No relief for brands

Sravanthi Challapalli | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 17, 2015

Hour of need: Lending a helping hand during a crisis, and not capitalising on it for selfish means, can do brandsgood in the long term

Do brands deserve the flak they get for their attempts at corporate social responsibility?

When cabs disappeared from Chennai’s roads during a spell of rain and flooding in November, it led to some criticism and jesting about how cab providers could offer boats. Ola then did exactly that. It launched a free ferry rescue service to bring people out of waterlogged areas and shift them to safer places.

When the rain and floods returned to Chennai earlier this month, swamping and submerging the city, many cell phone companies announced free talk time/credit/data to help their consumers. It isn’t clear how helpful these offers were as mobile networks in several parts of the city collapsed due to some reason or the other. Some of those affected complain that they still do not have good service. Some users that cat.a.lyst spoke to saw it as a publicity stunt. There was also an uproar over airlines hiking their prices during these days, and those companies rejecting the allegation that they used the situation to make more money.

Base motives?

Cab providers too provided free services to stranded citizens. An Uber ride came in handy for freelance journalist Pradipti Jayaram who found herself stranded and cash-strapped as the ATMs had run out of cash themselves. “Whether it was a branding or PR strategy doesn’t concern me, it got the job done,” she says.

Zomato offered a meal donation scheme that called upon people to buy the flood-affected a meal, which it would match with another and distribute. Many saw it as a tactic by the company to rack up sales in the time of a crisis. (See Addendum, Page 2) Zomato’s Founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal was quick to clarify that it did not make a penny off the scheme, and that criticism notwithstanding, it would use its large user platform to help. Shantanu Basrur, Product Manager at Zomato, later explained in a letter published in a section of the media that asking people to donate a free meal through Zomato gave them an opportunity to participate and widened the reach of the effort several-fold, compared to what could have been achieved had the firm simply donated some money.

Do brands deserve the flak they get for charity? Criticised if they do, criticised if they don’t, they have to walk a tightrope of correctness. Is there a ‘right’ way to give? cat.a.lyst spoke to a few observers for insights into these questions.

‘Scrutiny inevitable’

Santosh Desai, brand consultant and author, says today brands are seen to ride the social concern bandwagon. There is appreciation when they do it well, as well as disapproval and scrutiny if they are seen to be concerned only for selfish reasons such as brand-building or making money. And that scrutiny is only to be expected.

During humanitarian crises, the expectation is that corporations and celebrities should act only as human beings and suspend every other role they don. That their concerns should be selfless and altruistic. “In extreme crises, you should not do anything to get mileage and grow volumes. That will be seen as calculating. I understand why people can be upset,” says Desai.

Brand benefits

Jessie Paul, Founder and CEO of brand consultancy Paul Writer, says companies cannot really have a moral stance. They are driven by keeping their customers and employers happy. If the employees believe their organisation has to chip in and do what it can, it most likely will, because the brand benefit is keeping its stakeholders happy.

If the brand does not fulfil their expectations, the stakeholders have to train it to do so. She points out that a corporation is answerable to a board, and needs to keep commercial good in mind. “In times of a crisis, everyone will do their bit, but come March 31, they begin to weigh the benefits,” she says.

Corporations are usually seen as organisations that are removed from people’s daily lives, focused on making money. People often find fault with them when they attempt something ‘humanitarian’ and seek publicity. Siddharth Shekar Singh, Associate Professor of Marketing, Indian School of Business, says this “antagonism” between people and corporations need not exist. “Across the world, companies are realising they are embedded in a society. If people know they are there to support them when needed, the brand gets strengthened, with long-term rewards. Trust is undermined when the brand is seen as making money off a crisis.”

Desai mentions a past client of his which, when a devastating earthquake hit Kutch in 2001, donated relief material worth ₹10 lakh and spent a few crores advertising the fact. He says, “In such times, you should be seen to be only, only giving, not doing anything else. If it’s not a crisis, and you seek publicity or mileage for such giving, that is fine.”

ISB’s Singh says companies have many occasions to donate to a good cause, such as children’s welfare, in a sustained and subtle way that people do not see it as sales when there is nothing urgent or compelling. Say, ₹5 added to your restaurant bill with your consent to fund children’s education may not attract as much criticism.

Jayaram says the experience has not made her extra favourable to Uber. She still uses the service that gives her the best deal. Nor does the criticism Uber gets its drivers attacking women passengers affect her. “I’ve only had good experiences as a customer, so a bad incident or an altruistic move doesn’t affect my purchase decision. But for that day, I am grateful, yes. Getting a cab, to start with, and saving close to ₹500 during such a bleak, tumultuous time provided a tiny ray of sunshine.”

Published on December 17, 2015
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