Brands are your hanger-on friends

Silhouette of a group of people around a campfire on the beach
What are your brand relationships like? Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash

What is the relationship you share with your soap? No, really. It is a serious question. Advertising makes it out to be a deep, magical connect. Transforming your skin into a smooth, satiny hue. But why does advertising have to exaggerate? Why can’t we simply be shown soap lathering well on the skin and then cut to a nice pack shot? In the early days of advertising, that’s precisely what ads looked like.

The Liril ad that changed soap advertising in India

Then, advertisers found it wasn’t enough to keep people engaged. So, they had to figure out ways to keep the interest alive. In the early 80s, Alyque Padamsee got Karen Lunel out of the bathroom to frolic under a waterfall in the guise of having a bath. And it was probably the only time that people ran into a theater to watch an ad.

A Dunlopillo ad from 1953

Here’s a Dunlopillo ad featuring the big Indian stars of the day from 1953 –  Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari. For nostalgic fans, it is a treat – especially with that panoramic view of Marine drive without a single high rise. But it wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s saturated media world. Ashok Kumar is occasionally self-conscious. And Meena Kumari, in probably one of her early advertising appearances looks ill-at-ease with a manufactured situation of a star discussing the next day’s shooting schedule. The product shots are cringe-worthy. And it is obvious that the star does not like the intrusion into his bedroom. A far cry from the celebrity appearances and ads we see today. To beat it all, the ad film has a complete credit sequence right in the beginning.

Brands are your hanger-on friends

A couple of crows take a free ride on a deer Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash
Brands pop up in the unlikeliest places! Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash

You know the type – insinuating themselves into your conversations, waylaying you in the corridors when you least expect them, making an appearance at odd moments. Those are the dynamics of the relationship. Brands remain on the periphery of your life. So, they have to work a lot harder to get your attention. Earning attention is not a recent requirement. That’s what brands always had to do to enter your social realm. Before the internet was invented, attention was a lot easier to get. In the 60s and 70s, it was child’s play compared to now when people read newspapers for hours in the morning and watched some TV with the family in the evening.

A crowd full of photographers at an event Photo by Barbara Provenzano on Unsplash
Everyone taking a picture at the same time Photo by Barbara Provenzano on Unsplash

Now the whole world has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) There’s a screen in front of our faces all day long. From 5 inches to 55 inches. Real-life rarely intrudes. Like frogs leaping from puddle to puddle, we click remotes or jab our thumbs, leaping from one topic to another. Never remaining long enough to gather in-depth knowledge because that requires work. And effort.  But in the age of instant gratification, who has the patience to linger? The life of an ad now is a solar flare of attention. It peaks and dies away just as quickly. Or flows forgotten into the waterfall of social feeds. We’ve moved into tribal territories online. Seeking relationships with people who conform to our ideas and our point of view.

Brand activism

 Nike shoes against a graffiti wall  Photo by Hunter Johnson on Unsplash
Nike shoes against a graffiti wall Photo by Hunter Johnson on Unsplash

Activists cannot hope to garner attention for their cause if they used the methods used even a decade ago. The objectives are clear. What can be done that is legal but inflammatory?  Look at the posters promoting causes now. They have to play on emotions to get 10 seconds of TV coverage. Or be dismissed to irrelevance with a few feeble likes. 

Companies prefer neutrality and brands could get away by promoting causes which were not seen as divisive by donating some part of their proceeds or profits. But some of them are beginning to experiment with aligning with their core base at the expense of the rest of the population – unlike the past. Remember the uproar over Nike and Colin Kaepernick?

What the Colin Kaepernick ad establishes

Brands are being forced into taking sides and accept that they cannot please everyone. But when media moves on from this story to the next one, I think this will also fade just as easily. If brands ride out the firestorm of negativity, people forget. And no one knows that better than politicians. As our attention spans wither into smaller and smaller units, all that’s needed is to stay strong for a short period and the tornado of invective will move on.

Brand Conversations

A cup of coffee with the word 'Begin' printed on it placed on a wooden table. Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash
Brands have to respond to customers now Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

A crucial change over the last couple of decades is that brands can’t control conversations around their image any more. They can only listen and respond. If the brand chooses not to respond, they lose out. It’s a long way from the 80s and 90s when brand conversations were only one way and customers were listeners. Letters to a brand were few and far between. Now, social media has become a magnet for conversations, usually negative experiences, since they arouse stronger emotions.

Complaints are a way to establish a closer relationship with the customer, even as they seem like hurdles. Handling problems well result in higher growth as well as brand salience because they become talking points in the customer’s conversations. The costs of acquiring a new customer will always be higher than keeping old ones. So brands who frown on seeing complaints in their social media streams and delete them are making big mistakes. The situation can be defused with immediate, empathetic replies and without having to spend huge sums of money. Customers who have been ignored tend to talk about the problem for much longer – and negative word of mouth is worse than indifference.

Brands can’t expect empathy from customers

View through a pair of spectacles held out in a person's hand
Brands cannot expect customers to see things their way
Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Hard luck stories about deficient services don’t cut it. Brands who don’t deliver as promised cannot expect customers to understand because it is not a social relationship. Money has been exchanged in return for fulfilling a need and the worst thing a brand can do is to play the empathy card.

Here’s the contradiction – a brand needs to be empathetic about its customer’s needs but that doesn’t work both ways. Its the sad truth. Customers who were once loyal will move to the shiny new product when the novelty wears off – or when they believe that the brand is no longer delivering on the promised value.

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