Gunjan Prasad
Jan 29, 2018

Marketing in Indonesia: Cautious, with a chance of boycotts

Brands operating in Indonesia tread lightly around sensitive issues, but boycotts tend to fizzle quickly, and some insiders suggest there's a downside to being too cautious.

A group of Muslim protesters march with banners against the LGBT community in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on December 27, 2017. (Chaideer MAHYUDDIN / AFP)
A group of Muslim protesters march with banners against the LGBT community in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on December 27, 2017. (Chaideer MAHYUDDIN / AFP)

Just over a year ago, Indonesians held what has come to be known as the “two-12 protest”. The event, named for the date it took place, December 2, 2016, was a mass rally against Jakarta’s Governer “Ahok” for alleged comments against Islam. But the protest had another victim.

Pictures showed people distributing Sari Roti, one of the most popular bread brands in the archipelago, for free to the protesters assembled at the town center. This garnered praise from some hardliners on social media. However, as soon as the images went viral, the brand released a statement denying any involvement in the bread handout. This, in turn, was seen as blasphemous by some Muslim groups, which launched a boycott campaign against the brand. They also pointed out that the brand is made by an Indonesian Chinese company, and called for Indonesians to buy bread made by Muslim producers. Hashtags like #BoikotSariRoti gained traction on Twitter.

While “Ahok” could not escape a guilty verdict and has since been imprisoned, Sari Roti eventually came out relatively unscathed.

More recently, some people issued calls on ‘social media’ to boycott Unilever's Wall’s brand ‘Rainbow Gaytime’ ice cream, reacting to its name and apparent support of the LGBT community. The social movement died a quick death, however, as Unilever Indonesia explained that the ice cream is not even available in Indonesia. (Indeed, as Campaign reported, the image that caused all the consternation was not an official product at all but rather a tribute concept created almost a year earlier by an Australian fan for Sydney’s Mardi Gras festival.)

In another example, Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, urged followers to boycott Starbucks in July 2017. It objected to a statement by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who called on shareholders who opposed marriage equality to sell their Starbucks stock in 2013. The movement didn’t manage to get off the ground.

Likewise, rallying cries to boycott McDonalds, seen as pro-Israel and thus anti-Islam, didn’t keep Indonesians away from their Big Macs.

Indonesia is not new to calls for boycotts. But they have never really been effective and are, more often than not, short-lived. Bodies with vested interests call for most boycotts, and Indonesian consumers have so far been astute enough to see through them.

Shubhabrata Sarkar: Ice creams don't launch revolutions

In fact, there was a counter-movement for Sari Roti, with many people suggesting that people buy more to show their displeasure with the viewpoint of the religious groups.

“Consumer boycotts are usually momentary responses to sporadic inciting from certain groups or individuals and, in this age of technology, certain tweets and Facebook posts,” says Shubhabrata Sarkar, CEO of Dentsu Indonesia. “No consumer movement, historically, has ever matured to revolution proportions. Not tobacco, not burgers and certainly not ice cream!”

Abundance of caution

That said, most multi-international brands that come to Indonesia understand the importance of giving proper context to current socio-political developments, cultural nuances, consumer expectations and the law. “Despite being known as one of the most tolerant countries, the consumer expects brands to respect their beliefs and their way of life,” says Marianne Admardatine, CEO of the J Walter Thompson Jakarta Group.

Same-sex marriage is still illegal, and a bid to criminalise gay sex was considered (and rejected) by the courts in December. So while many Indonesian consumers personally may not have objections to LGBT people or their rights, they wouldn’t want to make that statement in public.

Pradipta Roy: Cautious brands may be missing out on millennial affinity.

Piggy-backing on the sentiment, gay-friendly international brands go about their businesses in Indonesia by being pragmatic.

US-based Starbucks has never openly supported the cause in the country, but it also hasn't been apologetic that it is openly supportive elsewhere, including its home country. Global brands such as Google, WhatsApp and Line Messenger also go about their business 'quietly'. For example, they all include the emoticons and emojis people tend to use for conversations around sexual orientation, although Line did come under some fire for some of the 'stickers' it offers.

It may be time for brands to be more daring on this issue. “The trending topic should be changed from  'gay-friendly' to ‘equality’," says Pradipta Roy, chief strategy officer at Bates Indonesia. "If a brand targeting the millennial encourages its audiences to challenge or change status quo and irrelevant cultural innuendo as sign of a progressive society, then the brand can actually garner more affinity.”

Marianne Admardatine: Respect beliefs

Historically Indonesian consumers do not boycott primarily on religious grounds. But they have a strong sense of nationalism embedded in their psyche and may opt to spurn a brand that may tread on these sensibilities. “Indonesian consumers considered the home-grown Pertamina fuel better than the all-Malaysian fuel brand Petronas. While no official boycott was called, the consumers shunned it to an extent that Petronas had to pack its bags and leave,” says Roy.

The key to building brands through mature advertising is in identifying an emerging social trend, understanding the right insight and using it as a relevant context within which to showcase a brand benefit. “Insights are based on unifying groups of potential consumers by their needs, willingness and ability to pay for a brand," Sarkar says. "The cultural context is key. That is how insights are mined.”

Related Articles

Just Published

1 hour ago

Our world is waking up to collective action (finally)

A notable response to this unprecedented set of circumstances has been the rise of collective action and the acceleration of collaboration.

1 hour ago

'We know the immense responsibility we have': Zoom ...

Zoom’s CMO on marketing—and securing—lockdown’s breakout brand.

1 hour ago

Behind the brand film: Lego's evolution to WFH helper

Lego is well positioned to serve as a resource for parents as they work from home.

1 hour ago

Xerox shakes off legacy cobwebs and powers into ...

Marketing head Anne Marie Squeo and agency partner Code and Theory on blowing up a 100-year-old brand.