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Nitish Mukherjee

The author is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion

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Dark Roast Double Shot: Boundaries of Brands

Businesses and brands with their products, services or even their own behaviour may at times catalyse social change but their raison d’etre is not to bring about social change unless they are created with the purpose to do so.

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

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A few days ago, a very respected, trusted and large brand of jewellery in India belonging to one of the foremost business conglomerates ran a commercial which was based on interfaith marriage and acceptance of each other’s practices. Advocating an ideal that may not be in common practice today. Perhaps, the effort was to push for social change and thereby be seen as a leader in society. Hoping to gain stature, with the risk of controversy being imminent.

As is common these days there was a strong backlash bordering on violent by a section of society that was outraged by this travesty of their beliefs and perhaps a deep-rooted sense of insecurity and unease within communities. Another section of society lauded this effort as it gave more credence to their belief and desired way of life. 

The company took cognizance of the opinions expressed and withdrew the communication and expressed themselves in a short and elegant retraction. Those who had lauded the effort immediately raised the decibels on their great disappointment on the company having backed off under pressure of the ‘social brigade’ and spared no words to imply that they felt let down. The opposing side continued to clamour for the boycott of the products for the jewellery brand as well as any other product manufactured by the conglomerate.

In a few days, the brouhaha will be over. Probably with some reparable damage to business and reputation. And a few people on both sides having notched up a few points on their leadership with what they would consider to be their strong, powerful and righteous opinions.

Devoid of the rhetoric it would be interesting to take a closer look on what really happened. Was the stimulus wrong? Or was the response wrong? The effect being what it will be due to multifarious influences with deep roots, could the cause (conceived by a few) have been different. Was it a justifiable or legitimate marketing manoeuvre to execute? To attempt an answer, we must revisit the basics.

The primary responsibility of brands and businesses is to protect the interest of the shareholders and stakeholders. The fact that you must respect the law and be socially responsible is incumbent on the management to ensure sustainability. Mundane as it may sound, that is the reality of business. Businesses and brands with their products, services or even their own behaviour may at times catalyse social change but their raison d’etre is not to bring about social change unless they are created with the purpose to do so. And managers and workers who are in essence representatives of the shareholders would do well to remain cognizant of that.

Things work well when people excel in what they are meant to do. Friction starts once you start blurring the lines. The Central Bank’s job is to be responsible for the monetary policy while the Government decides on the fiscal policy. When they tread on each other’s toes the balance goes awry. The government should work on the basis of laws made by the legislature. When they over use the method of ordinances to circumvent legislature they are asking for trouble. We are often critical of media that runs kangaroo courts instead of sharing facts. Judicial activism can destabilise governance and businesses. Though each in their own place are the edifice of our society. Brands must remember they are empowered when they gain social acceptance. It is good business. They are not agents for social change. That is best left to those who are responsible for doing it. Thought leaders across disciplines, social workers, political workers, NGOs.

Does that mean that brands should not have a social conscience? Indeed, they must, but it should always be in the context of your business. If you are in a business that triggers concern of pollution, proof of your environmental concern is legitimate. If you are a dating app the joy of bringing people together is a good idea. But if your product or business is not a glue to resolving conflicts, to arrogate to yourself the onus of that responsibility is questionable. Though there may be many people to cheer you on because it helps them argue their case at your expense.

When does the blurring really happen? When we lose focus on the real agenda of business and our role in it. When our personal biases and desires creep in to decision making and the brand becomes a reflection of the collective ego of those entrusted with it. When the question shifts from ‘Will the outcome be in the shareholder’s interest?’  to ‘Will it bring us fame and glory?’. When the link of the idea to the brand is tenuous. When we create communication that is an end in itself.

How do we insulate the brand or business from such misadventures? Going back to basics is a good beginning. When the world is going through the biggest disruption, attempts to resolve other contentious issues are best left to another day. Understand society and people not just from your perspective but every other perspective too that will be in play when you go live. Diversity within the company has its great benefits. If you really want to tread this path first ensure that you have a cross section of opinions and influences within the company. People with background in science, logic, social sciences, gender, faith and socio-economic diversity. It helps create an atmosphere and knowledge base that enhances quality and sensitivity of decision making.

On the instance at hand, obviously the company failed to judge the outcome of the work it approved. Someone somewhere did not understand the potential of risk undertaken. Or the process was not in place. But their response to the crisis was not weak. It was actually a quick, firm and bold move. It did the right thing. It protected shareholder and stakeholder interest. It stopped it from getting further fanned in a debate that it would no longer have any control over. It also protected public interest. Being the cause for public loss at a time like this, irrespective of who is at fault, would have been ludicrous. 

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(Nitish Mukherjee is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion.)