The recent onslaught of cause-led communication has created a scenario where every brand is asking itself: ‘what higher order purpose can I adopt? How can I make a difference to the world?’ Raghu Bhat, co-founder of Scarecrow M&C Saatchi suggests that as communication experts, agencies should not become a slave to formula and start listening to what ‘diverse’ customers are saying, instead of only to people who think like ‘us’.
About 10 years ago, brands hit upon a startling discovery! The consumer is not merely a consumer. Rather, he or she is an environmental activist, a philanthrope, a moral compass or a social vigilante - rolled into one.
He/she cares for the society and wants to make a difference. And therefore, will prefer brands that exist for a purpose, beyond profit. This led to a tsunami of cause-led communication where every brand asked itself – what higher order purpose can I adopt? How can I make a difference to the world? Among the many causes that brands started espousing, two themes stood out - Inclusion/Diversity and the Green movement/climate change.
Surge in purpose-driven communication
Diversity, in particular, went beyond being a communication plank and started influencing corporate decisions like recruitment. What started as influence soon turned into pressure. For example, the #PullUpOrShutUp movement that asked companies to disclose the number of black people working for them at an executive level and also exhorted the public to stop buying from companies that didn’t. Not surprisingly, every brand, from footwear to detergents to apparel soon embraced diversity as a core theme.
What does diversity & inclusion mean in the real world, across the markets
So far, so good. But while marketing case studies were extolling the virtues of diversity and inclusion and tried to co-relate rising market shares with cause-led communication campaigns, something else was happening in the real world. In the past 5 years, political parties that celebrated divisiveness and ethos of ‘us versus them’ increased their market share globally by more than 20%.
In 2017, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), with its anti-immigration policies and hostility to Islam got 12.6% of the vote, becoming Germany's biggest opposition party. In every country including Poland, Austria, Hungary, Spain and even liberal Sweden, the right-wing parties that opposed immigration and Islam gained huge traction.
The Indian reality
Even in India, despite protests from a vocal social media brigade, actions like the removal of Section 370, Uri strikes and the building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya enjoyed widespread support. What the three issues have in common are - an element of patriotism, militant nationalism and resurgent Hindutva.
Which brings us to a pertinent point. We are living in a polarized world. This means very few people are neutral. 4 strong polarizing agents – politicians, media, fake news and social media are constantly at work, pushing people to take ‘for’ or ‘against’ positions on issues.
Lessons on how brands should behave
In the recent US election, more than 47% of the electorate voted for Trump who many consider a ‘divisive’ personality. This means that ‘diversity’ is not a theme like love, friendship or happiness that will resonate universally. Paradoxically, ‘inclusiveness’ when used in communication, will divide and polarize. This raises many fundamental questions about how a brand should behave.
Or rather, what does a brand really want? If it is profit, is chasing inclusion in a polarised world the best way to go about it? Should there be a more nuanced understanding of the kind of inclusion it should espouse? Also, what is the ultimate objective of a brand campaign?
Good noticeability or bad noticeability? Goodwill or rancour? Sales or boycotts? Universal likeability or polarization? Outpouring of twitterati love? Establish product superiority or to be seen as an agent of social change? Passionate adoption by some and whole-hearted rejection by others?
Getting back to the basic tenets of Marketing
Once the objective is clear, it’s very important to clearly understand who the target audience is. Instead of restricting oneself to ambiguous descriptions like ‘adventure seeker’ or ‘Driven but not ambitious’, the description should also cover ‘uncomfortable questions related to their beliefs and values’ – which political party do they support? What do they think of some of the news channels? Do they support same sex marriages’?
If a brand wants to preach, at least know who is in the audience: the already converted or those who will never convert. This rigour will help agencies create communication that leads to brand preference. For a few years now, brands have tried to magnify their role in the lives of people. They have gone beyond product benefit and tried to articulate their philosophy and purpose. But it’s time to take stock. As communication experts, let’s not become a slave to formula. Let’s start listening to what ‘diverse’ customers are saying, instead of only to people who think like us.
Let’s stop using packaged wisdom imported from the West and use our common sense – about what Indian customers like. Let’s stop using Facebook likes on our page as a barometer of a campaign’s success. Because our feed only contains opinions of ‘like-minded friends.’
And let’s be humble.
Raghu Bhat is the co-founder of Scarecrow M&C Saatchi.