2021 is Year Two of the global pandemic. Many of us relied on nostalgia for comfort, re-sharing memories of the past on social media. Like us, brands looked back, too, and ads were redolent with yesteryear moments. For instance, Cadbury and Ogilvy hit it out of the park when they brought back an iconic ’90s ad with a gender swap. This time, it was women’s cricket, a man in the stands praying she would whack the ball out of the ground, and the nostalgic jingle Kuch Khaas Hai playing in the background.

Similarly, Swiggy and Lowe Lintas made parody ads, told in flashback, to debut the food delivery platform's Instamart. It drew references from Taj Mahal Tea’s “Wah Taj!” ad starring tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and the Liril soap ad with a young woman bathing under a waterfall. Even fitness platform Cult.fit put out a humorous ad recreating the climax bull race of the film Zindagi Na Milegi Doobara for its promotional campaign, ‘fitness is not an option.’ “These ads have got nothing to do with Covid-19, hygiene, or what’s happening around us, it’s an escape into nostalgia,” says Renuka Kamath, professor of marketing, SPJIMR.

Despite the triumph and tumult of some brands through the year, the overall advertising sentiment was muted, says Ambi Parameswaran, brand/CEO coach. “The problem is not demand, it is supply, across industries. All companies have had supply chain issues. In the FMCG industry especially, there is a fear of downgrading to economy products from premium products by middle income and lower-middle income consumers,” he says.


Whether brands must take a social stand or not was a huge part of online chatter this year. From Fabindia’s ‘Jashn-E-Riwaaz’, to Tanishq’s ‘Ekatvam’, to Manyavar’s ‘Kanyamaan’, to JBL’s (cracker) noise-cancelling headphones, to Dabur’s depiction of a same-sex couple celebrating Karwa Chauth ; many brands were embroiled in unexpected controversies. “At the end of the day, advertising is not about change-making, it is about selling a product,” says Jermina Menon, Founder of boutique strategy and marketing consultancy, Knowetic.

If brands had conviction in their messaging, then even if the social media crusaders were loud, it should not have shaken the loyalty that shoppers felt toward the brand. “A lot of the time, brands find purpose by standing up for a social cause. Although there is nothing wrong with that, they should be aware of the risks prior, else it’s a foolish move. If they took the risk, and then backed out because of a controversy, then it’s sad,” adds Menon.

On the other hand, Vigyan Verma, Founder of brand consultancy company, The Bottom Line, wonders whether such ads would be talked about if the controversy did not exist. “It’s important to question whether there is an intrinsic appeal in the brands or are they riding on a controversy? I’m not a believer in ‘some publicity is better than no publicity’. The context of association is important, because it may help in the short-term marketing metrics, but harm the brand in the long run,” he says.

But there were some brands like Fortune Oil that were put in a spot yet came out unscathed.

When cricketer Sourav Ganguly suffered a heart attack, many trolled Fortune Oil for its heart-healthy brand positioning. But, the company stuck to Ganguly and used the opportunity to educate its audience, which served the brand better. As Parameswaran says: “Fortune Oil took it in its stride, and said: If it can happen to Ganguly, it can happen to you, so be careful. Negative reaction to an ad is expected but brands need to decide whether they want to engage and hit back or stay quiet and ignore depending on the issue.”

Parameswaran points to a foreign ad by the fitness equipment company Peloton, which made a statement by turning negative responses and tumbling stock prices into positive buzz with a timely, humorous ad. The company bore the brunt of an ill-fated product placement in And Just Like That , HBO Max’s sequel series to Sex and the City , where one of the main characters collapses after a Peloton workout. As a quick-witted response, Peloton put out an ad featuring the same actor with a hilarious declaration that he’s alive and well, unlike the fictional character, and ends with actor Ryan Reynolds’s narration on the health benefits of cycling, which became a viral social media sensation.

Competitive advertising

The year started with a bang with the war of soaps. Sebamed’s gutsy advertising, which received mixed responses, compared Lux soap’s pH to that of dishwashing soap Rin. Though it grabbed eyeballs, Knowetic’s Menon says the best approach to build a brand is by highlighting your strengths rather than the competitor’s weaknesses.

“Customers get sympathetic towards your competitors for putting them down. I don’t think going after competitors is a good idea also because it’s like telling the customers that they made the wrong choice, and customers don’t like being told that they were wrong,” she adds.

When it comes to digital, as Adidas confessed in 2019, brands are over-investing. “Many brands are beginning to admit that they don’t know what their digital budgets are doing for them. The RoI is unclear,” says SPJIMR’s Kamath. With a shorter shelf life for ads, the messaging may get lost, warns Parameswaran. “Earlier, we made one ad, and it used to run for two years. With TV ads, the shelf life became six months, and now it has come down to one or two months with digital and social. Despite many ad campaigns afoot, if you don’t focus on what your brand stands for, what the customer value proposition is, and how to stay consistent with that, you are going to send confusing messages to the consumer,” he adds.

Some brands which got the messaging right and cleaved through the clutter were CRED, The Whole Truth (TWT) and Amazon Prime’s ad for Sherni . CRED’s unconventional storytelling appealed to the edgy and meme-liking irreverent sensibility of the digital natives, millennials and Gen Z and TWT’s brand ethos is reflected even in its ad campaigns.

The brand did an initial round of expository ads busting myths about food marketing helping consumers have a healthier lifestyle. Now, the latest campaign invites honest social media influencers to promote TWT products that they actually use and love, instead of blindly pushing products to their consumers without having tried it themselves. Sherni is a great example of how brands innovatively used consumer sentiments to market themselves. The title song featured women achievers from different fields — a nurse to a hula hoop artist. Not only did the campaign strike a chord with viewers, but it also entertained them.

“I thought the ad was extremely innovative, and of course, the feminist in me liked how women empowerment was shown very differently and strongly, and made the point that all of us are shernis in our own way,” says Menon.