Don't risk your brand reputation with a moment of risque entertainment

The longevity of the brand would be at risk unless customers are able to see in the product or service, a set of attributes vital for an emotional connect. How to build a long-term brand?

01 Oct 2014 | By Suresh Verghis & K Radhakrishnan

“In this ever-changing society, the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. They are real and sustainable. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit, not an ad campaign. The companies that are lasting are those that are authentic.”   
-  Howard Schultz, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time”

A small video clip showing excerpts from the gala evening celebrations of the annual dealer meet of a major Indian tyre company went viral on the internet recently. It showed a scantily clad dancer moving from table to table, teasing and cajoling the audience, pulling a few of the shy ones to her chest, to everyone’s merriment. As the evening wore on, the music became more strident, the crowd got raunchier and the lady, as part of her repertoire, was inviting participants to the stage and encouraging them to shed their inhibitions and indulge in activities that can only be called vulgar and distasteful.

And all this against a backdrop where the company name and logo, what we generally call branding, was clearly visible.

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the objectification of women or whether corporate entities directly or tacitly are a party to it, as we could easily conclude from the above example. No, these are weightier issues that rightly deserve its own space for in-depth discussion and discourse. Here, let us discuss what exactly constitutes a brand and how vital it is to protect the integrity of the brand.

A brand is much more than a catchy name and fancy logo, as we all know. Brand is about meanings and attributes about your product or service that your customers (and also others in your universe like vendors, suppliers, employees and competitors) carry around in their head. It is often an emotional connect, could even seem irrational on the surface, but there is no doubt a strong brand elicits strong, positive reactions from its audience.
Brands: How it works

Let us take Apple as a brand. What does the brand Apple stand for? If you ask ten people, at least eight of them are sure to say, that Apple stands for sleek, well-designed products that are fun and easy to use. The meaning is crystal clear. Similarly, if you look at Nike – the iconic shoe brand – you will notice that most people associate Nike with attributes such as achievement in sport, design and quality. Closer home, what are the attributes that come to your mind, when we discuss Maruti as a brand? Often, it is Quality, Reliability and Value for Money. State Bank of India: large, stable, safe. Tata Group: Ethical, trustworthy. ICICI Bank: Caring for customers (Remember the “Khayal aapka campaign?”)

So it goes on.
As you can see, a strong brand has a set of clear and simple meanings and attributes which can be clearly and easily communicated to its audience. It is not relevant whether these meanings and attributes are true or not. Sometimes, they are just perceptions based on experience, hearsay or imagination. But as we said earlier in this article, our connections to brands are most often emotional and need not be based on rational thought.

Imbuing your product and service with a set of easily decipherable meanings is very important to make a strong brand. True, with a big advertising budget and clever marketing, you can to some extent create a brand and even sustain it to a certain extent.

But the longevity of the brand would be really at risk unless customers are able to see in the product or service, a strong set of attributes vital for that emotional connect.

This is also the reason why companies go to great lengths to protect the sanctity of their brand and ensure that the brand values are protected at all costs. Some companies even select brand champions from within the organisation, whose job is to ensure that the brand’s value, it’s reputation, and ultimately its meaning is not corrupted during the grind of daily, operational issues.

So to come back to our starting point, will the publicity surrounding the viral video adversely affect the tyre brand? While the answer would remain in the realms of conjecture, our own take is that it is better not to take undue risks with the brand where there is a clear possibility of alienating a sizable part of your audience. After all, a brand is built up slowly and painstaking over a period of time with great effort.

Why risk it all on an evening of ill-conceived horse play in the name of entertainment?