Four lessons from a campaign that went viral, with an apology.
How we side-stepped trolls & a cantankerous community hell-bent on hijacking the agenda, while staying focused on what we set out to do i.e. entertain our target audience and elicit brand love.
Part 1: On Saturday October 6th evening, a couple of days before the start of the festive season, Fortune Foods, a power brand that tops the consumer’s choice in branded edible oils, launched a music video Pet Pujo (abar) targeted at the community of Bengalis, to celebrate Durga Pujo. This video was a sequel to their successful campaign last year celebrating the Bengali’s love of food. Within a day of its launch, the video was attacked in a series of tweets by a community handle (on twitter) that professed that this content hurt their sensibilities. They had 2 issues with the content — showing a human being as a Devi in the context of brand advertising and showing her serve non-vegetarian food during the auspicious time of Navratri. The Brand apologised and attributed it to a snafu in regional targeting. They withdrew the English sub-titled version from other markets. The original content written and produced in Bengali, and promoted as a vernacular post on Facebook and advertisement on YouTube, continued to run as is.
Part 2: The apology was picked up by Scroll Media who discovered a story, blessed with divine potential. They positioned this apology to the Society, as an insult to the food habit of Bengalis and pumped out the article in rapid succession on social, finally succeeding in sparking a protest by few flag bearers of Bengali Language & Culture. Some new groups in turn positioned this as a cultural aggression by the North. Online debate broke out amongst a motley group of supporters who twisted the narrative even further. The click baiting headlines masterminded by Scroll on Social Media, spread like fire, and inspired several other media houses who started talking about the big “apology” that led to the “insult” and “protest” by the Bengali Community. Without much support beyond a close knit group of trouble makers and their bots, to fan the clichéd fire of veg vs non-veg, the movement fast went downhill. The trailing story of the ‘Brand Apology’ made for catchy headlines like the ‘misfortune of Brand Fortune’ but refused to garner traction, in the absence of substance to the content. A total of 250 odd tweets mentioned the word ‘boycott’, on both sides of the fence. The Fortune Foods campaign carried on as usual, much loved by Bengalis, and racked up huge numbers both on reach & engagement. By its end on Friday Oct 19th, exactly 2 weeks from when it started, the campaign had surpassed the earlier year’s performance by several lengths.
If you are still with me, take a break and enjoy the campaign video, before I move on with our story.
Get the cultural context right, as you read on.
The Durga Puja festivities in Bengal are very different from Navratri, happening at the same time across other regions of India. During nine days of this period Devi Durga is worshipped in nine different avatars ; traditionally people fast and consume sattvic food during the nine days. For Bengalis there is a parallel narrative. This is the time that Devi Durga (also known as Uma, the consort of Shiva) makes her annual trip back home with her children. For a period of four days (the last 4 of the nine days of Navaratri) religious ceremonies are conducted, mostly in community settings, and there is a lot of joy and celebration everywhere. This is the reason behind the unique image of Devi Durga flanked with her children; even though the central theme is still the ten-handed Devi Durga defeating Mahishasura, signifying victory over evil.
Unlike other parts of India consuming sattvic-food, Bengalis revel in consuming non-vegetarian items during the four days of Pujo, barring a few days like the 6th (Sasthi) and the 8th day (Ashtami), from the start of the 9-day calendar, when the traditional fare is mostly vegetarian.
For Bengalis Pet-Pujo which literally means “Worshipping the Stomach” is a commonly used term to express the Bengali’s inordinate love for food during this season. For many in the community, Pujo equals Pet-Pujo. Taking a bit of creative liberty, the music video (this year) built a parallel narrative with the story of the Devi slaying the Asura. Like the invincible Asura blessed with the boons of gods, the male character challenged the Devi to satiate his (evil) hunger of food. The ‘lady of the house’ Durga emerged victorious symbolically slaying the evil and insatiable hunger, by an overload of food — serving all the delicacies enjoyed by Bengalis during the festive season.
So where was the problem?
There was absolutely no problem with the Bengalis who regaled in its humor. Of course the praise did not come without its fair share of negative criticism:
(1) The ‘typo’ in the title — a fine point that was made repeatedly about how the u-kar is used in the word Pujo (পুজো) in colloquial Bangla as opposed to its purer version Puja (পূজা).
