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Why Brands should stay away from religion: The HUL 2019 adverts

When I joined my first marketing job 9 years ago, it was around Ramadan. There were tons of ideas and proposals from various agencies, calls for sponsorships, and a little bit of pressure due to competition rushing in with their promotions.

I studied all of the ideas and prepared my own plan, jotted down the points, made a presentation for my boss. In my mind, I had never come up with a more convincing plan even in my MBA days in IIM Kozhikode.

My boss gave it one look, grilled me a bit and then thrashed me left, right and center.

And then he went on to explain nicely that brands can’t get involved in religion too strongly. Religion, politics: these are sensitive matters and can be misquoted, misunderstood or misused by anyone to put the brand in bad light.

I realized it made complete sense and went back to my desk, enlightened and somewhat relieved that I still had the job.

That was back in 2010.

Fast forward to 2019, just a few days ago, I came across the HUL’s recent ads for Red Label tea and Surf Excel.

I couldn’t believe a brand like HUL decided to use religious matters to promote their brand. I mean I am not talking from a sensitivity point of view. That’s there. But I am saying, from a marketer’s point of view, this was suicidal!!

Lets take a look at the ads if you haven’t seen it yet.

Brooke Bond Red Label ad (#apnokoapnao)
Surf Excel Ad: #Ranglaayesang

The first ad raises the issue of people getting rid of their elders in Kumbh Mela. Well, to be honest, before this ad, I had no clue people do that. If they do its a really serious issue and the government should be doing something about it.

But when the brand raised it, it drew a lot of flak from the religious folks that the company is trying to taint such a great event to leverage on sentiments and promote their brand of tea.

And competitors and desi guns like Ramdev were quick to criticize the FMCG giant.

Now, I am not saying these Twitter geniuses have a valid point. These guys might have vested interests in badmouthing the company and the ad, but I have to admit, HUL handed it to them on a silver platter.

A brand must never touch topics that could lead to its own criticism. All adverts must be vetted for chinks in its armor and weaknesses where people could misunderstand, misquote or misuse it. Worst of all, no brand communication which could hurt the sentiments of anybody in the society should ever be released.

The second one, the one on Holi, is such a cute ad, but sans the brand, it would have made a nice story.

I was actually a big fan of the #daagachchehai (#dirtisgood) campaigns. The ads were brilliant as they captured the innocence of kids and won the hearts of mothers (who are the decision makers and the likely purchasers of the product).

But this new ad was far from the innocence. It immediately associates itself with religion and the differences we have in the social fabric. It immediately brings to the attention of how insensitive we are to each other and we need a brand to come in to save the day and maintain unity.

It is still about kids, but its not longer simply about playing in the dirt and having fun.

I understand these are really nice stories. They address issues and teach us to become better human beings.

But in this age in India where IT cell trolls rule the internet and social media, and every person with half a brain has an opinion about anything, it was suicidal to associate the brands with these issues.

And this is not the first time a brand has made this mistake. Time and again, brand managers get carried away trying to engage with the target segments using trending topics or prevalent issues.

Pepsi had its share of troubles in 2017 when they showed Kendall Jenner giving Pepsi to the cops in a #blacklivesmatter protest. Similary, Coca Cola made the same error talking about Vietnam war in its ad sometime in the 1970s.

Well, the only way to avoid these things is to be more thorough with the work. Ad-making is about paying a lot of attention to details. Brand managers have a serious responsibility towards its consumers and to its brand.

Hopefully people with some experience would keep sharing with fresh young talents so that we can learn from the history of mistakes. And that’s why this blog exists.

Until the next post, stay tuned!

And please feel free to drop your comments below if you have anything to say!

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