Sanjeev Kotnala: Should brands as social entities be sensitive to reality?

21 Oct,2020

By Sanjeev Kotnala


I said “brands are no different than people. They must follow the same process’. This was in reaction to Ambi Parameswaran’s question, what to do when your brand faces rejection? Retreat into a shell or face-process-learn-reboot? (Read his book SPRING– The art of bouncing back from rejection) .


A brand may breathe and show signs of what we call being alive, but they have a life of their own. They emote, engage and have relationships, attitude and persona. Brands share the same societal ecosystem as their consumers. Naturally, blood is drawn, when brands digress from the expected script that is defined by the more assertive, aggressive elements of the societal network having a higher share of voice and influencing ability,.


Freedom of expression (an oxymoron) allows the citizens a certain leeway in expressing themselves. There are set coordinates and line they must not think of crossing. Similarly, brands are expected not to take significant liberties ( creative or otherwise) in their attempt to engage, involve and build bonds with the target segments. If they do, it will backfire, and that must not surprise us.


Tanishq Ekatvam Reference.

Recently, Tanishq released a TVC titled Ekatvam. It showed a mother-in-law happily organising baby shower (Godh Barai) for her daughter-in-law. A simple situation. Just another life event for a jewellery show in familiar emotive surroundings. A boring ad and catalogue advertising.


The layer of interfaith marriage makes it more engaging, engrossing and relevant. So it is now, a Muslim Mother-in-law and a Hindu Daughter-in-law. Mother-in-law without disruption. This minor tweak set the house on fire and caused a backlash amplified in social media. It then fanned into communities as controversy got coverage and people started debating and discussing it.


Want to understand the meaning of Ekatvam collection. Beauty of Unity- Karigars, watch this audio visual. Here is another Tanishq Ekatvam ad; of the 4 ads that was developed for a collection that brings artist and workers from across the nation together to create the Unity Collection. And it has no bite.


Did the brand think that this Coivd-19 crisis and the social warriors have cut across the deeply fragmented social fabric? Did it believe people will be more open to such a situation? Or did it really think it was no big leap of creativity, no disruption?


Truth is nothing changed, Nothing will change. Watch the  interview of Amit Akali, Founder , MD and CCO of What’s Your Problem, the agency that did the Tanishq ad.  Know what was the whole idea.


The Consumer Remains Unrepresented.


This is no big deal. In the history of co-existence of the two communities, such marriages exist, and these rituals also co-exist. It all depends upon your experience, expectations and the biases you see things with.


The consumer can differentiate between the reel and real life. They do understand storytelling and allow for creative liberties. Don’t they idolise on-screen Muslim heroes who are married to Hindu girls in real life? They accept films with similar narratives. They have other more significant problems in their life to solve then to find fault with ads, movies and books. Remember the history books in school always talked of British and Mughal times! And no one said anything for a long time.



Cornered Citizen Take Safe Sides. 


However, when citizens are asked to comment on such communication, they are forced to take sides. The intellectual try sound logical. The leaders with insecurities and the armchair fastest finger first social platform activist try polarising the narrative.


Politically, socially accepted POV in sync with community thinking is naturally the best ( safest) side for the common man. Hindu Bride Muslim Bridegroom equals Love Jihad. A complete No-No. A Muslim Bride and a Hindu Bridegroom. A bigger no-no. Any other combination like Hindu- Parsi- Christian – South Indian- North Indian would have found a far better acceptance.



Brand Is Part Of Social Ecosystem.


The consumer may not be your wife or your girlfriend, but the brand is like a parent, sibling or a friend. Hence, consumers have expectations. But if the gap between experience and expectation widens to become unbridgeable, someone needs to raise and other means to teach the entity a lesson. They must remain within the expected coordinates.


That Tanishq withdrew the  communication is no surprise. A right decision! There is no need to be stupid and risk the lives of the employees and damage to the shops. May be it is a wrong decision. It opens up a way for future backlashes and blackmails. The brand should have been sensitive to have foreseen the possible reaction. This is an apparent failure on the part of the brand to do so. That is one side of the story.



We Have Confused Social Fabric.


We are progressive, not progressed. We try being inclusive if we are allowed to do it with stated exclusions. We are gender-sensitive when we have no other way. We break the rules when we are sure we will not be caught. We are sensitive to our insecurities. Our social system is hell-bent on creating a polarised internal algorithm that will never allow such communication to be accepted publicly. More so, in the current scenario with divisive political, where every event gets strongly labelled as a majority-minority issue. Where caste, religion and regional support and favouritism is widening the already deep chasm. In these cases, hatred is a minor emotion of release. This is definitely not the right time for such communication. Or it is if one has the strength to stand behind it. Maybe it is too late in the day that we talk of inclusiveness or too early. I hope it is the latter as that leaves some hope.


