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Lessons from Fortune Oil's endorsement tangle

Source: Twitter

The recent tangle between Fortune Oil and cricketer Sourav Ganguly, who has been suffering from health issues after a cardiac arrest, has forced the industry to consider the ramifications of brand endorsement, particularly around health claims.

Former India captain and Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president Sourav Ganguly has been in the news owing to his health issues - after suffering from a cardiac arrest. Even as he is recovering, one of the brands that he was endorsing - Adani Wilmar-owned Fortune rice bran oil - has been in the midst of a storm, with social media upping the ante on the brand-endorser association in this case.

The Drum spoke to a clutch of communication specialists as well as marketing academics to distil what brands should do when caught in such sensitive situations.

Brand endorsement is a double-edged sword and is becoming increasingly so as social media takes centre stage in our lives and gives the power to everybody to vent out their opinions. Recently former India captain and Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) President Sourav Ganguly, who is also endorsing many brands, recently suffered a mild heart attack. Even as he was recovering, a social media storm broke out around one of his endorsements - Fortune Rice Bran cooking oil - which he has been endorsing since January 2020. The issue at hand is that the company's ad campaigns claim its oil is healthy for the heart.

A brand campaign had been launched in 2020, that was crafted by Ogilvy India and was still being aired until recently. The oil brand was put under much debate and discussion leading to memes and questions being asked about the veracity of the brand’s claims as being a tool for a healthy lifestyle.

Eventually, amid all the furore, the company opted to remove the ads featuring Ganguly from all platforms. As per a report published in The Economic Times, the company (Adani Wilmar) has halted the Fortune rice bran cooking oil advertisement campaign but will continue to work with Sourav Ganguly as stated by a company spokesperson. So, what is the learning from this ongoing debate?

Message right and just enough

In times of crisis like these, it is imperative that brands take a long-term view about their messaging and positioning and not get distracted by such incidents. Says Vinay Bapna, cofounder of Unomer, a mobile platform for consumer research, “they need to demonstrate conviction in what they stand for and should be able to hold on to their value proposition especially when challenged in this manner.”

Brands should be able to focus on the message in a clear but sympathetic manner. According to Prakash Satyavageeswaran, professor (marketing) at IIM Udaipur, “no product can possibly claim that if you consume it, heart problems will never happen - even pharmaceutical companies do not make such claims about their medicines. Clearly, the consumption of Fortune Oil does not guarantee zero cardiac issues; it only claims to contribute to a healthy lifestyle that promotes cardiac health.” So, it may just help if Fortune Oil is able to point out, based on inputs from experts, that following a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet helps reduce the chances of heart diseases and that ‘Ganguly’ has probably fared better than he would have without a healthy lifestyle, which includes health-promoting oils consumed in moderation, he adds. Brands need to talk about the whole ecosystem and not just a simple solution around using healthy oil. Finally, oil is just one ingredient in our food.

Come forward and be honest!

As per Raghu Bhat, co-founder, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi, “consumers are smart enough to know that using an oil is not an insurance against a heart attack. A celebrity getting a heart attack is a black swan event no brand can anticipate.”

Brands should come forward and not be defensive in such situations. Holds forth Dr. Dwarika Prasad Uniyal, professor and dean at FLAME University, “Adani has a chance to convert this into a great opportunity and to put money where their mouth is. They could talk a lot more about lifestyle, why people get heart attacks at a young age and even the seemingly fit guys.” Personally, I got diabetes when I was 35 and I was part of a clinical study that was conducted about Lean Diabetes which young Asian males are prone to, shares Uniyal.

It is true that what happened to Ganguly is very unfortunate but now very common among urban Indians in that age bracket. Lifestyle diseases creep in and many factors are responsible for it - not just what one eats and that could well help the brand’s communication strategy.

Treading the social media landscape

The emergence of social media has shifted power to consumers who are increasingly raising the bar for authenticity, credibility, and trustworthiness of promises made by brands., says Suraja Kishore, CEO of BBDO India. It, however, comes with pros and cons. So how much can and should social media take charge in such situations.

Adds IIM Udaipur’s Prof Satyavageeswaran, “social media tends to amplify issues and it becomes critical, then, for brands to focus on their message rather than to get pulled in different directions based on social media messages.”

As per Bapna of Unomer, social media amplifies such ideas momentarily - but it’s usually short-lived and the tweets and forwards lose steam - unless it really captures people’s imagination in some way.

Challenge or an opportunity

Social media thrives on controversy and it will obviously try to feast on this issue, says Bhat of Scarecrow M&C Saatchi, but it can also be an opportunity for the brand.

Typically, people are emotionally involved with a celebrity and if a celebrity goes through a personal tragedy, it also creates sympathy. The brand is already in the news. Fortune Oils has successfully created a happy balance of taste and health over the past few years., and a campaign that is honest and speaks to the 'heart' can actually make the brand emerge much stronger, feels Bhat.

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