Dabur Honey’s unnecessary ruse

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The Financial Express story on Sunday was about brands ‘dropping the act’ and showing authentic experiences. One of the products—and campaigns—mentioned was Dabur Honey, based on a recent campaign featuring Sonu Sood.

Here’s what Dabur India marketing head, health supplements, Prashant Agarwal, says about how the digital film happened:

When he (Sonu Sood) enquired about the purity of honey available in the market on social media and Dabur responded to the query, we saw it as a wonderful opportunity to build an authentic experience around the exchange.

Financial Express further quotes Agarwal: “According to Agarwal, authentic stories build a strong connection with the audience because there are no filters or scripts“.

And here is what Manas Lahiri, managing director, Havas Worldwide India that created the recent Dabur ad says, “When Sonu Sood posted a genuine health query on social media regarding the quality and purity of honey, we saw it as a great opportunity for Dabur Honey to build an authentic live experience.

Here is the full story from Financial Express:

Now, watch the digital film that supposedly emanated out of a ‘genuine query’:

It starts with Sonu’s tweet, Dabur’s response, and Sonu’s reaction to the response (where he agrees to the visit).

I have trouble believing that Sonu’s tweet was ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’. That is literally the starting point of this campaign – something that led this campaign to be written about in Financial Express’s industry story on authenticity in marketing.

Why do I not believe that the tweet that kickstarted the digital film is authentic?

1. For starters, consider the fact that the agency behind the digital film is Havas.

Havas was in news as recently as March 2022 for an ad campaign for Dabur Vita, featuring Sonu Sood!!

Let me spell that out clearly: In March 2022, Dabur India signed up Sonu Sood as their official (meaning: paid) brand ambassador for another product (a chocolate-flavored health drink).

Here is that ad film:

Is it possible that Dabur officially signed up Sonu Sood as a brand ambassador for Dabur Vita, but with Dabur Honey, Sonu Sood asked about pure honey on his own without any cue from Havas or/and Dabur?

If I remove my cynical hat, sure… that’s possible too.

2. You have seen Sonu Sood’s tweet in the Dabur Honey digital film, right? Here it is again, just for reiteration, because I’m about to make a related point.

Now, allow me to showcase the actual tweet from Sonu Sood.

Notice anything odd? Look closely.

Here you go!

This is the ONLY tweet from Sonu, in that period (or any period, for that matter), that is written inside double quotes! Why shouldn’t we assume that this was a note sent by the agency Havas and Dabur India to Sonu Sood, and he (or his team) simply copied and pasted it verbatim—including the quotes—on Twitter?

If I remove my cynical hat, sure… it’s possible that, of all the tweets Sonu posted, only this was inside quotes and it was a question that he asked on his own, authentically and genuinely.

Should we consider the fact that Sonu Sood’s Instagram post about the digital film does not carry any ‘Paid Partnership’ disclaimer, as mandated by ASCI? Since it does not carry a disclosure, would it mean this entire engagement was completely organic and authentic?

That’s one way to assume that the entire exercise was totally authentic and was not a normal case of advertising where the brand signs up a celebrity to be their voice.

But then, there are many other posts from Sonu Sood that are purportedly commercial arrangements but do not carry any disclosure as per ASCI norms!

At the same time, there are posts where there is a categorical disclosure in the familiar template within Instagram.

So I don’t think Sonu Sood’s disclaimers/disclosures could be used as a dependable yardstick to ascertain the authenticity of the Dabur Honey engagement.

To be clear, Dabur has done such ‘engagements’ earlier. The more famous one was with Vir Das, when he made fun of Chyavanprash back in February 2020.

But in that case, Vir had mocked the taste of Chyavanprash mercilessly. Such mockery is not something any brand would want to latch on to – it’s almost like wishing the mockery on itself – a ‘shooting its own feet’, in a way.

However, Dabur bravely engaged with Vir and got him to tweet about it too.

