How did we talk to brands before social media?

We called them via telephones – this seems quaint now!

We emailed them – this seems slow now!

We chatted with them via online chat tools – I still do this, with Amazon.

What happens now? We tweet to the brand.

But we have always talked about brands, between ourselves, and then on social media, eventually.

Brands have disproportionate power in talking to us (broadcasting, ideally – not “talking”, per se), while we had very limited power to talk about brands in turn. Social media upended that power equation completely.

So now we use social media for assorted things when it comes to brands – customer care conversations, annoyances (petty, and big), grievances, experiences (good and bad), among others.

An offshoot of this upturning of the power equation is the boycott or canceling of brands as a way to make them comply with our demands.

The tactic, in the offline world, may seem something like this: you go to the brand’s headquarters, stand outside with a placard that says, “Boycott this brand!” and you call anyone and everyone who passes by. More people join and soon a mob manifests itself, all holding the same placard. The company’s boss looks down from her window worried and calls for a meeting of the concerned executives within the organisation. They decide to do something to appease the boycott-mob. And so it goes.

Social media has made it easy to not waste your time to physically hold a placard outside the company’s office. You can do it in the comfort of your bedroom, in your pajamas.

So, given how easy it is to effect economic damage on a brand by calling for a boycott and then gathering an online mob to comply, let us go into the reasons why such boycotts are called for.

Here is the latest, featuring Zomato (for the umpteenth time):

In this Zomato example, it was a genuine customer care conversation gone awry because the customer care executive did not perform their task within reasonable expectations, and used the “should know Hindi” as a crutch to a restaurant in Tamil Nadu to deny a customer what was owed to him, in terms of service or refund.

Ok, so the customer was clearly wronged here. But should he start a “boycott” campaign? Actually, he did not. He raised the issue of being wronged, with the reason and (damning) evidence, and wanted to get his word out. Incidentally, this was Vikash’s first-ever tweet – he, most probably, joined Twitter just to make his voice heard. The mob that gathered after his message decided to use other means to make the brand comply, beyond simply raising the issue.

So, “Hey Zomato, please listen to me’ turned into ‘Hey Zomato, we will boycott you if you don’t apologise.”. A call for conversation and understanding morphed into a threat.

But these days, more often than not, the “boycott” weapon is used for other reasons. The most common reason is, “The brand’s communication hurt my feelings and sentiments.”

Tons of brands have faced the brunt of this “boycott” weapon in recent times: Fabindia, Tanishq Ekatvam, Titan Watches, ITC Bingo, Netflix, and many more.

‘Hurt sentiments’

Now, what is this “hurt sentiments” reason about?

The brand said “X”. And I, within my worldview, education, exposure, likes, dislikes, and interests, did not find it appealing. In fact, not only did I not find it appealing, I found that I was repelled by what the brand said. It annoyed me, angered me, and…my sentiments were hurt.

A couple of layers are important here:

1. Was my sentiment hurt by the brand during an ongoing conversation with me as an active customer (like in the Zomato example)?

In the case of Fabindia, Tanishq, ITC Bingo, Netflix and others – no. The brand was broadcasting a communication, I happened to be one of the many recipients of the message. Sure, I may have bought the brand’s products in the past and may do it in the present/future too, but the communication was not specifically meant to me.

2. Is the communication from the brand illegal as per the laws of the country?
In the case of Fabindia, Tanishq, ITC Bingo, Netflix and others – not at all. They are perfectly legal, but within my limited worldview, I deem it “wrong”. And I take it upon myself to teach the brand a lesson by boycotting it.

3. Is the communication from the brand factually wrong or misleading?
In the case of Fabindia, Tanishq, ITC Bingo, Netflix and others – absolutely not.

4. Would my personally boycotting the brand teach them a lesson?
It wouldn’t, obviously. I’m just one customer. So, I gather other like-minded strangers via social media and gather an online mob that seems large enough to threaten the brand into complying with my perspective about what they should have communicated.

So, I see four escalating steps.

1. “I’m offended. I won’t watch that ad./buy that product.” – Human and individual reaction.

The intention is clear: I am offended. It is up to me to act on it, myself.

2. “I’m offended. Allow me to explain my perspective on why I think the brand is wrong.” – Building on the individual reaction to make it into a widely understood counterpoint.

The intention here? Floating an alternative way to think about what the brand presented first. This is using the power of thought and perspective to make the brand managers and agency to consider how to think about their own communication.

3. “I’m offended. You should all be offended too.” – Starting an online mob.

The intention? No reasoning – I am angry, let more people get angry and something may come out of all that collective anger.

4. “I’m offended. Let’s all be offended together and destroy that brand for daring to offend us.” –

Cancel culture. Intention? A threat – submit to my worldview, or perish!

Obviously, quite a few nuances are at play here.

For instance, wasn’t Mohandas Gandhi asking for Indians to boycott foreign clothes to show the British our collective might? Wasn’t that cancel culture?

