Basics of marketing communications and the festive ad controversies

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The fundamentals of marketing communications is believed to be the same, be it in the traditional media world or the ‘new’ digital world. Bill Bernbach, ad legend and founder of DDB said famously: ‘it is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own‘. Such motivations are not going to change simply because a new social media platform has emerged.

Marketing is the delivery of customer satisfaction at a profit‘ is a tenet that is timeless. So what are the broad tenets, applicable to both the advertiser and the creative agency, as I see it? We need to start with the product or service. No amount of good advertising can sell a bad product or service. The consumer is smarter than we think and even if a dodgy product has a good run, it will soon be ‘caught out’. Aside from poor quality, other aspects at play are market need and right timing. The offer or product has to meet a genuine need and also have enough potential to sustain the business. At times, well-made products and services may be ahead of their time or may not appeal to large section of the market (the famous ‘there is a gap in the market but is there a market in the gap?’ question). I guess in today’s world it is spoken of in the context of the product-market fit.

Aspects related to positioning and communication come next and in that context, what Howard Gossage said holds true even today: ‘Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes, it’s an ad’. We can extrapolate that thought to today’s world of tweets, blogs, newsletters, short-form videos and more. Essentially, communication is about saying relevant things in a compelling way at the right time, on the right platform. It is true of wall-paintings, plain old billboards, mobile notifications or social media posts. While all this may sound simplistic, it is tough and complex to navigate through changing consumer preferences, aspirations, media consumption habits and more. Another dimension at play is the nature of a medium or platform which is constantly evolving and has its own characteristics and demands.

Tom Roach summed it all brilliantly in ‘Seven principles of effective marketing communication‘:

So there it is: one unchanging piece of communications hardware, the brain, and seven unchanging principles of effective marketing communication that can get that hardware working for your brand: reach, attention, creativity, distinctiveness, consistency, emotion and motivation.

I was reminded of these after the media outrage around festive campaigns from FabIndia and Dabur-Fem. If you are in India, you would not have missed the controversy around the FabIndia marketing communication to promote ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’ (celebration of traditions) – a line of festive wear. The original tweet (now deleted) said, ‘As we welcome the festival of love & light, Jashn-e-Riwaaz by FabIndia is a collection that beautifully pays homage to Indian culture‘. It offered a link to what looks like a sponsored feature on Vouge India promoting the collection.

FabIndia is an upscale ethnic brand selling fashion, furnishings and furniture – catering primarily to the upper middle class and the well-heeled. The initial negative reactions to the tweet were anchored on what many social media users saw as an ‘inappropriate’ description (in Urdu) of the Diwali festival. Some outraged about the attire and overall look – especially about the lack of bindi on the foreheads of women models. Here are my views on the controversy and related issues:

Key message, relevance, execution, and context: fashion advertising doesn’t rely too much on a product story because there isn’t one, usually. In such a situation, execution becomes important and often the ‘idea’. Campaigns have relied heavily on imagery to break clutter and create affinity. When compared to other categories the winning ingredients may seem too simplistic: a clever strap line or a distinct look is often good enough. Many still recall the line and imagery of the famous Calvin Klein ad starring Brooke Shields (which caused an outrage in America in the 80s). Back in India – and I am not belittling these ideas, ages ago, Garden Vareli and Only Vimal relied pretty much on execution elements to break clutter. Zodiac shirts had a distinct look in their print campaign focusing only on the product. Brands in the super-premium and luxury category leave it all to execution and the ‘look’ as it is rare to have a distinct product advantage. So, while breaking clutter is an important objective in general, it is even more critical in fashion advertising. Brands like Benetton and Diesel adopted shock value as a tool to achieve this objective. But in all this let us not forget the importance of relevance and context – it is not just about being ‘different’ or distinct.

One can garner attention by wearing something outrageous in a public place. But would it be relevant? An outfit may be fine on the catwalk ramp but not in a restaurant. So I view the FabIndia communication with that lens. A stand alone tweet for a collection called Jashn-e-Riwaaz with reference to ‘festival of light‘ in the copy is jarring for many because it does not sit well with imagery, associations and deep cultural connect of Diwali. It is not only about the use of a Urdu phrase (though some did make that to be an issue) – it is the context and association. In India we have grown up watching films where a hero switches from simple Hindi dialogues to a song & dance routine with complex Urdu words. In the world of make-believe, that’s fine – who believes ordinary people break into songs and run around trees anyway? But religious festivals (and yes, Diwali *is* one) shouldn’t be taken lightly in India. For a Muslim, Eid is not just about biryani – it is faith, following a way of life and a ‘code’ of the community. Similarly, despite the commercialisation, faith is at the core of Christmas. During that season, even at resorts the aside from the mandatory Christmas tree the decor would include a re-creation of the nativity scene. Pujo for a Bengali has certain codes, associations and deep emotions.

