It is an iconic brand, from a business house famed for its ethical practices and philanthropy, a group which has donated thousands of crores of rupees for national causes. But all this couldn’t save Tanishq, the jewellery brand from Tata group watch and jewellery-maker Titan, from the wrath of online social media mobs.

After the brand released a video ad celebrating interfaith harmony, it was viciously trolled by a section of the social media for allegedly promoting ‘love jihad ’.

No one was spared — not the brand, not the company and not even the extended salt-to-software Tata conglomerate’s other companies and executives. #BoycottTanishq started trending on Twitter. When a senior group executive allegedly got a death threat on social media, and some company stores were targeted, Titan caved and pulled the ad. Titan had just got a painful introduction to the latest creation of the new, post-social-media cyber world order — the weaponised consumer. What was once a tool of protest used by fringe groups has now, thanks to the massive force multiplier offered by social media, not just been mainstreamed by political parties and groupings but even used as a tool of statecraft.

In response to China’s border incursions in Ladakh, the Indian government retaliated by banning a number of Chinese apps, rendering a social media phenomenon like TikTok, a video-sharing platform developed by China’s ByteDance which was beginning to rival Facebook and Instagram in popularity, particularly among youth from peri-urban India, into an overnight ‘un-entity’. It simply ceased to exist.

The vicious vitriol, death and rape threats and savage trolling which targets representatives of such boycott campaigns maybe uniquely Indian, but trying to use consumer boycotts as a tool to bring about change in corporate policies is nothing new. In the US, food-maker Goya is facing a massive boycott campaign after its chief executive put out pro-Trump tweets.

The US President, no mean wielder of social media swords himself, has hit back at the “Radical Left” using “commerce to hurt their enemy” and has tweeted support for Goya. Trump has, in the past, called for his supporters to boycott brands which have attracted his wrath, like CNN and Nike.

Last month, global fast-food chain Burger King pulled ads from a television network considered pro government, after protesters seeking the ouster of the incumbent Prime Minister and new elections, called for a boycott of Burger King for advertising on the network. Since the protests are largely student-led — a key demographic for the chain — Burger King quickly complied.

The use of consumer boycotts has been a standard part of the toolkit of many organisations, both political and a-political. So animal rights activists PETA have called for a boycott of Air France since 2012 for transporting monkeys to pharma test labs, a Palestinian organisation called BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) has been using this path to try and discourage companies from dealing with Israel. However, the rise of mass online boycott movements is a relatively recent phenomenon in India. After the BJP and its famed IT wing demonstrated how effectively social media could be used to shape public opinion, others have been quick to jump on the bandwagon.

While all parts of the political spectrum have attempted to wield this weapon, the vocal pro-right has been much more successful in getting what it wanted.

Consumer boycott

When online travel platform MakeMyTrip’s co-founder tweeted against the beef ban a few years ago, #BoycottMakemytrip started trending on social media and led to millions of app un-installs on Google PlayStore, leading to MMT disowning the tweet and its co-founder, despite a counter campaign to get consumers to install the MMT app.

Such consumer boycotts — or ‘buycotts’ — are increasingly becoming a real risk for brands and businesses. A YouGov survey found that at least half of American consumers have boycotted a brand at some time or the other. A similar survey by Comparecards found that 38 per cent of US consumers were currently boycotting more than one business or brand, mainly for political reasons.

There is little data in India on how effective such boycott calls have been in hitting corporates and brands where it hurts the most — the bottomline. However, globally, studies have shown that taking a stand on political issues is no longer simply a marketing tool used to connect with niche segments of consumers — it can become necessary for the brand’s very survival.

Ask Facebook. The social media behemoth donated hundreds of millions of dollars in the wake of the “Black lives matter” campaign but is still facing an exodus of advertisers — including heavy hitters like Coke, Unilever, Conagra, Ford, HP and Adidas, which have all yanked ads from Facebook for allegedly spreading hate speech.

This highlights another problem faced by brands under pressure to take politically loaded positions. In an increasingly polarised world, it can often be, as Facebook’s experience bears out, a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

According to a study by Morning Consult for Advertising Week , ‘The 2020 Survival Guide for Brands’, found that 15 per cent of shoppers increased spends with a brand taking a political stand — but 27 per cent stopped using it.

Reputational damage

Studies have found that such boycott campaigns — particularly because of the saturation media coverage which tends to accompany them — cause more reputational, than financial, damage.

When Turkey’s strongman leader Recep Erdogan called for fellow Turks to smash their iPhones as a symbolic protest against what he dubbed US interference, most Turks ended up symbolically doing so by using an app which dramatically destroys an iPhone on video, rather than actually trashing their expensive smartphones.

Likewise, the ‘boycott China’ call in India saw a few cheap Chinese phones and TVs get smashed up in street protests but the ‘boycott Tanishq’ campaign didn’t get anyone to chuck their Tanishq jewellery — and the brand is still on track to doubling its market-share.

The real headache for big brands — and their promoters/owners — in my view, is not going to be such online outrage, which can be triggered by almost anything and tends to die out equally quickly, as the mob shifts its attention elsewhere, but rather the growing understanding that the political class is developing of how to weaponise their supporters. That can be a much more potent weapon to browbeat businesses into marching to one particular band.

The writer is a former Editor of BusinessLine