An unused tool in the marketing armamentarium

Many years ago, lived a lazy king who enjoyed a life of merriment. Finally, the good life got to him and the morbidly fat king went deep into the jungles to his guru to seek a solution. The wise sage gave him a medicine and asked him specifically NOT to think of an elephant when he took it. If he did, the king had to run 10 rounds of his palace as atonement. Turns out, the elephant was constantly on the king’s mind and the punishment did more wonders to his body than the medicine.

In modern times, tobacco companies, alcohol and sugary drinks makers seem to have understood this very simple yet important concept. Tell a customer to NOT think of them, and that’s exactly what he will think of. This is called ‘de-marketing’ and/or negative marketing. While these are different concepts, I use this interchangeably in this post. Negative marketing is talking bad about a brand, often a competitor while de-marketing is actively driving DOWN demand of a scarce good or service.

Sometimes, when this is used to for one’s own brand, it can become a differentiator. The more you tell a consumer about the ill-effects of tobacco, the more he craves for cigarettes. The more you talk about how bad alcohol is for health, the more he is reminded of that tall, cold glass of beer, and so on. One cannot avoid doing something that is strictly forbidden.

Recently, Tanishq, created a controversy through a new advertisement that sought to exhort its value of Ekatvam – or oneness – by showing a Muslim household host a traditional baby shower for its Hindu daughter-in-law. The advertisement raked up a controversy until the company withdrew it to control the outburst. The aftermath was more interesting than the controversy.

The company’s stock price did fall for a day or two after the controversy but wasn’t impacted much.

This isn’t the first time that Tanishq has skirted controversy. While one can attribute it to its ‘progressive’ brand perception, is it likely that this is a well-calculated strategy? One of de-marketing? If it is, it is indeed a gutsy move by the marketers and the advertising agency.

One of the important barriers to social campaigns are trolls. These are thin-skinned individuals who use the garb of online anonymity to get offended, abuse a brand, the celebrities who endorse it and sometimes its brand manager too. Sometimes they are lucky that politically inclined people pick it up, amplify their outrage and give more air to the controversy. The ultimate goal is to make to prime-time TV debate where the outrage then gains legitimacy.

Could it be that Tanishq is gutsy enough to turn these barriers into enablers through some tricky advertising? Trolls get offended, flood social media with negative messages of the brand and the tsunami of attention creates more mileage for the brand than the advertisement could. In this case, old Tanishq advertisements flooded TV channels, the controversy made it to prime-time TV and its social mentions probably created a new record. All in a good day’s work.

As always, I must tell pharma what to learn from the Tanishq experience, even if it wasn’t their intention to begin with.

Pharma is often criticized by doctors for over-exaggerating their promotional claims. Can pharma think of de-marketing/negative marketing of their brands to create a differentiation?

A few years ago, we tried this briefly in one of the organizations I worked for, and it did see success. We went out and specifically told doctors why they shouldn’t prescribe our brands. What the contraindications were, which patient-types wouldn’t benefit and with what combinations our brands had potential interactions, adverse event possibilities etc. The campaign worked like a charm and won us much applause from doctors.

Of course, this has to be done with utmost caution because overdoing it can backfire. Also, sales teams are rarely motivated to execute, what they consider as speaking badly about our own products. However, when done right doctors appreciate the guts, the candor and the honesty of such campaigns. Does the digital/social outreach give us more opportunities to do this effectively?

This is the crux of marketing. To understand what customers consider as the sweetest fruit. If it isn’t the one that you’re constantly coaxing them to try, it is always worth a try to tell them about the forbidden fruit. As the king and later tobacco and alcohol companies found out – forbidden fruit is often the sweetest.

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