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People are seen outside a Tanishq jewellery store in Mumbai (Reuters)
People are seen outside a Tanishq jewellery store in Mumbai (Reuters)

Brands wary after ad fiasco

The latest controversy around Tanishq's TV ad depicting inter-faith marriage has raised a larger issue regarding the role of a brand in society

With the onset of the advertising season, brands keen to advertise to the Indian consumers after a long pandemic-induced lull, are facing some difficult choices. On one hand, a clutch of woke brands have called out the misleading and fake news on some news channels and announced their decision to steer clear of such platforms. On the other hand, jewellery brand Tanishq, owned by Tata’s Titan Company Ltd, annoyed the Indian consumers with its new ad depicting inter-faith marriage. After being trolled on social media, the commercial was quickly withdrawn by the company in the interest of the safety of its employees as the protests reached its showrooms which had to put up an apology.

Clearly, the spotlight is back on brands which are in a quandary over their communication strategies and media plans. The past week has seen elaborate commentary on the Tanishq ad. Brand experts and creative heads at advertising agencies have been sharply divided on the TV commercial and its subsequent withdrawal. While some lauded the ad and lamented the company’s inability to withstand the challenge and its decision to withdraw it, others said that for any brand the consumer sentiment comes first and it’s free to decide when the communication strategy requires change.

Top professionals argued that brands should stay away from political and religious issues. Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and former Asia Marketing Head of HP Inc. said brands need to avoid out and out political issues. “They can drive a more positive narrative through their own advertising and by supporting causes that are relevant to their customers."

Ambi M.G. Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder of Brand-Building.com said in India brands have stayed clear of politics except for the occasional joke about politicians. “In the case of religion, brands have embraced the broader mantra of ’Vasudeva Kudumbakam’. They need to calibrate this more carefully. For instance, in Europe and USA no brand enters the religion debate, ever", he said.

Yet brands play a big role in shaping culture, influencing consumer behaviour and moulding opinion, Mathias believes. “Listening to consumers is not just important, it's an imperative," he said. Parameswaran ageed that brands have become more aware of social media trends and have active listening posts to gauge what is happening. In the case of Tanishq, he doesn’t think the brand’s freedom of expression was curtailed. “But a brand has to be aware of the ‘mood of the nation’ and suitably modify its tone and manner," he said.

To be sure, the latest controversy has raised a larger issue regarding the role of a brand in society. “If brands are central to business, and if businesses are expected to discharge social responsibility, then by logical extension, the answer to the question is yes, brands do have an obligation to society," said Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting. Research shows that consumers are likely to buy products from brands that they view as ethical, and are also willing to pay a premium for products and services from companies that they perceive to be committed to positive social and environmental impact, Sinha said.

Ambi believes that a brand cannot change societal norms. At best, it can reflect the better things in society, “which is what Tanishq did, in its own way," he said.

Mathias feels brands should be more circumspect but not shy away from doing what is right for them. “They need to be conscious of the fact that social media allows consumers to react and share their views, so they need to fully analyse the possible reactions – but in no way should they hold back from doing the right thing," he added.

Saumya Tewari contributed to this report

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