Liana Cafolla
Apr 30, 2019

Asia's elections: "Whatever you do, resist the urge to take sides"

Marketing and brand experts offer insights on keeping in tune with the heightened emotions caused by elections across South and Southeast Asia.

This campaign by Samsonite in India, #EkDinKiChutti, encouraged people to travel home to vote and has had 3.5m views on YouTube so far
This campaign by Samsonite in India, #EkDinKiChutti, encouraged people to travel home to vote and has had 3.5m views on YouTube so far

It is voting season in Asia, with general elections in Thailand and Indonesia recently completed, India’s ongoing and the Philippines set to vote in May. 

The appeal to brands seeking to benefit from these important events in Asia is clear: at election time increased messaging, particularly by political parties and politicians, is everywhere and is present in all kinds of media. The scale of opportunity seems to rival that offered by major sporting events, where captive consumers are focused on the game being played out in front of them but are simultaneously exposed to the advertising and messaging that surrounds it.

Signs of rising spending can add to the pressure to take part. Advertising spend is set to rise across the Asia Pacific region this year, with growth predicted to grow by 6.2 percent in 2019 to about US$195 billion, according to a report by Media Partners Asia. Elections play a significant part in that growth, contributing to the spending surge expected in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and India.

But brands must be aware of the pitfalls of trying to profit from these important events, say experts. In many Asia-Pacific countries, elections are an extremely sensitive time. In Thailand, for example, the military dictatorship that has governed the country since a coup in 2014 makes the risks for brands particularly uncertain. Until very recently, even political parties and politicians were banned from any kind of electioneering. Few brand strategists were open to talking to Campaign Asia about how brands should position themselves for best effect at election time, with one respondent in Thailand said she couldn’t imagine anyone answering the question. Too sensitive in a military dictatorship, she explained.

Elections could be seen as a good time to advertise because messaging is already everywhere, as shown on this street in Thailand before the March polls (Photograph: AFP)

During last month’s elections, brands in Thailand have proceed with caution or been generally inactive, according to Preetanjali Kukreja, strategy director at Bangkok-based brand consultancy Brand New Day.

"From my observation, a lot of brands did not get involved.  No one has really done much, or even anything at all."

The election period also fell during a typically low-key period of the year for Thais, Kukreja notes. "Traditionally the period between the New Year to Songkran [Thailand's New Year] is a quiet time for local brands, although international brands are more active."

Besides political sensitivities, another downside of putting your name out there at election time is the plethora of competing voices and higher advertising costs, says Praful Akali, founder and managing director of Medulla in India, where the election process for the world’s largest democracy will continue until May 19. 

“At the time of elections emotions run high and conversations are long and frequent, so brands certainly have an opportunity to connect through these emotions,” he says. Samsonite's #EkDinKiChutti, 'Let's travel to vote' campaign in India, below, is a good example of this. 

Akali thinks elections offer the same opportunities and challenges as any other peak advertising opportunities, such as festivals or sporting events. “They give you the added opportunity of context and they create an opportunity to reach a larger proportion of your target audience in a shorter time, but they also come at a higher cost and increase the risk of being lost in the clutter.”

Consumer exhaustion is worth being wary of, says Professor Andy Wong, associate dean of undergraduate studies and associate professor of practice in marketing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Business School.

“The temptation for brands is to jump into the fray with an opinion in an attempt to create a positive image to show that they are smart, up to date and connected with consumers,” he says. But, he adds, “Some people simply get tired. They are being bombarded by so many messages. For these people, you don’t want to add one more message.”

There is no single rule for brands, he says – the key lies in the company's 'personality'. Brands with typically more 'gentle' messaging are probably best off lying low. “But for brands that decide they want to be more progressive or even aggressive by having a strong opinion – maybe that’s how they get connected with their core customers – then these are high times for them to really have an attitude.”

“Several research studies suggest that consumers – especially those from younger generations – want brands to take a public stand when it comes to political and social issues,” says Catherine Feliciano-Chon, managing partner at branding and marketing agency CatchOn. “But at the same time, consumers don’t want brands to exploit a political climate purely for attention. Savvy consumers today will call out anything that appears purely opportunistic and gimmicky. Politically-charged ads are risky to begin with and if the brand campaign’s key messages don’t underscore the brand promise and are delivered authentically, they can backfire. Ultimately, the campaign has to have a real connection to the brand’s core values.”

Sitting on the fence? Good

Whatever you do, resist any urge to take sides. Consumers today “are smart and resistant – they don’t want to be told what to choose, what to buy, what to do, especially among young people,” says Wong.

Taking a side or trying to influence opinions is not advisable, concurs Akali. “People don’t want you to tell them who to vote for,” he says. “They just want you to support them in the voting process.”

Views can differ on how best to do that, though. In India, McDonald’s has launched a campaign encouraging people to vote, linking voters’ rights to choose their president with their right to choose the food order they want. While Akali says voters are inundated with messaging urging them to vote, campaigns like this one have the advantage of being seen as active yet neutral.

Similar campaigns have also been run successfully in other markets the US, notes Chon. “One campaign which was virtually issues-neutral, timeless and universal in its appeal yet politically charged was the “Get Out The Vote” campaign in 2016, in which companies like Uber, Lyft and Zipcar offered discounts and free rides to polling stations and retail brands like Patagonia, Levi’s, and Gap launched their own non-partisan campaigns to make it easier for U.S. workers to vote,” she explains.

“It didn’t matter which party you belonged to or what issue mattered to you. The campaign united everyone in its support of the political process and increasing voter turn-out. It allowed brands to tap into the political climate with a populist message of empowerment without having to wade into the contentious areas of the politics.”

Turn up the positivity

With voters highly atuned to policies that will affect their daily lives, another effective strategy could be for brands to focus on their social responsibility credentials and corporate social responsibility initiatives.

“When people care about social issues, you want to be seen as a socially responsible brand,” says Wong. “You want to be positive. There are people during election time giving so much negativity, and there are people who want positive messages. I think smart brands can make use of this situation and highlight the good they have done for society.”

Election periods have a way of amplifying social issues and discourse but Chon warns that consumers will see through any lack of integrity.

“It’s not enough to just posture or grandstand on an issue,” she says. “If you’re going to take on a polarizing view, ask yourself if your campaign can ultimately contribute to a solution, provide a platform for underserved voices, promote ongoing dialogue, educate and inspire people? Anything short of that just feels gratuitous and is simply noise.”

This Hong Kong Snickers ad pokes fun at a vocabularly slip made by legislator Chung Shu-kun when addressing former MTR director Jay Walder

Keeping in tune with local cultural preferences is essential, says Wong. In contrast to the US, where strident political messaging is the norm at election time, Asia tends to prefer more positive messages. He points to a successful light-hearted campaign by Snickers in Hong Kong that focused on the blunders made by politicians and the local taste for making fun of politicians. “People shared them on social media,” he said. “Local people appreciated the cultural relevance. It’s also brand-building.”

“The end goal should be to reinforce brand equity,” advises Wong, adding that the number one rule is to be kind. “Don’t falsely believe that you need to have an attitude to be seen as cool,” he says. “You can be cool and be kind at the same time. Politics have been so ugly all over the world. I think in Asia, in general, we want to see more positivity.”

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