3 reasons why intolerance maybe the biggest PR issue for brands in India

It’s been a surreal and scary two weeks. Paris under attack. Hotel under siege in Mali. Brussels in lockdown. Closer home, the social environment last two months have been defined by the tragic Dadri lynching, the returning of national awards by creative thinkers, the censoring of kisses in the latest James Bond movie ‘Spectre’ and most recently the trolling of Aamir Khan for a statement he made, ironically enough, at a ceremony for the Ramnath Goenka journalism awards.

By now, we all know that Khan said that his wife asked him whether they should consider leaveing India and admitted that he does feel affected by the recent climate of intolerance. Among the massive trolling he received, the brand Khan endorses, Snapdeal was also dragged in, with trolling of the app in Google Play:

Brands and intolerance is not a new debate, Pepsi allegedly canned Madonna from a 5-million-dollar contract in 1989 after her Like a Prayer video came out, featuring burning crosses.

It's easy for brands to take a call to drop a brand ambassador when a celeb becomes persona non grata. Tag Huer did it when Tiger Woods went astray as did Nike when Lance Armstrong was exposed as a doper as did H&M with Kate Moss and accusations of her taking drugs. A celebrity crash and burn is easy to deal with in a way, as there is only one route to take.

It’s naturally much more difficult for a brand to weigh in on issues such as intolerance. Businesses and their leadership usually confine themselves to comments about slow economic policies and growth, the environment and sustainability issues.

But here’s why businesses will no longer have a choice but to have a view on inclusiveness and tolerance:

Social Media makes it easy to say what’s politically incorrect but ethical

Brands, do not thrive on controversy. But when you have powerful brand ambassadors like Aamir Khan, who ironically is also the brand ambassador for the ‘Incredible India’ campaign, they can easily make use of multiple platforms to directly express their social concerns. Keeping quiet is not always possible. In such a situations brands also have the same platforms to shape their narrative which does not have to involve distancing themselves from their vocal star endorser.

Customers expect authenticity

Today’s customers, especially millennials, expect a high degree of authenticity from their brands. Showing a real social conscience matters more than random acts of CSR. Brands who can cannot show tolerance and inclusion will get called out.

Religion is back or it never went away

The recent attacks in Paris and Mali have brought religion to the center stage of geo –economics. A recent article by journalist Tunku Varadarajan , former editor of Newsweek International repeatedly used the term ‘Islamic terror’ to refer to the Paris attacks, an unprecedented reference in the 'Opinion pages' of a mainstream, English language, Indian newspaper. While governments are traditional bulwarks in democracies against religion interfering in personal choice and expression; businesses will soon be expected to also have a point of view on this.

As I sign off, Snapdeal is yet to release any statement on the Aamir Khan issue, let’s see what their reaction is in the coming days. How Snapdeal responds could well become a new way of open brand communication.

You may or may not agree with Khan, but intolerance is fast emerging as a major challenge for all of us. And that includes brands.

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