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In the digital age of today, cultural discourse is equal to social media content. Activists for causes aim to shape public perception, knowledge and beliefs about themes by putting out streams of posts on that topic. 

The content mix could comprise concepts and theories, opinions, viewpoints and even fake history. A lot of the content is simplified theory with a strong emotional content so that it strikes enough of a chord, arouses strong enough emotions that it gets people to forward and share the content.  

In the non-social media era, public perceptions were shaped by mass media content. Whereas nowadays, social media content plays a much bigger role in shaping public perceptions.

How does this shift impact marketing and branding? In pursuit of brand purpose, many big brands have chosen to take an activist stance in their communication. They feel compelled to participate in social conversations about culturally salient topics and offer their opinions. 

They take the side of their core TG e.g. women or men or even youth and become spokespersons for a 'progressive' point of view.  And they make big, bold, thematic video stories as branded content which they release on YouTube as well as on mainstream media.

Apart from highlighting brand purpose as a goal, one of the core tenets of brand management is not to become culturally 'outdated', thus acquiring the opposite of a 'cool' image, a 'fuddy-duddy' image. For this, brands need to catch their audiences young and appeal to the youth. If they are not part of the generational change and out of the repertoire of choice of teenagers and youth, then they could fall completely out of favour with the upcoming generation. So, all brands try to connect with GenZ and now Gen Alpha. But even more so brands that are strongly led by image - such as soft drinks, beer, make up, skin and hair-care, deos etc.

Following the currents of social media discourse on trending topics and what seem to be the issue of the day, they do PR stunts (Vim variant for men washing dishes) as well as thematic stories in their branded content. Sometimes, this focus on trending topics goes horribly wrong. Or even their strategy of promoting a "progressive" ideology falls flat.

Sometimes, all that it results in is a backlash on social media channels, a narrow escape.  But there are also situations where there is a huge boomerang effect and the backlash impacts sales. The brand's customers are so enraged by the brand communication that they just stop buying from it. This is when brands are completely tripped up by trying to align with social media discourse, which is not aligned to their consumers' beliefs and viewpoints.

Let's look at some recent examples, including the most recent case of Budlight.

Bud Light

Bud Light's sponsorship of an April 1 Instagram post by a transgender Instagram influencer, Dylan Mulvaney, sparked a firestorm of anti-trans backlash and calls for boycott. The influencer collaborated with Bud Light on just one post which featured him holding cans of beer, and that led unprecedented drop in sales.

A very old beer brand with an established image that seemed to be getting outdated and irrelevant to GenZ, the solution seemed obvious to the new marketing director - the brand needs to present a 'woke' image to the younger generations who are more 'woke' than the older generations.  LGBTQ with a focus on 'transgenders' and a trending influencer seemed to be just the right solution to fix the brand image problem.

The brand’s controversial marketing tie-up ultimately resulted in declining demand. Overall, Bud Light’s sales volume declined by 34.7% at bars, restaurants, and other venues between April 2 and April 15, according to BeerBoard.  After an initial period of "waiting it out", the management went into damage control mode and are now working to turn the situation around.

The campaign backfired because it did not resonate with the brand’s core customer base, which includes beer drinkers from the conservative side of the political spectrum. They felt that the brand was turning ‘woke’, leading to a mass boycott by the customers. In pursuit of one segment of drinkers, they alienated a large base of core and loyal users.


Pepsi's TV spot featuring Kendall Jenner was widely criticised for being tone-deaf and trivialising social justice movements. 

The campaign, clearly intended to be targeting the youth, showed Kendall Jenner handing out Pepsi cans to police men in the Black Lives Matter movement and thus averting conflict between the young protestors and the police, who eventually perceive the police officers as one of them, after they have a can of Pepsi. The campaign was seen as an attempt to capitalise on the Black Lives Matter movement and was accused of being insensitive and inappropriate.

Many things went wrong in the campaign. Apart from the politically sensitive nature of the campaign, using Jenner as a harbinger of peace was a complete misfit. Jenner’s identity of being a fashion influencer - primarily known for being associated with the Kardashian family - instead of a political activist certainly made matters worse. Even though Pepsi would have intended to target the youth by featuring Jenner, they should have realised that the youth also vociferously believed in the movement and would certainly have a strong reaction to the campaign. 


Gillette's campaign, which used the tagline "The best a man can get", was replaced with the tagline – ‘The best a man can be’ for this campaign around the time of the #MeToo movement. The campaign sparked a wave of criticism from a large section of its customer base as they felt alienated due to the campaign, according to many comments on its YouTube video. Many consumers wanted the brand to stick with selling, not take a cultural stance and tell them what to do. Some comments also called it “feminist propaganda”.

While the campaign was culturally relevant and progressive, the alienation of its large customer base became the core issue. 

The three examples stated above, all from USA, illustrate the tricky balancing act that brands need to pull off, when they choose to be 'activist' ... which often becomes controversial.  Closer home was the recent Tanishq campaign to do with religious harmony and inter-religion marriage.  Getting involved in matters of race, gender and religion which are central to people's sense of their cultural identity is fraught with risks.  

The solution - brands need to figure out what position their own users especially their loyal user base takes on controversial topics pertaining to race, gender and religion.  Mismatch between social media and lived realities can open up a chasm of misalignment for brands to fall into.


During the pandemic, Kent RO made a social media post featuring its brand ambassador – Hema Malini, along with her daughter Esha Deol. It tried to sell its product as a necessity during the pandemic by targeting domestic workers, highlighting how their hands could be dirty and thus spread Covid. They positioned the product as an antigen to the virus, as it helps in the kneading of dough by using ‘pure’ water.

This campaign failed the cultural sensitivity test.  Perhaps the campaign voiced the fears that many of its users felt with respect to their domestic help and as such was 'true' to its consumers.  But, the public voicing of such discriminatory and classist sentiments was unacceptable and social media pressure forced the brand to withdraw its campaign.

Kent’s campaign faced a huge backlash even though their customers are not from a certain ‘class’, but they were insensitive towards them. 


Navigating cultural sensitivities in an age of social media has become very challenging for brands.  From social media backlash to reputational risks to business risks, the wrong strategies and campaigns can backfire badly.

The easy solution for brands is to stick to their knitting, viz make ads that sell their products on the basis of their features and benefits. In terms of casting and storylines stay safe and play within the lines of 'conservatism' to be acceptable to the majority. Thus, brands don't venture out of the zone of 'safe', product advertising. As that's their business, to make and sell products and services that their consumers need.  It is not their business to bring about social and cultural change.

However, especially for old and reputed brands this might not work as they are being challenged by newer, 'cooler' brands that target younger generations. To stay relevant to the younger generation, brands feel compelled to participate in discussions on trending topics as well as adopt an activist stance, profess a point-of-view on the 'big' issues facing the world - be it gender, race, religion, the environment and so on.

In such a case, the only way for brands to avoid controversies that can endanger their business is to measure and assess their own consumers' stance on these topics and where their consumers' acceptability threshold lies. Brands need to invest in gathering rock-solid information on the boundaries of acceptability for their own users before embarking on making potentially controversial communication and branded content.