Marketing and the Art of the Half Truth

Sourav Ganguly wears many hats, but the one currently relevant to marketers is as the brand ambassador for Fortune’s Rice Bran Oil. When he suffered a heart attack marketers were quick to point out the irony as this oil touts itself as “heart healthy”. The Company has responded by halting the ads and pointing out that heart health has a number of contributors and oil is just one of them. This, however, is not something that has been central to their communication so far. In fact the ad text explicitly underplays the importance of lifestyle changes after crossing 40, saying that oil is more important. Is rice bran oil relatively healthy? Yes, sure. Will it confer immunity as promised? Er, no. Most marketers don’t get caught with their half truths in so dramatic a fashion.

Take for example, Kellogg’s Chocos. The pack proclaims “One Serve (30g) of Kellogg’s Chocos has protein and fibre equal to that of 1 wheat roti of 30g.” What it does not mention is that the roti does not contain sugar. Or Sunfeast Digestive cookies “no maida, no sugar” which lists sweetener amongst its ingredients.

We can assuage our consciences by saying that we did not actually lie. But when I see people who can ill afford it switching from a healthy home cooked breakfast to feeding their kids processed foods like cookies or sugary cereals because they’re convinced it’s healthier, I’m not so proud to be a marketer.

India is particularly prone to falling victim to food marketing hype because if you grew up here prior to 1992, chances are that you are a child of scarcity. Mukul Kesavan writes beautifully about an era when Quality Street chocolates, Staedtler pencil boxes and Kraft cheese were objects of desire. I remember when a sandwich of white bread, dalda and sugar was my treat lunch for school. Sugar was a luxury so we rarely got much of it.  Biscuits, the little Nutrine chocolates, soft drinks, orange lollies – all were craved but rarely received. Our culture reflects this scarcity – in most Indian homes ‘forcing’ food on guests and family members is a sign of hospitality. A puri dripping in (healthy) oil signals prosperity. Chocolates are still considered an indulgence by grandparents even though the kids probably have a whole box stashed in the fridge, and ate a sugary chocolate-flavoured breakfast.

Trust is the most important ingredient for the longevity of a brand. And that cannot be built on a foundation of half-truths.

Celebrity endorsements are not going to go away any time soon – they are incredibly persuasive. But brands need to be more careful in their choices. Even corporate jobs require a detailed health check-up – it’s surprising that one was not mandated for a celebrity endorsing a healthy heart.

Vision 2020 did not turn out to be all that clear. Looking back, my key takeaway from the past 10 months is “Control your variables’. Convert as many variables as possible to fixed elements and manage the rest to the extent possible.

As the vaccine rollout commences, there is again more uncertainty in the air – will we return to the old normal or new normal? Depends. The vaccine will free individuals to resume the activities we really missed – whether it was travelling, going to the gym or hanging out at the mall.  It will allow businesses to resume activities that were hampering their bottomline. But did we miss everything? Have all aspects of business been impacted by the lack of proximity? Unfortunately, not. So no, we will not just roll-back 10 months.

Any time there is digitization or virtualization only the best survive. This is because virtualization allows for greater scaling, sometimes at a global level. In an earlier era phonographs, radio and cinemas provided a global platform to the best performers – and led to the decline of local artists. 2020 led to increased virtualization in areas as diverse as medical and creative services, mental health, business consulting. If I can access the best doctor in the world for a virtual consultation, what happens to the ‘good-enough’ doctor down the street? If I can access a really cool designer anywhere in the world, what happens to the person whose USP was that they could visit my office every day? Proximity is no longer the asset it was in 2019. It is also no longer the constraint it once was.

Most of us have improved our digital skills considerably in 2020. Whether it is researching or shopping we are better than we ever were. We are going to use these new skills to read nutrition information. And locate the best person for our needs anywhere in the world. We are going to use this to further flatten the world. And that’s going to be good. For most of us.

Best wishes for a Happier New Year!

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