From encouraging the apathetic youth to a social media free-for-all, LBB’s Laura Swinton catches up on the brand trends at the world’s biggest general election
With around 900 million people eligible to vote, India is the world’s largest democracy. A general election is a complicated process even in tiny countries - in India it’s a 39-day process that breaks down into seven phases. It’s drawn-out but also fraught - polling stations require security personnel and already this year’s elections have already seen several clashes and an explosion.
For brands, the election represents something of a dilemma. It’s the biggest talking point in the country right now - but it’s also extremely contentious.
Dheeraj Sinha is managing director - India and chief strategy officer - South Asia at Leo Burnett and he reckons that brands need to get over their uncertainties. “For far too long, brands have sat on the sidelines on socio-economic issues but in today’s times brands can ill afford to not have an opinion on issues central to people’s lives. Creating campaigns on socially relevant issues makes a brand sensitive, responsible, and relevant in people’s lives. Moreover, brands which have a point of view generate more conversations around them.”
And Leo Burnett has been true to that idea, with standout campaigns for MTV and Jeep. MTV has been taking to social media to engage the country’s first-time voters aged 18-24, who make up a sizeable chunk of the electorate but who are notoriously apathetic. With this in mind, the team at Leo Burnett Orchard targeted young voters with stories from disenfranchised youth in situations where they cannot vote. The campaign has been designed to help show young voters their democratic privilege.
“Indian youth have strong opinions but they seldom translate into actions,” says Dheeraj. “We are a country of social media activists. The youth need to be cajoled to get out of their comfort zones and encouraged to play an active part in shaping the future of the nation. While on a personal note the Indian youth does believe that they hold the power to change their destiny, at a collective level there is an apathy towards the social fabric of the country.”
Indeed, the biggest trend in brands who have piped up is that they have been using their reach and media spend to encourage the reluctant to get out and vote. This is not about taking sides, mind you. Taking sides risks alienating half of the electorate and can be viewed as propaganda.
But that doesn’t stop brands getting punchy when it comes to getting stuck in. One major McDonald’s franchisee in the country – Hardcastle Restaurants – teamed up with DDB Mudra Group to give customers a real taste of the consequences of not voting. They served up the wrong order to hungry non-voters to show what happens when you don’t use your vote.
Again, the key target demographic was young voters, as Hardcastle Restaurants’ marketing and communications director Arvind R.P. points out. “At McDonald’s, we believe in standing up for the social good and with this social initiative we have aimed to make a small yet significant effort to sensitize the youth about the power of their vote. As a responsible corporate citizen and a brand that the youth resonates with, we hope that this initiative encourages the youth to go out and choose their elected representative,” he says.
The decision to go for activation – and quite a risky one at that – was an important part of the strategy. “Actions definitely speak louder than words and the brand revolves around our restaurants. An activation would be the most credible and effective way of driving home the message that ‘when you let go of your vote, you lose the right to choose’,” says Arvind. However, the activation was then shared on social platforms, reaching over a million on Facebook.
But age is not the only battle line – one of the big complicating factors in the Indian elections is the vast size of the country and the difficulties that millions in remote villages face. Technically, polling stations should be distributed so that no voter is further than 2km away. But Leo Burnett and Jeep mapped out the most remote areas to help voters reach the booth and cast their votes safely.
From a media perspective, the elections have also given the ad industry a lot to think about. The use of WhatsApp to spread fake news has been one of the more alarming media trends - chiming in with experiences in other countries (such as the UK Brexit vote) where social media has been used in a wild and unregulated manner. Some, like Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, have argued that this distorts democracy. In the case of India, WhatsApp has been moved to launch tools to help the public fact check information spread on the channel. On Sunday, the Financial Times labelled the vote ‘the WhatsApp Election’, indicating just how powerfully social media has influenced voters.
“Generally speaking, social media is a godsend for Indians at large and India’s politicians. Social media has given everyone a large platform to reach out to others. It has created new ways of political campaigning. Politicians today are using different means such as tweets, memes, parodies and a variety of other assets to make their point,” says Dheeraj, who says that while the government is looking at the issue of fake news, that concern hasn’t filtered out more broadly amongst the electorate. “The conversation around fake news is still confined to the policy-makers and industry watchdogs. The government has been working with the various platforms to limit the menace of fake news. However, for the public at large, social media is still a party.”
Facebook and YouTube have been extensively leveraged and broadcasters’ online streaming arms have been clamouring to provide content. VOOT (an online arm of Viacom 18) launched an interactive campaign to let voters share their views and SonyLIV launched over 36 channels in multiple languages to ensure they had the biggest possible reach.