There exists a segment in our society (some call them rootless or deracinated) for whom rituals do not hold much meaning – they may not be emotionally invested in festivals, especially those of Hinduism which have rituals at the core. Such people may ‘celebrate’ all festivals in their own way: ethnic wear and feasting for Diwali, keeping a Christmas tree at home from mid-December and having biryani for Eid. But they cannot sit in judgement of a larger group for whom their own religious festivals carry a lot more meaning where rituals and prayers are at the core. The FabIndia imagery, including black couture (when black is not considered auspicious among many in the context of religious festivals and marriage functions) would not sit well with a majority of those who celebrate Diwali the traditional way. What’s so surprising about it?

Sure, the entire ‘package’ may appeal to some or they may simply not find anything objectionable in it. But the second aspect of context & relevance is that of visibility and ‘location’. In the pre-digital world, super premium and luxury brands could reach their target audience with minimal wastage or spillover. An ad in an upscale magazine, an outlet in the high street (location being important), direct marketing and such like. You are known by the company you keep and so your store or ad would be in the vicinity of similar stature brands. The occasional presence in a regular newspaper would help in creating the desire quotient within an audience who cannot afford the brand as yet. Now if they choose to have a presence on say, Instagram or Twitter it’s impossible to limit exposure to only those who are your audience or potentials. While algorithms maybe in place to avoid disparity you can’t filter out who sees your feed. That invites comments from ‘another’ world. The imagery on the Instagram feed of say fashion-designer Sabyasachi, may not appeal to all and runs the risk of being pilloried by those who not only are unlikely to be of its customers but may dislike the imagery even. Similarly, the FabIndia content with a link to a feature in Vogue (a magazine for the affluent) may not find takers among a larger group.

Category code is another aspect which comes to mind. Every heavily-advertised category has certain advertising codes i.e. visuals which make it easy for the viewer to figure out what’s being advertised and give a feeling of familiarity. We are all aware of common visuals in automobile, food, fashion and few other categories. Some brands try to break away from this sea of sameness. In festive advertising it is common to see opulently dressed, smiling, happy families. So to stand out from the clutter, if the thinking is to show sombre people staring gloomily into camera, I don’t think that works. Advertising’s job is to create affinity and make an impact at the emotional level. In my book, the FabIndia ad – and I am referring to the tweet as a stand alone piece of communication may not evoke that positive festive feeling in many. One might argue that there was a happy effervescent TV spot as part of the campaign but rarely does a consumer see all pieces of the puzzle and make the connect.

Social media and its nature: Everything and everyone was up for criticism ALWAYS. Did we not pass comments on how a cricketer *should* have played a delivery or a footballer play on the field, sitting in our living room? If we disliked a movie or book, we told our friends. Now social media has made it easy to air our views and in the bargain enabled anonymous mud slinging. Nothing is spared – movies, books, celebrities, apps and more.

So when brands put out any communication, they should expect comments of all kinds – that’s the nature of the beast – it is a cesspool out there. It’s also a way for ordinary consumers to vent their anger and frustration – social media has given them that power. Some will misuse it. Even way before social media became toxic, it was common to find acerbic or nasty comments on YouTube e.g telecom brands told to not waste money on ads (even if well made) but use that money to improve network coverage or support.

Whenever reporting such negative comments about a campaign, ad industry trade portals refer to it as an attack from trolls. If some content, service or product is on display – if people dislike and express themselves, how is it trolling? If we go by the dictionary definition, a troll is ‘a person who makes a deliberately offensive or provocative online post’. But even one someone disagrees with a POV or execution of an ad in a respectful manner, ad industry portals will scream ‘right wing trolls force brand to pull out ad’/

I am not condoning personal attacks on celebrities and individuals but ‘I will not buy this brand’ is also a legitimate response – that choice influenced by many factors. Even prior to social media countries or companies were boycotted for one reason or the other. I am neither a fan of collective calls for banning something or the other, nor of bullying through boycott. But reality is, angry (and some motivated campaigners) see that as the only option to be heard when they are offended. It is the equivalent of tagging the CEO of an airline company when there is a service issue which has gone un-attended by the customer support team. Some take it to the extreme by tagging the boss by default.

Another argument put out (probably driven by political affiliation) is that in India, everyone is easily offended by something or the other only now – that is after a change in government in 2014. Then again, being offended used to be the case earlier too – remember reactions to the movie Bombay and calls for ban of so many books and even an ad from Titan Watches for the Tamil Nadu market?

Standing up for a cause, inclusivity and ‘progressive’ ideas: benefit laddering i.e. promising a higher order benefit than just a functional benefit has been a common (and necessary) strategy for years.

Exaggeration is common and in fact, a must in advertising. It’d be boring if an ad simply explained what a product does. An ad’s job is to sell a concept, a dream or an idea and in that process, spinning a yarn is to be expected. No one expects a pug to follow a boy who goes on foot all over the countryside or an adhesive brand to be the reason behind the improbable passenger count in a bus. A product’s feature is presented in a dramatic way so that it sticks in the consumer’s mind.


