An uproar over a Fabindia commercial highlights the challenges facing Indian brands

Enough to make one angry?
Enough to make one angry?
Image: fabindia/screenshot
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India isn’t an easy country to do business in no matter what its government says about “ease of doing business.” Fabindia, a 61-year old fashion retail brand popular for its ethnic wear lines, has learnt that the hard way.

Yesterday (Oct. 20), the company pulled a commercial following an uproar from the Hindu right-wing, which had a problem with its Diwali 2021 collection carrying an Urdu name and “damaging the Hindu festival” of lights.

UK-based Fabindia is India’s largest private retail platform for traditional ethnic products. In the financial year ended on March 31, it reported a decline of 25% in domestic sales while its overseas operations shrank by 35%.

It has now come under attack at a time when India, ironically, has been rising in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. The country jumped 79 spots from 142nd in 2014 to 63rd (out of 190 countries) in the global body’s 2020 report.

Clearly, the reality is closer to the US state department’s circumspection. While this had more to do with policy, controversies over the mere choice of language, like in Fabindia’s case, can only make investors warier.

Why are some Indians angry with Fabindia?

On Oct. 9, Fabindia tweeted about its latest clothing collection for Diwali (falling on Nov. 4) under the Urdu title Jashn-e-Riwaaz (celebration of tradition). On cue, #boycottFabindia began to trend on the microblogging site.

The fury was over the use of Urdu, a language primarily associated with the Muslims of India and Pakistan. The Hindu right-wing’s relationship with both Muslims and Pakistan has had a turbulent history.

Tejasvi Surya, the national youth president of prime minister’s Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party, chimed in, alleging “Abrahamisation” of the Hindu festival.

FabIndia succumbed. It withdrew the ad and said Jashn-e-Riwaaz was not its Diwali clothing collection, the yet-to-be-launched Jhilmil Si Diwali (twinkle of Diwali) was.

This is only the latest instance of religious and cultural touchiness over brands, commercials, and other business decisions in India.

The easily-offended Indian

In September this year, a viral WhatsApp message alleged that Bengaluru-based food brand iD Fresh “mixes cow bones and calf rennet” in its batter. An incendiary follow-up claimed the company, founded by a Muslim, “only hires Muslims.”

iD Fresh had to issue a statement dubbing such claims “misleading, false and baseless.”

In 2020, Hindu right-wing anger was directed at jewellery brand Tanishq after its ad showed a Muslim family organising a baby shower for their pregnant daughter-in-law as per her Hindu family’s tradition. Interfaith marriage has never gone down well with this gang of protesters. Some even threatened to vandalise local Tanishq stores over this commercial.

In March 2019, consumer goods major Hindustan Unilever drew social media ire for “defaming Hinduism” with a commercial around the Kumbh Mela. Another of its brand was targeted over an older advertisement, which some believed promoted Islamophobia.

Earlier, Hindu right-wing backers also sought a boycott of food aggregator Zomato after the company refused to humour a customer who didn’t want to take delivery from a Muslim executive.

In 2017, they found reason to be offended by a commercial by hairstylist Jawed Habib that depicted Hindu goddess Durga having a spa day at his salon.

Can brands take the legal route to counter hate?

Some brand experts believe FabIndia was right in withdrawing its Jashn-e-Riwaaz commercial because the “negative publicity” it garnered could go either way.

“Gone are the days of believing that any publicity is good publicity. A serious brand will always stay away from embroiling in controversies and FabIndia realised that, too,” said Jagdeep Kapoor, founder and MD of Samsika Marketing Consultant.

“No brand can afford to hurt the sentiment of any section of consumers,” he said, especially referring to the Covid-19-triggered economic slump.

Others said brands could easily tackle such hate legally.

“On social media, apathy, misinformation, and sentimentalism spread faster than logical and researched brand efforts,” said Sonam Chandwani, managing partner at KS Legal & Associates. Expressing disappointment over FabIndia’s step back, she said, “It could have created a precedent for trolls.”

Chandwani suggested that if companies want they can trace the original source of the “hate campaign.”

Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, prohibits offensive messages (i.e. through an online medium). “Irritation, discomfort, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, animosity, hatred, or ill will” are examples of intimidating or insulting messages. A conviction can result in up to three years in prison and a fine.

“We have gotten so intolerant to such minor concerns that I believe it is time to let go of the religious sensitivities and adopt a secular society,” Chandwani said.