(2) Several users found the video regressive and complained why the narrative harped on the women of the house spending all her time in the kitchen, feeding the man of the house, when she should have actually got a break.
At the core of the controversy lay a snafu in the media strategy that we attempted. While the original content was created in Bengali (and posted using Bengali vernacular script) in the state of Bengal, a translation was attempted for audiences Pan-India. This second post (in Facebook and YouTube) was made in English, the song was translated in English (sub-titles) and test marketed in other markets (other than Bengal that is). That is where it tripped a fuse.
Most of you know when a video is promoted, it appears on a target feed as a sponsored content (advertisement). As videos auto-play, an unsuspecting user is exposed to content that may not agree with his sensibilities.
Now imagine the English sub-titled video, playing on someone’s social feed. He has no idea about the Bengali Connection (above), since most videos play in silent mode and as he is reading the english sub-titles finds the video narrating a story of the lady of the house breaking the man’s Navratri fast by offering him fish, and then it turns out this lady represents Devi Durga. That possibly leads to misunderstanding — and (our guess) the source of the original protest.
Several groups flagged the content as an attempt to malign the religious sanctity of Navratri, by showing the (symbolic) goddess serving non-veg food during Navratri. They called the Brand board-line and demanded to withdraw the content, that hurt their sensibility. The Brand made the right choice. It pulled out the English sub-titled version and focused on promoting the original Bengali Content.
Then came the Apology Tweet, and that is where the real PROBLEM started (Part 2 of the story mentioned above)
The next half of this article sums up a few lessons from the campaign so far. We have written it up for the practitioners of the trade, who may be interested to leverage the learnings in future. So if you are a digital marketing professional or a brand custodian interested to dig deeper, read on.
Lesson #1 — Identify your core TG for your campaign. Stay vigilant if the crisis is precipitated at the core or at the periphery.
We had a campaign running on Facebook and YouTube. There was a plan in place to reach the desired demographics in a given market, and the video was live and propagating as planned. We wanted to reach a minimum of 2 Million unique viewers from a specific market (Bengal) on our platforms of choice, over 9 days.
Simultaneously, there was a crisis brewing on Twitter; albeit a low intensity crisis, with limited reach dispersed across demographics. When first identified, the propagation dynamics could not be modelled or forecasted.
So, who do you go after first?
It is a balancing act. We had to dial down the brewing anger, isolate and manage the tension points. At the same time, we had to keep fuelling our core campaign; since it was time bound we ran the risk of losing the investments with any knee-jerk reaction of temporary suspension.
Keeping calm and plodding on yielded the desired results.
We wanted to reach Men and Women in the age group of 25+ in Bengal as our primary TG, and we achieved what we wanted.
We racked up over 2.8M views on Facebook and 1.2M million on YouTube. Normalised across platforms (by view time), we clocked over 2M views.
Our view times were very healthy, much above Industry standards for 2min+ content.
The Video View Metrics were supported by the phenomenal engagement score, specially the 15K+ odd shares on our channel alone (not counting the influencer views & shares)
To put things in context, against the massive numbers above (at end of campaign), the flaming on twitter that was going on had already polarised into North vs East constituencies, small bubbles, and the Brand was trapped within.
The total volume was very low at 63 negative tweets, spread over 2–3 days
But this is the noise that got further amplified in digital media leading publishers like Scroll, DNA, DailyO, News18 and others on their social feed — but more on that later.
Takeaway — We decided to stay focused on our core audience on Facebook and YT and defuse the crisis on Twitter clarifying our stand on the issue.
Lesson #2 — Defuse potential conflicts at the earliest opportunity. Don’t let things fester, but beware of shifting narratives.
From the time we got the first signals about the crisis, it took just hours to come to a consensus. We decided to pull back on the Pan-India content, and furnish an apology to the community offended. In turn, being satisfied with our action, the group furnished their acknowledgement.
This is the moment where the subject would have come to a logical closure. But that is the exact same time where Media houses like Scroll, Quint and others took over. Publishing the same content repeatedly with different click-baiting headlines, they sparked the war on twitter. Notice how their click-baits continued to change, in their hunger to drive traffic to their website. 4 posts were made by Scroll on the same article in 12+ hours.
The comments on Scroll pitched Bengalis against Non-Bengalis, debating long held prejudices about dietary practices. No one side understood the other, because no one knew the facts, which media didn't bother to cover; this conflict is exactly what the media wanted to feed on.