But it can be (and has been) stretched so far that a brand’s message can lack credibility – like soft drink being the catalyst for world peace or a fizzy drink urging parents to not put ‘exam pressure‘ on children. Unfortunately, in chasing brand purpose and chasing a ’cause’ some brands seem to have lost sight of the fact that advertising is creativity with a commercial (as in business) purpose – it is not art for art’s sake. However, that doesn’t mean brands should only create ‘buy now’ kind of direct messages. If a detergent brand urges people to conserve water and thereby builds affinity for the brand it seems to make sense. To go back to what I said earlier – it is about relevance and context. If a brand believes in a cause it must first prove it with action and not just resort to an ad – like how P&G mounted the ‘Thank you, mom’ campaign (celebrating the role of mothers in bring up athletes) by not just making an ad but sponsoring their trips to Olympic Games and get them to watch their children in action. But several brands seem to have a ‘rent-a-cause’ approach plucking the proverbial low hanging fruit – ‘noise pollution during Diwali’ being a favourite. It sends the right signal, makes the right noises about caring for the environment, fighting pollution and such like. But that’s the easy way out – the brand may be in an industry which adds to pollution – wasteful, excessive packaging (as seen in e-commerce brands) is something worth tackling first (but hard) than simply putting out a 30-second ad to change the world. Most brands opt for the latter. It is the ‘green tea syndrome’ – some of us feel switching to green tea is all it takes to a healthy lifestyle. As we sip the tasteless brew we can feel the glow of ‘getting healthy’, eh? But not many would do the hard part – diet restrictions, exercise and a balanced lifestyle.

Inclusivity is another ‘trend’ I have noticed of late both in ads from India and the west. A montage of people from all walks of life is a common template which allows for a portrayal of diversity. In India, we have seen hundreds of such ads – with the mandatory Sardar, a Tamilian (meant to represent the South Indian) and a Muslim. When executed well it feels natural and true representation of a plural country like India. Remember the famous ‘Buland Bharat ki buland tasveer‘ ad of Bajaj? In the west I have noticed the presence of women in hijab of late – indicating their effort to portray diversity and inclusiveness. A few years ago, I think it was Fastrack (known for their edgy personality) which cued same-sex relationships in an ad. But when Fem attempts to portray such in the context of Karwa Chauth it does feel forced and irrelevant. The ad ended up being an equal opportunity offender as it ticked off both the LGBT community and those who celebrate Karwa Chauth the traditional way.

Another common argument in ad industry circles is that in the current political environment there is no room for ‘progressive’ ideas. In the FabIndia case, I don’t know which idea (if there was one at all) was actually progressive. Sometimes I feel many in the ad industry think that all of their brands’ target audience think like them, have similar lifestyle, tastes and outlook to life – as we last year with a jewellery brand. As I wrote last year:

Several effective advertising ideas are anchored on real-life situations or personal experiences. But ‘this happened to me so it must be true for all’ is unlikely to hit the bull’s eye always, especially with sensitive subjects such as religion


An ad for CEAT says crackers are meant to be burst only within the ‘society’ – meaning apartment complex. In the real world, where many live cheek by jowl in small apartments or individual houses, where is the luxury of a ‘common space’ within an apartment complex? I am just citing it as an example of the disconnect between the advertising world and reality. They seem to assume that their attitude to say, religiosity, festivals and rituals would be the same for all. The portrayal of women and other protagonists in advertisements is a reflection of that.

In a large, plural country like India it is impossible to please everybody. Also as British economist Joan Robinson said: “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”. For example it would be wrong to assume that all affluent folks in India are westernised, suave and see tradition as ‘regressive’. But it is common to see a rich person take a brand new luxury car first to a temple, have a puja performed, break a coconut, keep lemons under two wheels and drive over them. Can marketers sit in judgement over such a mindset?

Festivals in India are more than just dressing up and feasting – at least for a majority. Instead of stoking positive emotions and evoke the festive spirit I feel some brands are trying too hard to use it as a reason to change the world. Is advertising meant to do that? I think it can be a force of good – changing people’s mindset and behaviour. We’ve seen that happen with say, drunk driving and polio vaccination. In many countries the attitude of ‘drinking and driving is OK’ has been changed with effective advertising (and other measures on the ground). It led to behavioural change as we saw with the TAC campaign in Australia. In India people were ‘admonished’ to change their behaviour towards polio vaccination by super star Amitabh Bachchan . In both cases the audience were buying into the proposition as there was an emotional connect. In the case of recent festive advertising debacles I see a disconnect between core audience aspirations and the nature of the social media as the factors behind the furore. Also, we are all just coming out of a tough lockdown period and waiting to celebrate without a worry, expend positive energy and spend monies. Why can’t brands cash in on this mood, attract positive vibes and in the bargain attract customers?

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