, that doesn’t mean that brands should play safe and not stand for their convictions," he said.

Dabas pointed out that while the Red Label Kumbh ad (more so an accompanying tweet which highlighted how some people abandon their elderly parents at Kumbh) perhaps went wrong in correctly representing what the holy festival stands for; the Surf Excel campaign is a shining example of how brands should take exemplary stances and stick by them.

“As the Nike-Kaepernick ad episode shows us even in a polarised society if you stick by the brand conviction you are likely to win brand loyalty, respect and stronger support of consumers," he added, in reference to HUL standing up for its Holi ad. 

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