Of course, it was. But it was not in response to merely “hurt sentiments”. The British did not hurt Indian sentiments or Gandhi’s. They treated us poorly after taking over our country. Gandhi’s cancel culture was in response to an entire country being occupied against its will.

The operative phrase is “hurt sentiments” – this is internal to a person. This is one perspective. Other, alternative perspectives can co-exist peacefully with the “hurt sentiment”. And more importantly, the person is not being held hostage to buy only from that brand. They have a choice to completely ignore the brand, buy from others, or even hold a grudge against the brand’s communication while buying from the brand (that is, holding two contrasting opinions at the same time).

Did the Tanishq Ekatvam ad last year “hurt sentiments”? To many who joined the online mob, it did.

Did the brand force them to watch the ad or buy from them? No.
Do people have a choice to buy from other brands? Of course.

Did people move away from the brand? No – they wanted the brand to comply with their level of thinking. That is, “My way, or no way.” This took an offline route too, where the brand’s staff were threatened on telephone calls after finding them via LinkedIn, and local thugs made “friendly visits” to the brand stores, asking the store manager to write apology letters and paste them on the front window so that other local thugs could read them and not waste their precious thuggery time with more “friendly visits”.

The larger theme of “hurt sentiment’’ is about one person personally being affected, internally. Towards that, what steps could they take?

  • They could move away from what hurts their sentiments.
  • They could tell themselves that it is just a different perspective, a different way to look at things, but they do not like or agree with the way the brand has said it.

    These are normal reactions that are within the control of the person.

But when the same people take it upon themselves to offer their disagreement to the brand, what steps could they take?

  • They could argue why their perspective is better, and why the brand’s perspective is warped.
  • They could make their argument widely available using social media and get more people to see their perspective, in order to counter the brand’s disproportionate power (and money) in broadcasting the brand’s perspective. These, too, are normal reactions that are within the control of the person and within the confines of what social media allows us to indulge in. It is when the person lacks either the patience or the intention to engage and let the other side see their perspective that they devolve into the online version of abusing the opponent by saying, “You are wrong. I’m right. Do as I say. Or else…” It is when the person lacks either the patience or the intention to engage and let the other side see their perspective that they devolve into the online version of abusing the opponent by saying, “You are wrong. I’m right. Do as I say. Or else…”.

The first two, in the four steps above, are civil ways to engage amidst differing perspectives. The last two are not, and end up as a mob, and then devolve into cancel culture.

It’s a conscious choice to civil, online, or offline.

Is there a situation where this “hurt my sentiment” also results in real-world impact beyond that person even as it complies with all the laws of the land?

Yes, that is a possibility.

For instance, if the brand’s communication punches down on already marginalised, victimised, and stigmatised groups.

Did the Tanishq Ekatvam ad last year punch down on marginalised communities? No. It merely showed an idealistic inter-faith couple’s family, all being happy and good to one another.

Did Netflix, by having that show where a couple kissed inside a temple in a show, make the lives of marginalised and stigmatised communities worse? No. It only had two consenting adults express their love to each other in a far milder way than what has been depicted in Kajuraho.

Did Fabindia, by naming their new collection Jashn-e-Riwaaz, trample on marginalised sets of people? No, they just named their collection in Urdu, one of the many official languages in India.

Still, if you did feel strongly about why these brands are wrong, you must make your point of view heard. Whether the brand listens to your point of view, and does something about, should depend on the power of your conviction and the number of people you can convince with your perspective to agree with you – and not a threat to cause economic damage if they don’t listen to your side.

That brings me to this odd situation where two sides are threatening to wreak economic loss to the same brand – Zomato.

On one side, there is a “defund the hate” campaign that asks individual brands that sponsor TV news channels that are spreading hate. No, these are not my words – these are the words of the Supreme Court of India: “Stopping hate on television was as essential for law and order as arming policemen with lathis and putting up barricades to prevent the spread of violence and riots” and “People can take any tone on TV as long as they don’t incite violence, hatred, communal riots. We are interested only with people instigating and inciting violence and riots. These are situations which cause loss of lives and property.”

On the other side, there is a group that is threatening to boycott the same brand if it complied with the first group’s ask.

In the former, there is a question being asked from a brand after making a stand clearly, from an individual. To be sure, it is a coordinated campaign, much like a coordinated cancel-culture campaign. The brand has responded based on what they believe in.

I do not agree with this tactic because this borders on cancel culture by cornering the brand visibly. If there are laws against what the TV news channels are doing, a better way is to use the legal framework to make them comply with the law of the land instead of targetting brands that sponsor those channels.

The latter is a collective boycott call, within the confines of a cancel-culture campaign. There is no, “Here’s why you should not listen to them, Zomato.” Instead, it is simply, “If you listen to them, and do as they ask, prepare to be boycotted by us en masse.”

And therein lies the difference between step 2 and step 4, despite both being coordinated.

The next time you are offended by something a brand has said, please consider this:

This article first appeared on beastoftraal, which offers commentary on social media, public relations, marketing, advertising and branding.