Unlike the Sonu Sood tweet, Vir did not tweet first about Chyavanprash. He had mocked it as part of his stand-up act, on an OTT show! It would be a real stretch to assume that Dabur got Vir to badmouth Chyavanprash in general (he doesn’t name any brand at all!) in his Netflix show, and then used that as a way to create a staged conversation.

And since I knew someone who worked in Dabur’s marketing team at that time, I got to know that the engagement was not staged. So, in that example, kudos to Dabur for turning a ‘negative product review’ into a marketing win. It was a brave move, particularly when it was not Dabur-specific, and it worked well for them.

But in this case, consider the backdrop.

In December 2020, Center for Science and Environment (CSE) revealed a major ‘honey fraud’ expose alleging that leading brands in India are selling adulterated products. The report named 10 leading brands, including Dabur Honey.

Dabur, somehow being aware of the expose, managed to advertise in the very same newspaper that published the expose news, in a marketing coup of sorts!

Given this recent history, I’d expect Dabur to not indulge in more inauthentic marketing tactics because the product category itself is under a cloud for being inauthentic with product quality.

But here we are, with Dabur using a supposedly ‘genuine’ query from a Tier-1 celebrity to create a digital film literally in a fortnight!

The tweet-to-film timeline was:

  • August 1: Sonu poses the question, in quotes
  • August 9: Sonu thanks Dabur for taking him on a journey
  • August 17: The digital film is launched!

Let me spell this out: Dabur happened to ‘stumble’ upon a Tier-1 celebrity’s genuine tweet on a broader question about the purity of honey available in India, replied to it, roped him in by getting his date/time in the next week, and released the final film in the subsequent week!

If I remove my cynical hat, sure… it’s possible!

Again, to be sure, I have no issues whatsoever if Dabur officially signed Sonu Sood as the face of Dabur Honey too (like Dabur Vita) and released a digital film where they take the celebrity on a honey manufacturing tour as a way to showcase that to us, the audiences.

That is a very standard narrative technique on the back of crisis communications or controversies. A very famous example is what Coca-Cola India did shortly after the pesticide controversy, in 2006. They roped in their brand ambassador at that time, Aamir Khan, and took him on a factory tour.

Prior to that Cadbury India, reeling from a ‘worms’ controversy in 2003, had roped in Amitabh Bachchan, and took him on a factory tour.

So, what Dabur did with Sonu Sood is literally part of the crisis communications template. But the difference is that while Cadbury and Coca-Cola did not go around claiming that Amitabh and Aamir were genuinely, and on their own, interested in the product safety and quality controls adopted for the manufacture of Dairy Milk and Coca-Cola, Dabur starts off with a seemingly staged ‘conversation’ on Twitter to engineer authenticity. There is no shame whatsoever in simply producing an ad featuring a celebrity touring a brand’s manufacturing facility – it’s the most normal PR/advertising tactic and there is no need to layer it under other inauthentic tactics.

The tweet from Sonu and Dabur’s reply is possibly intended to act as a PR-style precursor to whip up interest for the eventual digital film, though it hardly seems genuine or authentic. In fact, the precursor spoils the actual film because it starts on a seemingly inauthentic note.

What’s even worse is Dabur and Havas India needlessly hammering that Sonu’s query was his own even though all available evidence, including the brand’s prior connection with the star, points to the very opposite. And why would a Tier-1 star volunteer to look into a brand’s facility without considering any monetary benefit from it? That beats logic too.

Why this charade? Why not use Cadbury’s or Coca-Cola’s direct approach of simply releasing an ad film where a celebrity is taken around a manufacturing facility and through the celebrity’s confirmation, we audiences are convinced too (at least that is the intent)? Why that elaborate gushing in the Financial Express story trying to portray the Twitter exchange as ‘authentic’? The digital film featuring Sonu Sood is as ‘scripted’ as any other advertisement, despite what Dabur claims.

Is it because Dabur and Havas wanted to coat their digital film with more authenticity than necessary? For a product, and product category, that is already under suspicion over product quality claims for many years, this ruse from Dabur was totally unnecessary.