Sandeep Goyal
Mar 12, 2019

Blog: HUL’s new found penchant for controversy

One of the country’s largest spenders on advertising, has been in the midst of controversy all of last week

Blog: HUL’s new found penchant for controversy
Hindustan Unilever (HUL), India’s bellwether advertiser, and possibly one of the country’s largest spenders of advertising dollars, has been in the midst of controversies all of last week. First it was the father-son Kumbh Mela ad for Brooke Bond Red Label tea that kicked up a veritable storm in a tea-cup; and now it is the new Surf Excel ad where a young Hindu girl, dressed in a white t-shirt, chooses to get stained in Holi colours in order to protect her young Muslim friend who has to go to the nearby mosque to pray. 
HUL has got violently trolled in the past few days.  #BoycottHindustanUnilever and #BoycottSurfExcel have been trending right on top on Twitter. Of course there have been pockets of support too, especially for the Surf Excel one, but most of the kinder words have really come from brand ‘experts’ and creative guys who have genuinely appreciated the brand’s efforts to put out advertising that is ‘progressive’, ‘positive’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘secular’. But to the junta at large, the universe of HUL’s consumers, both Red Label and Surf Excel’s new advertising films are kind of a betrayal and belittlement, not easy to comprehend, understand or relate to.

Much has already been written on both the ads in recent days. So there is no point in me trying to repeat that. In this piece today, my attempt really would be to look for issues and motives … reasons why a mature, mass advertiser with such a humungous consumer base like Hindustan Lever would want to court controversies, and that too without a compelling reason or provocation. Lever has far too much at stake to want to so seriously rock the boat on consumer loyalty and eventually of course market share. 

Let us first examine what are the issues agitating the twitterati, and whether they are really valid.
1. In the Kumbh ad, the issues at the core of the controversy are:
- The Kumbh is a Hindu congregation… yes, the world’s largest. But for HUL to suggest in its tweet that, “Kumbh Mela is a place where old people get abandoned, isn't it sad that we do not care for our elders? Red Label encourages us to hold the hands of those who made us who we are,” and ask viewers to watch the video which is “an eye opener to a harsh reality” is seen by many to be a deliberate affront to Hindu values and Hindu culture. Actually, the resentment is centred at one level at the fact that the narrative is pivoted on the Kumbh, hence Hindu, but also that the attempt to ‘lose’ the father deliberately in the milling crowd is portayed as if all Hindu children take their parents to the holy-dip just to get rid of them. Sure, there may have been actual past instances of such shameful incidents but to tom-tom them as the norm of the Kumbh and Hindu value-system is seen to be unfair, insensitive and needlessly judgmental. 
- There is really no connect between the entire Kumbh narrative and the product/brand. The product window in the end where the son finds the father sitting next to a tea vendor and the bit about the father having ordered two cups of tea as he was confident that the son would return, is actually a narrative of convenience. Had to be there, hence is there. The entire story is being seen as a pontification on how Hindu offspring have no love or concern for their parents and want to off-load these inconvenient elders. That may not have been the message being sent out, but that is what is being almost universally received. 
2. The Surf Excel theme is more explicitly a Hindu-Muslim harmony ad being seen exactly as the opposite: 
- The colours of Holi being called ‘daags’ is being seen as offensive.
- The Hindu girl taking all the hits of the Holi colours to make sure her Muslim friend can get to his namaz in impeccable whites is seen to be an attempt to portray that the Muslim prayer is sacrosanct. Also that Namaz is more important than Holi.
- The biggest objection of course is that the entire ‘sacrifice’ is being made by the Hindu girl. Why could the narrative not have been reversed, ask many? Also, the ire of many is focused on the entire narrative looking like a ‘love-jehad’. 
I am really not sure how many of these objections are valid. I would generally tend to agree with the criticism of the Kumbh ad that it generalises the deliberate ‘losing’ of parents based on an extrapolation of data that is not really universal. On Surf Excel, I would be more forgiving. It is a reasonable portrayal of the brand’s philosophy, Agar kuch achha karne mein daag lag jaaye toh daag achhe hain (Stains that come as a part of a good deed are good stains).
Back now to our discussion on motivations.
1. There is a pro-active attempt at HUL to make brands more contemporary and real. Real in the sense, embedded in the lives, hopes, aspirations and realities of consumers. You see that happening in the murti-maker story of Red Label. You see that happening again with Red Label in the old lady with Alzheimer story where the nice neighbour gets mistaken by her for her son who lives overseas. Yes, there is a distinct effort at connecting at more levels with consumers than just merely transactional. Well, to be fair, some attempts go well, some don’t.
2. There is perhaps a belief at the new-age HUL that controversy is not bad for brands. Twitter tsunamis rise and abate equally quickly. Trending, even negative trending, is transient. #BoycottSurfExcel was trending up, up, and up all day till the Chief Election Commissioner held a press conference to announce the election schedule, and bingo Surf Excel just vanished from the top trends. So, HUL know that Twitter is a one-day or two-day backlash at best (or worst), no more. The company, perhaps as a strategy, is learning to ignore this blip of negativity. 
3. Controversy actually makes the brand famous, forces consumers to sit up and take notice. Close-Up as a brand has been in active decline, both in market share and mind-space. From a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was giving Colgate a run for its money, today it is no longer a brand in the forefront of consumer consciousness. Last year, the CloseUp#FreeToLove controversy on the Hindu-Muslim live-in couple and the same-sex lovers ignited a controversy that pushed the Lever brand into the shining limelight once again. Good thinking, smart strategy most would say.
4. There seems also a belief at HUL that those who tweet are perhaps not those who buy. So, twitter controversies are just a side-show. The likes of Baba Ramdev fanning the controversy are actually not bad optics. The mass of consumers stay unaffected and untouched by the negativity. This may not necessarily be true. But who am I to question the beliefs of a multinational that knows it all.
5. HUL seem to think that Hindu-Muslim themes most ignite controversy. And that as long as Muslim sentiments are not provoked, right wing Hindu reactions can be ignored or papered over. In these times of Hindutva aggression this may not altogether be a safe assumption. But then HUL surely knows what it is doing.
6. There is a visible trend in evidence on ‘story-telling’ that ‘involves’ consumers. That is a big change from the USP driven advertising of the past. HUL is trying hard to ‘engage’ with its constituencies. Sometimes the scripts may tend to meander and ‘provoke’ but obviously the powers-that-be at Lever feel that is okay. Provocation is just a more extreme form of engagement.
7. There is also a visible attempt to appear more ‘cerebral’. Old Lever advertising was based on simple formulae of brand problem, brand promise, brand window and brand logo. The new norm seems to be to make more compelling (and intelligent) communication. Some may see it as succumbing to peer-pressure. I don’t know.
8. There is surely an eye out for advertising awards at Lever. Once the controversy abates, all of this will become the stuff case-studies and management school presentations are made of. Also, these are the kind of ads that win awards at Cannes (Goa is a bonus) for being ‘inclusive’, ‘insightful’ and ‘bold’. ‘Secular’ too. I don’t have to say much more on that.
In the good old days of advertising (read that to mean pre-social media, pre-Twitter) most brand managers would avoid the current adventurism of HUL. They would do more of what Tata Tea does with its Jaago Re theme. Or the kind of stuff Pidilite did with its Kumbh Mela ‘Inseparable’ vests. ‘Causevertising’ with purpose, without controversy. 
HUL has obviously chosen a different path. Well, time will tell.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal is a keen observer of trends, and comments on what he sees around him without prejudice or fear. 
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