We all understand that you don’t judge a side with few examples and don’t hold the whole community responsible for few instances of wrong doing or high pitched divisionism. We must understand that it is true for the majority and the minority and hence no finger pointing is necessary. Till the time media keeps pushing the hate agenda- strapped into eyeball game- the positivity will never be allowed to surface to be recognised and appreciated. Maybe religious association and naming should be stopped across all crime. Otherwise in a country where the seventh generation fights for the crime and revenge against the forefathers, these seemingly new wounds will take time to heal.


The Root Cause.

It is silly that even after some 70-plus years the wounds have not healed. The Partition was not just the partition of land – it was of religion too. Yes many of the minority remained back as they traced their roots to a particular area and considered themselves as Hindustani- Indian. However, the doubt-the fear overpowered the genuine smile, unity and trust. The politics of division and vote-bank based favouritism along with un-equality of treatment of the majority led to tectonic cultural and religious pressure building up. It flares up at the smallest of the opportunity.


Marriage is a very integral part legacy of a family. We may be inclusive and briming with equality- most Hindu will tell their kids- marry anyone but not a Muslim. This is an inborn bias of hatred built as a cultural upbringing that cannot be ignored.


The repeated incidents in the recent history has only enhanced the issue. Majority fears the possible Islamisation of the nation and the senior leaders of the community do nothing to answer these fears.


The radicals and the hardliners within the Sanatan are now open voices that is questioning secularism and staking claim to dominate the nation psyche. Don’t think that in near future we will see any change- but the efforts need to be made and someone has more efforts to make and demonstrate the intent. Otherwise the Intent does not count in a world defined by the trolls.


Industry Associations Make Serious Noise. 


The industry bodies have collectively stated their support of a brand’s right and freedom of creative expressions within the law of the land. These collective statements is a good beginning. One can understand why the voice was unfortunately silent when Manforce hoardings were forced to be taken off during Navratri in Ahmedabad.


Anyway, don’t know what the associations can do other than what they have already done. Can they help follow-up exemplary positive action? Otherwise, it remains a false sense of solidarity. Personally, I am not sure what they can do.


Jungle Law.

The law-of-the-nation is one thing, the brands have to be sensitive to the unwritten rules and norms of the game. After all, the brands and any corporate entity survives, grows and services within the existing social ecosystem.


Brand Purpose.

I hope that Tanishq was not trying to over-reach, and the communication was never a social message or purpose-driven like their sister brand of tea. Purpose-driven would insist that the brand think’s twice before withdrawing or is ready to take the battle forward. Yet, even with purpose-driven brands- withdrawing is a possibility. By doing so, you are no coward, you show courage to live and fight another day. And for the brands out there in this chaotic world in search of purpose, let me iterate, every brand does not need to have a brand purpose. And even if they have, it does not need to be stated. Finally, if you have a purpose, that you believe in and are willing to push it at any cost- well go-ahead.


Caution Zone.


India is a land of diversity. Through ages, there is an element of distrust that has been built-up. The current social-political situation is further fuelling the fire. To most of the people, inclusive co-existence is not an answer.


Brands in this part of the world, have to be cautious while making a statement on Region, Religion and Rituals, Politics and Politicians, Caste, Language and dialects, Gender, sex & sexuality. It is not that other subjects cannot result in any backlash, but the chances may be less. In case the brand does not have a guideline defining their level of tolerance level on such subjects, they better frame one now.

Brand Image 

Brand Image is a long term investment, It is the summary, a synopsis of all past experience and expectations. It does not get affected by one single incident like Tanishq. The loyalist will find arguments to defend the brand’s action, or they will just take note of it and move forward. In this case, the fringe sitters anyway do not define the market or the business. However, no-one wants another misadventure soon.

The consumers are large-hearted and know what creative liberties are. Once is a mistake, twice maybe a coincidence, third time it is a conspiracy and a statement from the brand that it is refusing to read the signals and learn fast.



Here are two recent communications that I thought I must share and allow you to think of the creativity, brand purpose and sensitivities.

A communication from the Fairness Cream now apologising about her earlier approach and tonality- and says- just like Nikki in BiggBoss-14, I am the same game, I can’t change myself, so what I will do – I will call it GLOW. It is never fair to just change the name and then keep reminding of the earlier name. Wow, see how sensitive the brand is towards societal malice.


And this one, from SAVLON an ITC brand. Features Swapna Augustine, a foot artist from the Mouth and Foot Painters (MFPA) Association. ( I support them and personally, it creates the bias). Sharing handwashing and its importance. It is inclusive as she tells how she does everything with a difference and then if she can take care of personal hygiene by washing her hands ( feet) why can’t others.


Sanjeev Kotnala is a senior marketing and brand strategist and educator. He writes on MxMIndia on Wednesdays. His views here are personal.

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