Soon another little known outfit headed by a scientist of repute had changed the narrative to politics, taking a cue from scroll.
Read the above in the cultural context (described earlier in the article) but notice how the narrative has changed. That called for soft engagement with this new outfit, and attempted to dispel myths about the AD being off-air, which calmed things down again, but temporarily.
Soon after this, the outfit changed stance, and took fresh pot-shots at the Brand, cut and pasting tweets. And that is exactly the point, where we decided to dis-engage, because this was now clearly about mischief, and not about disrespect. Further engagement did not make any sense.
A few bot accounts desperately pursued the battle with the other side, but they had lost steam — barring a handful of foot soldiers, people had moved on to other more important battles brewing elsewhere.
Out of the 2 dozen odd articles printed on the campaign, no one bothered to reach out to the Brand or their agency to find out what is going on. Everyone wanted to ride the wave, and were busy cut and pasting, embedding tweets and RTs. One old school journalist from a respected Bengali newspaper EiSamay, stood out — he did his research and managed to get through to the agency to get clarity on the issue. He succinctly summarised the story and called out the “end to the debate”.
Lesson #3 — Go with the flow. Lot of the tough decisions you make, are easy to critique with hindsight. Stick with them. Don’t flip-flop.
There has been lot of discussion about whether the Brand should have furnished an apology in the first place. The Jury will remain divided on this one but suffice to say, once done, there was no going back or cowering under counter threats demanding apologies, from other parties.
If the Brand felt that it had hurt someone, there was no shame in giving an apology. It is another issue altogether that the “apology” was open to interpretation — for some people even tantamount to an insult to the non-vegetarian eating Bengali community (which it clearly was not!)
It was the “apology” that went viral in niche media and trade media, and was fervently discussed within a small bubble. While this was not desirable for a Brand of the stature Fortune Foods, it is important to understands that the size of this cantankerous group of people was much smaller compared to the universe of consumers who consumed the content and were effervescent in sharing their likes, shares and comments.
Of course the comments were both positive and negative — from the typo at the start, to the singers voice and mannerisms, regressive portrayal of the woman in the kitchen — everything was discussed and debated threadbare. One person summarised it beautifully
I saw the video and got very entertained — then read the critical comments on everything possible, and then watched it again — and miracle of all miracles, enjoyed it again!!
What kept us going with the flow was the deluge of positive engagements and comments that explicitly expressed their unfailing love for Brand Fortune and urged us to not pay heed to the noise-makers.
We live in a time where users have the power to thumb down a piece of content, expressing anger. The number clearly showed a very small percentage of people (just 220) engaging with a sad or angry smiley, compared to 93K likes and over 9K love and entertained.
This was clearly not a bias in our interpretation, and the brand had nothing to worry about the noise being made buy a motley crew on twitter universe.
Lesson #4 — Always back-up your point-of-view with real-time data & insights flowing in from your social feed.
While Data gives conviction that you are on the right track, it is the human stories from your core community that gives you the moral strength. For the Fortune campaign the support of our core community, out voted whatever errors of judgement we may have committed.
A very smart consumer who found the content regressive, complained about gender bias; but did not forget to mention her love for our Brand. Her POV was respectfully countered by other ladies.
Stories of love and life streaming in from the kitchens of Bengal, told us something was right about this campaign. I will not attempt to translate them, as they will lose their flavour in the process, but suffice to say that these stories gave us more conviction than just the count of likes, shares and comments.
The “apology” made by the Brand turned out to be the seed that galvanised one section of the Bengali community (however small) against the Brand. The effect of seeing this apology, in social media articles and also right on top (in Facebook Campaign Post) collectively made newer entrants to the debate more set and extreme in their views. This was not desirable. People from other parts of india who had not seen the original campaign and read the audience reactions, formed their opinion from the social feed media headlines
Trade formed their own opinions too. They missed the point that this was a darned good campaign, and it was indeed our “good fortune” that the campaign went so far ahead of what was planned, inspite of all the troubles.
At the end, we concluded that it was just our apology that went viral, NOT the campaign.
P.S. If you noticed a mismatch in the title of the article, and wondering how the Five lessons morphed to Four — thank you for noticing. Guess what the fifth lesson is? Write back to firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.