Why is #BoycottTitanWatches trending? And what could Titan do about this?

I wrote about Titan’s new Namma Tamil Nadu watches collection and here it is, caught in a national trend on Twitter called #BoycottTitanWatches!

It was trending in the top 10 earlier today.

The trend has surprised so many even outside Tamil Nadu that they are wondering why is this trending in the first place.

I completely missed watching the ad when I wrote my post earlier this week since only the product was my focus anyway, not the ad film.

After reading a lot of tweets on the hashtag, here is the problem cited, as I found it: The ad film, conceptualized and directed by Niyantha Shekar for the production house VICE, seems to have visual elements that showcase only the Brahminical side of Tamil Nadu (which is very, very tiny).

That alone shouldn’t be an issue which can blow out of proportion because that kind of representation is very common in popular culture like movies and TV shows. They don’t get called out so often either because they are seen more as a script-based narrative than an attempt to persuade people to buy a product.

What has specifically irked and caused this large an outrage is that there are visible markers that are against Dravidian culture!

A throwaway shot showcasing a printing press in action has a banner being printed for a Tamil magazine named Zhagaram. In that sheet being printed, there are headlines that read, “Rajinikanth will defeat Stalin —Arjun Sampath”. Arjun Sampath is the founder of a regional party called Hindu Makkal Katchi. Rajinikanth is widely presumed to be friendly to Narendra Modi’s vision even though the man himself keeps swinging back and forth with his utterances, perhaps intentionally. Now, this takes a decidedly Aryan vs. Dravidian hue.

Another throwaway shot has a bookshelf that includes a book titled, ‘Dravida Maayai‘ (“Dravidianism is an illusion”).

Taken together—the focus on Tamil Nadu’s Temples, the anti-DMK stance (particularly against DMK President Mu.K.Stalin) and the book that is anti-Dravidian—there is a narrative that has come to appear in the short ad film.

Now, did someone intentionally do all this, to create a perception specifically against the Dravidian movement? Hardly. Nobody thinks like this, with such fine nuance. No ad filmmaker would risk the client’s money and his/her own career to take a political stand, that too with one involving the majority of the state and using such throwaway scenes.

But yet, here we are! What has most likely happened is that the maker of the film is a Brahmin, and these markers appeared by chance, given their outlook and surrounding. This is not a crime. This is also not intentional at all, but most incomplete representations seldom are intentional.

When you see an all-male panel in an event (called a ‘manel’), it could be dismissed as ‘just happened that the best available speakers were all male’. It seldom is intentional. But, it requires conscious effort to change this discourse and event organizers these days are hyper-conscious that they must include women to balance the gender disparity.

Organizations are working harder on diversity, in terms of race, and gender these days.

In such scenarios, even if you cannot consciously blame the filmmakers for not being inclusive and showcasing only their perspective of what Tamil Nadu is, the lack of attention to detail is worth thinking through.

This is particularly critical because this is a commercial product for sale, meant specifically for that state! For people who know and appreciate Tamil as a language. And the language transcends Dravidian or Aryan, or the so-called non-Brahmin and Brahmin divide.

Should Titan watches and the filmmakers be expecting such an outcome and work backward to avoid it? Possibly, but consider the fact the anti-Dravidian markers are specifically what has irked people by and large. Those are very easily avoidable if the production crew behind the film understood the role of every single element in the film. And isn’t a team that looks at the elements outside-in. A Mumbai-based crew with a smattering knowledge of the state could never get this accurately, and needs the help of people with lived-in knowledge of the state to at least not get things wrong.

The film was released in mid-November! It took more than 3 weeks for the negativity to surface. Now that the alternative way to look at the same film has surfaced, what should Titan Watches do?

This is where being on top of social media helps. A social media command center is like insurance – it pays when the need is the highest. But the effect of a command center pays ONLY when the organization does something about the issue in real-time. A command center is merely the nuts and bolts of data and can only inform. It cannot decide when to do what. But it surely can inform you about brand buzz thresholds being breached and the potential causes and tone of those breaches.

The reactions are swift anyway. The filmmaker, Niyantha, has gone off Twitter, even as he was thanking people just a few days ago when they congratulated him for the film. (his gratitude-laden replies are still on Facebook!).

It is possible that DMK’s IT wing is behind the trends, but that is immaterial. The need of the hour, from the corporate and the agency is to own up responsibility before a wider trend and outrage cycle kickstarts.

This is also why corporate leaders need to have a face on social media. They cannot simply hide behind a hierarchy and a corporate handle. Or presume that a department called ‘digital marketing’ or ‘corporate communications’ will handle such things. That’s silo’ed thinking and doesn’t help in the current digital scheme of things where everyone and every department is swimming in the same digital ocean. A corporate brand handle responding to this sounds cold and lacking emotion, but a leader doing the same makes every difference in empathy and understanding. A mob will continue to attack the handle because that’s the equivalent of a corporate building. But a digital mob is likely to mellow down when they see a response from a fellow human, albeit a CXO of the organization that caused their ire. And if the response is well crafted, with the right intent in meaning and sound, all the more so.

This is not about the product per se. There is no need to recall the product; just the launch communication.

When this trend started, if a senior leader from Titan Watches came online and said, “We noticed the counter-points to our film for the new product and acknowledge that we could have done this differently and better. We are taking down the film and I promise to come back with a different film that is both inclusive and more representative of Tamil Nadu”, much of the outrage would be forced to consider both sides of the story. When presented with 2 sides of the story, the sting in the outrage reduces considerably. But the need is to include the other side before the outrage cycle begins.

Most corporate communications teams and PR agencies work on a 24-hour news cycle basis, a vestige of the print newspaper timings. But that doesn’t help the social media timeline at all.

During the high of an online mob, the first and most important question everyone inside the mob has is this: “What is the brand saying?”. If that is answered, then that word ALSO spreads along with the crux of the issue, and together, they tone the impact down considerably.

The trouble is brands and agencies don’t know when to intervene with a response because they lack both the systems (social media command center) and the intelligence (people with experience in the communications and PR space; not teams handling digital marketing) to make that call. Even if they have the former, the latter is a lot more critical. Only someone with adequate experience in public relations/communications and digital/social media would be able to gauge the mood of the situation and offer the right counsel, in terms of the best tone and framing to adhere to, to start talking online.

And then is the question of how to say what needs to be said. This is where senior leaders with established social media profiles come in handy. If they are non-existent online with dormant profiles, they do not have digital/social credentials (that is, digital/social reputation, which is very different from their offline, 20-30 years worth of management experience reputation) to ride the storm. Their social reputation is them opining on things that matter to them, online and engaging with people on those topics. This is literally their last few updates and comments below them on platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. And no, they don’t need to do this every day – but it should be reasonably frequent and well thought through based on their own personality. When they put forward this response to the crisis, it is both the response and who they are as a social media personality (literally gleaned from their last few engagements online) that help in setting the tone for crisis management.

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