8 observations on the Hyundai social media backlash

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A social media post caused a diplomatic incident recently after a severe social media backlash over a social media post from Hyundai’s dealer in Pakistan. A #BoycottHyundai hashtag also trended in India. As many Twitter users began tagging the official handle, the social media team at Hyundai India protected their tweets and apparently also blocked a few users to boot.

The official statement released initially wasn’t much of a clarification and spoke how the company was offended by ‘unsolicited social media posts’. A couple of days later, a much-better phrased statement clarified the brand’s position on political or religious issues. It also outlined the specific steps taken after the furore broke out.

First (and timely) reaction matters

In my view, locking the Twitter handle (even if for a few hours) and blocking users who tagged the brand was a sign of panic and avoidable. I understand that it is easy to comment being outside the ring and that too days after the furore has died down. At the heat of the moment, when a brand is facing flak and prospects of brand ‘boycott’ looms large it is natural for the social media team to falter. It is said that we all have perfect vision in hindsight, but maybe it would have helped if the brand team stepped back and shared the fact that the social media post in question was from a dealer in Pakistan whose views are not endorsed by Hyundai India. Also blocking users or locking the account only riles people even more – it was a classic case of how not to handle a pressure-cooker situation and also highlighted the reasons behind such missteps.

Obsession to be ‘always on’ is detrimental

Over the last few years, brands have become obsessed with being visible on every social media platform possible. Investing in TV campaigns is expensive and hence brand teams may think that posting on their own social media timelines (which is free) and paying a retainer fee to a digital agency may work out to be ‘cost effective’ in terms of reach and impact. Am sure that every brand team is being told that their core audience is spending a lot of time on mobile phones and hence it is critical to be ‘present’ on Facebook and Twitter.

As a result, social media agencies of brands are forced to ‘find’ some reason to create social media posts. I believe they have some sort of target number of posts per week or month to cover their retainer fee. Subliminally it is a cue for the brand manager to ‘demand’ or extract maximum value and for the agencies to prove that they indeed have been working. Isn’t it apparent that this will lead to more and more tenuous content, unrelated to the brand or a larger business strategy? Also, much has been made of ‘moment marketing’ and its (questionable) impact. Yes, that rare tactical creative has the ability to create buzz for the brand if amplified by mainstream media. But as with any advertising message, a majority of such social media posts are just white noise. I doubt if such deliver business impact either. I guess a standard print ad with dealer showroom details or urging a prospective buyer to go for a test drive is likely to deliver walk-ins which are surely more valuable than likes or re-tweets.

Tenuous or no link to the brand is not creativity that sells

Arising from the above point, we increasingly see social media campaigns or YouTube videos which have little or no relevance to the brand. I understand the need for a ‘higher order benefit’ but as pointed out brilliantly in this cartoon from 2012 , sometimes the stretch is so elastic that it becomes incredulous.

Every occasion, event, festival or trending news is seen as an excuse to make up some post – relevance be damned. It then becomes second nature to the social media team and a default mode of operation. This seems to be the trend in India and I don’t think it would be vastly different in other countries. It could partly explain the thinking behind the social media post from the Hyundai dealer in Pakistan, which set off the social media backlash. We must remember that advertising is commercial art and not just a about creating something pretty or well-produced.

Not all brands should can anchor content on politics and religion

Politics and religion have always been contentious topics – inviting heated debates. In the world of social media, such issues are amplified even more. If brands anchor their content around these two topics, the focus anyway shifts to them rather than the features & benefits. Moreover, such debates can get ugly and negative sentiment is something that brands must avoid to be associated with. Not all brands have the stomach to withstand the fallout of controversial content. Benetton’s print ads with graphic, impactful visuals anchored on social issues were all the rage in the 90s. Today, an ice cream brand comments on global geo-politics and I am guessing is consciously doing it as part of a larger strategy – of associating itself with causes.

There’s a thin line between effecting behaviour change and being preachy

Ariel’s campaign calling for equality, #ShareTheLoad struck a chord because it was rooted in real consumer behaviour and the cause has universal appeal – it isn’t polarising. But some plots can create a divide – projecting one religion as narrow minded and calling for introspection or change can trigger outrage from a community.

Consumers do not always do what they say

A lot of the behaviour on social media is posturing and driven by mob mentality. Recently, many consumers proclaimed that they will cancel their Spotify subscription. A report says 19% said they have already canceled their service or intend to. The operative word being ‘intend’ to:

“Consumer boycotts build quickly, but they lose steam fast,” Forrester analysts Mike Proulx and Kelsey Chickering wrote in detailing the Spotify poll results. While “cancel culture is loud, for most brands, it’s just noise.”


Lack of training for social media managers

Seniors in advertising & marketing assume that anything ‘digital’ has to be overseen and executed by youngsters as they are the digital natives. But not many of them are trained on marketing & communication strategy basics or crisis management. The focus is more on being able to churn out social media posts with some word play or a creative idea – both of which are pre-requisites but not above clarity on communication objectives and a strategy.

Experience matters

Ageism in advertising is real. Those above 45 are seen as dinosaurs who cannot ‘get’ the changing landscape of advertising. That may well be true for some but such generalisation is not right just as assuming that youngsters cannot be marketing or strategy-savvy. A brilliant article, ‘The biggest lies in advertising‘ sums it up well:

Advertising’s obsession with youth is not because they have their fingers firmly placed on the pulse of pop culture. It’s not because they’re better at coming up with ideas. And it’s not because we need them to understand new platforms. It’s because they’re cheap and profit margins are thin and payroll is pretty much the only place left where you can find the dough to pay for a decent Tuscan villa.


Do share your views on the Hyundai social media controversy and social media strategies of brands.

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