It has been a challenging time for Mondelez’s Bournvita. A one-minute Instagram video put out by a health and food influencer Revant Himatsingka, aka ‘foodpharmer’, garnered over 12 billion views.
The reel saw Himatsingka criticise the brand for the presence of high sugar and cancer-causing colourants. He also questioned the several claims made by the brand on its packaging. Immediately, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) asked the brand to conduct a review and withdraw its misleading ads, and packaging labels.
As Vinay Kanchan, brand storyteller and author, expressed his doubts on what exactly was misleading in their ads in a conversation with Storyboard18, he also said that the brand had not done things which went against the brand grain in their advertising journey. "They clearly establish the world in which they are operating, and the benefits they deliver are very clear," he adds.
Bournvita: Evolving concepts in their advertising journey
Over the years, advertising concepts have seen an evolution in Bournvita’s journey. Right from the ads touching upon the product ingredients to the commercials highlighting a sense of purpose, Bournvita has come a long way.
Let us take the example of ‘Goodness That Grows With You’, which was released between the early 1980s to mid-1980s, an era when jingles were the norm. Kanchan says that rhymes tend to stick a lot more in one’s mind than general lines, and in this ad, seeds of all future stories were planted.
Then came the ‘Brought Up Right, Bournvita Bright’ advertisement which was released between the late 1980s to early 1990s. Its tonality is in English, a telescope is featured and it is a non-internet era.
In the ‘Tan Ki Shakti, Man Ki Shakti’ commercial, there is an anthemic feel to it which highlights its attempt to spread out in the main urban centres. Another advertisement released in the late 1990s featured actor Mandira Bedi. Shanti - Ek Aurat Ki Kahani, which had a successful run from 1994 to 1998, catapulted the actor to fame. Apart from this fact, the late 1990s was also a period when computers were becoming a lot more prevalent.
The commercials ‘Aapke Bache’, which was released in the 2010s, and ‘Tayyari Jeet Ki', released in 2011, tick all the boxes of authenticity. "To me, brands are nothing more or nothing less than the stories they tell people. What Bournvita did with that campaign was that it redefined itself," reveals Kanchan.
Every crisis is a big opportunity for a marketing company. How brands handle these crises is more important than the crises, states Hemant Mishrra, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Neeti Brand Accelerator.
October 2003 marked a period of crisis for Mondelez’s Cadbury. When worms were found in the Dairy Milk bars, the brand changed its packaging, roped in actor Amitabh Bachchan and released a campaign, where his presence assured that the chocolate was safe to be consumed. Cadbury Dairy Milk recovered its lost reputation within seven months of that incident.
When Himatsingka released the video, Mondelez put out a social media post defending themselves. But, they also sent a legal notice which resulted in the influencer taking the video down. Experts opine that this move gave rise to further damage.
Lakshmipathy Bhat, a former ad man, said that such a move by the brand sends out a message that there is some bitter truth to hide.
However, Nirmalya Sen, Founder and CEO of The Rethink Company presents two aspects to this issue. The first is anchored in reality. Though the product has been a favourite over several years, its claims on its ‘health’ benefits are being seen as misleading. The second aspect is anchored in perception. When it comes to anything children consume, brands are guilty till they have proven themselves innocent. "In all fairness, it is not just a Bournvita issue. It is a category issue. On sugar content specifically, there are other brands that pack in more," he states.
Today, de-influencing is the newest trend most popular on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook where they highlight the reasons to their followers why they should not buy a product. The trend, which began in the beauty and lifestyle category, has spread its reach to other categories too.
Sen states that the group of de-influencers and the brand are half right. "The brand is right in claiming that the product has ingredients that are proven to have certain benefits. But what is unclear is if these are present in quantities to actually deliver those benefits," he explains.
Outrage, which has become very common these days, against an evocative brand story has the potential to make all the difference between surviving the tide and sinking in its wake. In three to four months, people will barely remember that there was such a controversy, Kanchan highlights.
The Rethink Company’s Sen states that the brand’s side of the story has not even been effectively told. The brand needs to convey the scientific story in a manner that is simple, honest and humble. Press releases drafted by legal teams and legal notices may not be the best way to respond.
Kanchan believes that the brand should not react, and ingredients should never form a part of the brand story. He explains, "Unless it is a government diktat where they have to change the label, I don’t think they need to come under pressure because of some influencers or the general public to generally change any of the things they are doing."
Brand teams, both in the marketing department and at the agency—Ogilvy & Mather has been the agency-on-record for Cadbury Bournvita since 1952—need to interrogate the product a lot harder till it confesses. Sen says, "Often, they latch on to an ‘exciting’ ingredient and start laddering up to physical and emotional benefits or even up to brand purpose. What often gets overlooked is how much of that ingredient really provides any benefits to the human body and how effective is that dosage in delivering the claimed benefit, and so on."
For any progressive or new-age brand, transparency is key. Disclaimers in point sizes that the human eye can barely read keep the brand protected legally. But, the more real and upfront a brand is in its communication, the farther it will go in building a relationship with its consumers. Further, it will be far more immune to controversies. "Cadbury will do well if they bring their scientists (not actors in lab coats) out of the lab and make them face the camera, explaining the product in great detail," Sen adds.
Bhat suggests interspersing their communication with some practical tips regarding being healthy—that the drink is not a magic potion. He says, "Kids need to have a balanced diet of vegetables and other nutrition, engage in physical activities and emphasis must be on the benefit of overall health."
When the controversy broke, the brand had written a 10-page letter to NCPCR on April 27. It read, "We are transitioning our product to be in compliance with FSSAI recommended dietary guidelines 2020 and have modified our formulation."
A week ago, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) said that they are evaluating WHO’s guidelines on non-sugar sweeteners like stevia and aspartame. They not just dispel the myth of weight loss, but also increase the perils of type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
For Bournvita, which is rich in legacy, only time will tell whether a similar guideline by FSSAI will seal its fate or an engaging storyline will pull the brand out of turbulent waters.