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Pizza Hut turns Wing Commander Abhinandan's bravery into marketing gimmick: Insensitive and opportunistic, say brand specialists

  • Twitter reactions ranged from horror to tongue-in-cheek on the capitalisation of a tragedy for the company's personal benefit.

  • Advertising seizes opportunities that seem to be a good fit for the product or the message they want to convey

  • Pizza Hut should have factored sensitivity and empathy before deciding to launch a campaign using Abhinandan's name

Be it a moment of glory or a tragedy, there are always companies that will milk it for what it is worth for their self-promotion. Days after Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned home from captivity in Pakistan after angst-ridden days for his family and the country as a whole, Pizza Hut decided to celebrate his homecoming by offering a pizza to whoever is named Abhinandan.

The celebrations were for just a day. Pizza Hut said it would like to thank the 'Bravehearts of the nation'. And what better way than offer a free pizza, they thought.

Twitter reactions ranged from horror to tongue-in-cheek on the capitalisation of a tragedy for the company's benefit.

There were some suggestions on the social media for Pizza Hut. Users suggested giving donations to martyr's families instead of just any person who shares a name with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

Some were sore with the offer and called out Pizza Hut:

From Twitter users to brand specialists, almost everyone was taken aback by Pizza Hut's offering. Brand strategist and founder, Harish Bijoor of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, remarked the offer by Pizza Hut was 'not the done thing', adding that it wasn't anything new as marketing companies have made use of sensitive issues to push products and services in the past.

"Capitalising on something as sacrosanct and sacred as the bravery of a man in the forces and using it for the company's publicity is just not right. I think it is an error of commission and omission. The martyr's family is not looking for money from marketing companies. However, it is important to be sensitive to the issue and not milk it like what Pizza Hut has done. Marketing companies are insensitive at times", said Bijoor.

The jury seems to be out on Pizza Hut's Twitter campaign: What was done in the name of marketing was a blatant promotion without being sensitive to the situation. India waited with bated breath for the release of Wing Commander Varthaman. To have his name associated with a marketing gimmick like promoting pizzas is not kosher, was the feeling expressed by many.

 Pizza Hut turns Wing Commander Abhinandans bravery into marketing gimmick: Insensitive and opportunistic, say brand specialists

Representational image. AFP

Prahlad Kakkar, ad film director, remarked, the 'unlikely hero who the world got to know because Pakistan released a video is being claimed by all as their own'. Kakkar was struck by the over-enthusiasm of Pizza Hut to capitalise on Varthaman's release. "Whoever advised the company about this idea shot themselves in the foot," he said.

Advertising seizes opportunities that seem to be a good fit for the product or the message a company wants to convey. And if that opportunity is well-known or trending in social media, then that is a moment not to be frittered away. But not all marketing campaigns evoke such strong feeling. Some are cleverly done and remembered for their creativity. Like the time when Bollywood stars Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh were getting married. Padukone is the brand ambassador for Axis Bank.  However, during the time of her marriage, Singh was seen in some select hoardings with folded hands, asking, "Card Mila Kya?" seemingly playing upon the couple's wedding invitation card.  It was a clever advertising campaign by Kotak Mahindra for its limited edition debit cards.

Topicality like in the Kotak Mahindra advertising campaign could work both ways—if done well, it succeeds in the message it is trying to convey or could rile people up like the Pizza Hut campaign seems to have done.

Alpana Parida, President of DY Works, a branding firm headquartered in Mumbai, says being topical is not enough. "You have to capture the sentiment of people—of pride that is associated with Varthaman. You can't trivialize it like this," she said.

When an American firm is focussed on selling its wares, it may miss the wood for the trees, like it happened with Pizza Hut's Twitter campaign, say experts. And it can also lead to a bad memory being associated with it which can make some customers avoid the product in the future.

"Pizza Hut lacked basic decorum and empathy. Coming out with a Twitter campaign like they did using Wing Commander Abhinandan's name was in bad taste. The consumer feels offended as the emotions connected with the incident are still raw.  The campaign shows that Pizza Hut was using the Indian Air Force pilot's name for commercial benefit. If they were to give free pizzas to everyone who walked into their outlets or to the armed forces or even to Abhinandan's family members, it would have been something beautiful. Trying to draw mileage by distributing around a dozen or even fewer pizzas to all those who share Abhinandan's name is in bad taste," said N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA Research, a data insights company.

Experts suggested Pizza Hut could have celebrated the homecoming of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman by giving away free pizzas to each of the martyrs family of the Pulwama terror attack or give money to those affected in the attack. "Don't lower the dignity of Pulwama martyrs and the many who lost their lives. Celebrate Wing Commander Abhinandan's homecoming by creating an environment where we all say 'Thank You' to our soldiers and take them and their families out for a meal. Or have a day called Abhinandan Day and celebrate the air force officer's valour and dignity," said Dwarika Prasad Uniyal, Dean, School of Business, Flame University, Pune. "Don't lower the dignity of the armed forces by making a marketing campaign to sell your wares," he said.

Uniyal's sentiment is echoed in this tweet by a Twitter user:

This was a question that was waiting to be asked and one Twitter user did:

Amidst all the negativity that the Twitter campaign kicked off using Abhinandan's name for its campaign, the question to ask is, Was it really wrong of the firm to have done it? Sensitivity is an issue but there is a question of legality too. "Pizza Hut's campaign said a pizza would be given to anyone named Abhinandan. It can be seen as a celebration of the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. There is nothing wrong in celebrating the event," said Siddharth Shekhar Singh, Senior Associate, Dean, Indian School of Business. He said that emotions are personal and people can look at an event from various perspectives. However, Singh pointed out that the company had not done anything unethical or illegal by giving a pizza in the name of Abhinandan. It can be seen as an opportunity and that is what any marketing campaign is all about.

Just because a lot of people felt the Twitter campaign was wrong, it wasn't by the law. And like this Twitter user said, support can come in various forms:

Firstpost tried to reach out to Pizza Hut several times for this story but they did not respond.

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Updated Date: Mar 06, 2019 22:37:45 IST