Sanjeev Kotnala: Cause Marketing – at your own risk

13 Mar,2019

By Sanjeev Kotnala


Times have changed. The filters have changed. The way one interacts with advertising itself is changing.  The country’s cultural fabric and tolerance levels are changing. In this scenario, one can understand the trolling of some of the brand’s cause marketing-led communication on social media. Case in point HUL Surf Excel (Daag Acche Hai –Holi) and the Brooke Bond Red Label Kumbh (Hindus abandon elders here).

At one level there is nothing wrong in the communication. We have seen such communication from brands leveraging festivities. But the comments on social media suggest that the brand has acted out of sync. There is perceivably a large population of click-charged jurists who have been offended enough to suggest boycotting the product. The religious zealots wanting to go to any length to get their argument accepted. And an equally large (or larger segment) appreciating this honest communication un-intently reflecting upon some uncomfortable sentiments prevalent in the society.

This is a perfect example to explain the NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) meta-model of communication. How the same stimuli generate differential interpretation and reactions.  How the rigid filters of personal experiences, expectations, learnings, inclinations and beliefs make people see things differently. And once you realise perception is projection and the world is a mere reflection of inner self, it becomes easy to understand. But let’s leave that for another time.

Nothing wrong with Cause Marketing,,, it is here to stay.

To remain socially relevant, brands are rightly hitching their future on to cause marketing or higher-level purpose marketing.

Brands have always been digging for cultural insight, emotions and relationships they could leverage. Today, brands and agencies are sieving through the environment for a cause to overtly associate with. In fact, as my dear friend Vikas Mehta is bang on target when he says, ‘Cause Marketing is the new Celebrity endorsement’.

The right ones pick a cause in sync with organisational culture and philosophy. The successful cause is always relevant and has a unique representation/ expression to be able to create the desired impact among the Target group.

Most brands fail to get it right. A classic recent example is Close-up (#FreeToLove) and All Out (Strong Mother, #StandByHer) communication.

Few brands find the sweet spot of a relevant impactful uniquely positioned cause for their product, brand or service. However, we are talking of emotions, relationships, social causes and impact. Sometimes even the larger brands in fail to read the signals right and time the communication wrong.

The current Brooke Bond Red Label-Kumbh abandoning of elders communication and Surf Excel, Holi DVC are perfect examples of getting the timing wrong and misreading the pitch.  The case in point, an earlier Brooke Bond Red Label ( taste of togetherness) ad, which did not get adverse reaction.


Cause Marketing is always risky  

The brands have a right to choose the cause, expression and execution. In other times these could have been appreciated. But someone needs to decipher, how does an organisation like HUL fail to read the pulse.

I am not going to discuss why a Hindu Girl, why not a Hindu Boy and a Muslim girl and the conspiracy theory of Love Jihad. Neither will I venture into the area of what close-up has to do with #freeToFindLove and how a mosquito repellent propagates standing by a tough mother. To me, these brand communications are just examples.

Taking on religion and festivals to leverage the brand’s equity and association comes with its own expectation. Once the brand decides to move along this path, it must be ready for trial by fire because every act will be suitably be scrutinised.


Cause Marketing Needs You To Act Like The Indian Constitution If Not Like Indian Justice And Law.

Do not discriminate. Do not overtly get polarised. Do not take freedom of speech to mean freedom of cultural commentary.

Brands know about India’s rich cultural and religious diversity. Why not explore a bit of every colour. To be unique and appreciated, it may help to go beyond the Hindu religion.

Explore it at your own risk. Similar opportunities exist in Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Muslim cultural-religious heritage.  Show the audience and this social media-trolling police how strongly you are rooted with cause marketing. Continue to be brave enough to reflect the uncomfortable sentiments.

Otherwise, a revision of the Meta Model of Communication and a better understanding of the national mood may help.



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