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This week, we want you to take notice of a short film called ‘Save Ralph’ and the unique impact such communication can have on viewers. You might have seen it around – Sunny Jain, the President of Beauty and Personal Care at Unilever  made a post sharing it on behalf of the company.

Unilever has endorsed this film from Humane Society International as part of its  Positive Beauty vision, a movement that aims to end discrimination in beauty and gender, and revive 1.5 million hectares of land and water bodies by 2030. The company sees it as snapping out of the mindset that has normalised harmful practices over time – ‘Say No to Normal, Say Yes to Positive Beauty’.

The film in focus tries to sensitise viewers to one such practice: animal testing in the personal care and cosmetics industry. Its presentation style is modelled after the popular ‘A Day in the Life Of___’ format where a camera crew follows Ralph, an animated bunny who represents all the animals that have to suffer lab testing. The film’s purpose is not to lay out the facts but to humanise a species that is taken for granted and equalise their trauma in the viewers’ eyes.

Save Ralph - A short film with Taika Waititi:

For those who come out the other end of the film wondering how Unilever has found a workaround to animal testing, the company has broken down its approach in an update from 2020.

Animal testing alternatives:

Now pause and think, how often do you see branded content about causes like these? Sure, buzzwords such as eco-friendly, sustainable, cruelty-free, zero waste and natural have been going around for a while – probably a result of the boost given to eco-friendly products by the e-commerce space in India. And there have been ads by some of these brands that have grown big enough to spend that kind of money. But branded content is a rarity, if not a complete absence in this space.

The closest example we have found is Mamaearth’s  ‘Goodness is in the little choices we make everyday’. An example of hybrid branded content, it takes a stance to join a cultural conversation (when doing good, every little bit counts) and reinforces the non-monetary reasons to buy from the brand (Mamaearth promotes eco-friendly living even outside of its products), but closes like an ad with a heavy focus on how Mamaearth’s products can address the issue highlighted.

Given this context, we find it a welcome but unusual development to see Unilever, a multinational FMCG, promote a film like ‘Save Ralph’.

The kind of communication that has been created by Mamaearth is definitely useful in spreading the word about eco-friendly alternatives. But it may not do enough to convince mainstream consumers who, unlike the niche consumers of sustainable products, approach these alternatives rationally at the time of purchase. They do care about the greater good yet find it more practical to go in for the cheaper and easily accessible option.

Branded content like ‘Save Ralph’, on the other hand, is bound to be far more effective in moving this kind of consumer to desired action. Its purpose is to create an emotional connect that can break through desensitisation and convert the viewer to the cause.

Here is the evidence why.

Why branded content works to convince consumers of a cause

Branded content uses narratives and creative visualisation to develop its argument. It doesn’t state the facts in a straight-forward way or get into finger-wagging. This allows it to engage viewers, and for the purpose of consciousness-raising, ensure that they don’t feel blamed and backed into a corner by the brand. Basically, it makes for a subtle way of addressing the subject.

‘Save Ralph’ captures the issue of animal cruelty through the story of Ralph, the fuzzy rabbit who is cooperative to a fault. Born into animal testing, he is resigned to his fate and tries to justify it – even in the face of his growing injuries. He has given himself over to this life so completely that the idea of being a free and healthy rabbit out in the field sounds alien to him.

Put differently, Ralph the rabbit is made to sound tragic much like a person would when put in an unfortunate situation. The film’s creators have contextualised him using facts but have arranged those facts through the lens of a human being. They have crafted the narrative such that the condition of the lab rabbits sounds more real and becomes easier to sympathise with.

Through its visual presentation, the film brings together two contradictory concepts to create discomfort around the normalisation of animal testing. It combines animation, popularly associated with child-friendly content, and graphic content, conventionally categorised as age-restricted content. This style of presentation allows the creator to disarm the viewer through the build-up to the issue and make the delivery that much more impactful.

Another benefit of using branded content is that it makes the creator seem like a trustworthy spokesperson for the cause.

If branded communication includes strong associations with selling and buying, it doesn’t feel earnest and looks more like the creator is trying to earn brownie points with its audience. While it would be impossible for a commercial brand to do away with that association, branded content certainly helps tone it down by making the communication about the subject and the receiver, rather than the sender.

Moreover, since branded content isn’t meant to generate sales (not directly at least), it frees it up to start a dialogue and spur the viewer into action – which is exactly what the creator of cause-driven communication requires.

In Unilever’s case, it has gone a step further by not including its branding within the film and by letting an NPO take the lead and play the primary sender. Not only does this clear ‘Save Ralph’ of any suspicions of vested interest but also shows Unilever as taking the cause so seriously that it is willing to put its branding secondary to it.

Wrapping up

There exists almost a white space when it comes to branded content, which furthers the cause of eco-friendly/cruelty-free/sustainable/zero waste consumption in India. Unilever’s entry into this space – even if at a global level – can be read as a sign of a growing clientele for such products. And a signal that people are feeling ready to make the transformational shift to a culture of consumption that caters to more than their selfish interest.

While sustainable brands in India are already attempting to bring this shift, they need to seriously consider branded content as the next step to cultural change. If they really want to play the role of change maker, straight-forward communication that centres on their brand will not suffice. They will need to play where all the other categories are present – in the space of branded content.