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India's Olympic feat puts spotlight on 'moment marketing' violations by brands

Unauthorised usage of any sportsperson's images by brands invites scrutiny

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MUMBAI: India recorded its finest performance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics catapulting several talented sportspersons on the world-stage. As the country revelled in their stunning achievements, the brands also did not lag behind, and made the most of the moment, launching a series of social media posts to leverage the marketing opportunity.

A host of brands bolstered their image online with quirky, fun topical posts around the medallists’ feat, which is commonly referred to as ‘moment marketing’ in advertising parlance.

All was well, until the ace shuttler and bronze-medallist PV Sindhu and her agency Baseline Ventures announced that they are now mulling legal options to take these brands to court, "for using her name and image for their marketing purposes without proper authorisation". According to media reports, the agency is planning to take as many as 20 brands to court for flouting the rules, and it could be seeking damages of Rs 5 crore from each of the brands.

So where does one draw the line? When does a ‘harmless’ social media post cross the ethical line, to be construed as “infringing upon and unfairly exploiting the brand value of a celebrity” to gain visibility and traction for a brand?

“This shows that the moment marketing is coming of age in India,” said Pulp Strategy founder and MD, Ambika Sharma. “This has happened previously with radio and traditional media, where you cannot mimic the voice of a celeb for your brand jingle. The sanctity of Intellectual property (IP)/ copyright needs to be understood. If they are not your brand ambassadors, then do not use their image.”

According to Clevertize CEO and founder Sagar Nidavani the legal notice was a much-needed wake-up call for the brands and the agencies. “This would not have been an issue if the purpose was only to wish the winners at the Olympics. The issue was that in the name of brand connect we forgot the boundaries. Direct or Indirect usage of image or name of the player suggesting that the personality is endorsing the brand can be considered as crossing the line,” concurs Nidavani.

‘Moment marketing’ can be a tricky territory for brands to explore, and needs to be tackled with the right set of regulations to keep a check on a brand's intent. However, the flip side to this is that without moment marketing, brands and agencies will miss out on a lot of topical posts which provide quality engagement to the brands and make for quality consumption for the audiences as well, highlighted Monk Entertainment VP, Talent Management, Aayush Tiwari.

Amul is often cited as a successful example, and has also been lauded for its creative take on the ongoing events, which have often gone viral on social media too.

“When Amul does such campaigns, it does it with panache, but without using any direct images. It goes beyond advertising to deliver a message of greater good,” said Tiger Advertising, partner Pantul Kothari, “however, what most other brands do is use sports winners to weave their brand message, and make it more ‘brand centric’ than just celebrating their victory.”

Following Sindhu’s move, several agencies have come out in support of the athlete, and underscored the need to take a stand. “We have to understand that wrongful use of imagery is not morally, ethically and legally right and the same should be avoided under any circumstances,” shared White Rivers Media co-founder and CEO Shrenik Gandhi.

According to agency experts, brands and agencies need to find new, creative ways to bypass the dilemma of using names and images of celebrities during occasions. Some have even used silhouettes or creatively integrated their products to have a relevant connection with the topical moment/occasion.

“Brands could even add a layer of compliance for their social media updates by involving their legal team and creating a set of guardrails that the brand and their agencies could follow. It's all about being smart with your communication and making sure all legal compliances are met when it comes to topical updates,” said Chimp&Z Inc chief creative consultant Shreyans Khanna.

According to Admitad Affiliate, country manager India, Neha Kulwal brands can take the initiative of providing a better opportunity by rewarding/ sponsoring the athletes till next Olympics.

There is no doubt that moment marketing is a legitimate tool for growth hacking, but only if it does not cross the unethical line. And, with the social media boom underway, it is definitely here to stay. The problem, of course, arises when a brand makes content designed to create a false impression of the celebrity or influencer being their ambassador, without having any commercial deal with them.

“This places great responsibility on the creative agencies or content teams to not only be updated with every single trend, but also apply their minds to creating such content tastefully and ethically. As a creative agency, we need to advise our clients in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not,” said Songfest India co-founder and CEO Gaurav Dagaonkar.

However, the latest incident could definitely make the brands take a re-look at their social media strategies. According to Grapes Digital COO and Strategy head, Shradha Agarwal, the biggest learning is that brands will not prefer taking any celebrity's name directly, and perhaps be more careful while creating topical moments when a brand personality is associated with it.

Industry experts highlight that this has also turned the spotlight to the sports celebrities, and more brands will look at alternate sports and sports stars for signing up endorsements. With the Commonwealth games due in Birmingham, 2022 this is a big opportunity for the brands to look beyond the obvious and explore more avenues for partnerships.

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