12 January 2017 16:06:58 IST

Amazon on the mat in India for wrong welcome rug

Amazon boxes are seen stacked for delivery in the Manhattan borough of New York City, January 29, 2016. Amazon.com Inc on April 28, 2016 reported profit and revenue that blew past analysts' expectations, sending its shares soaring in after-hours trading and demonstrating the growing market power of its core retail business and new cloud services division. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

Today, managing brands is about controlling everything the company does; that includes sourcing

Have you ever played a game called ‘Snakes and Ladders’? If you have you will probably empathise with the way Amazon is feeling at this particular point in time. Till recently, Amazon had been making waves in India with its 8 crore products, high-decibel advertising with an essentially Indian appeal and insights, and its numerous offers. In fact, Flipkart kept looking over its shoulder as the global major kept sniping at it and went on acquiring market share.

But all that is changing, at least in terms of perception, with large sections of the country expressing their anger at Amazon for selling doormats with an Indian tricolour motif. The External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, to whose notice this had been brought, lost her cool and rightfully demanded that the product be withdrawn and the company tender an unconditional apology. She also said that if Amazon did not comply, its executives would not get visas to India and even those who had them might lose them!

So Amazon knew precisely what it was to be on top of the world and very soon at the bottom of the ladder, all in a matter of a few seconds!

Global brand

I can empathise with Amazon, which operates in multiple centres and has products from a variety of sources that are sold in different countries. This particular product was offered for sale in Canada and, in defence of the seller, flags of some countries including the UK are already being sold as doormats.

Of course, Indians tend to be a little different from people in other parts of the world and are already up in arms, if WhatsApp is to be believed! I have received several messages from different groups exhorting me to boycott Amazon’s products as they have insulted our country. Messages of support and congratulations are being sent to the foreign minister on her taking a strong stance.

“How did Amazon even dare to make this offer? I’d choose to boycott them till such time they tender an apology. Let’s all post on Twitter and all other social media platforms.”

Emotions tend to run high in our country and passion can be easily lit if we provide the right spark. Indians also tend to be fairly jingoistic and have a very limited (!) sense of humour. So reactions can be swift, violent and often wrong. I am not, for one instant, suggesting that they are going overboard in this case, but the reaction is certainly strong and bordering on violent. Soon it could become a nationalist issue if local brands step in, making the right appeal.

Managing the environment

While no one is denying the value or the size of the Indian market, we have instances of brands failing to understand or, more critically, managing the environment. We are all familiar with what happened with Maggi. What started as a simple deviation turned into a major disaster for the global brand as the regulatory environment turned extremely hostile. The product ultimately had to be pulled off the shelves and Nestle ended up making phenomenal losses, even as local players gleefully tried to capitalise on the brand’s misfortunes. It is important for Amazon to realise that things could become worse for it in India if the situation is not handled quickly and satisfactorily.

Empathy is key

Every marketer worth his salt will tell you how important an ingredient empathy is for success. In this very column, I have lauded Amazon for its understanding of Indian consumer insights, and its ability to look at opportunities that are essentially Indian. Take a look at this new advertisement done in Tamil for Pongal.

Here’s a global brand that is more Indian than Indian brands, if this ad is any indication. But I have always maintained that advertising is the easy part. Today, managing brands is more and more about managing everything that your brand does, and that includes sourcing.

Clearly, Indian consumers are different from their English counterparts. While the English might not make a big deal of the Union Jack as a doormat, I am not sure Indians will be as sanguine about such an offering.

Strength in numbers

But we buy products and services, often much more than many other countries. This is why every multinational brand is making a beeline for this country. Companies like Uber have chosen India over China, and I am certain that Amazon too realises the importance of India and Indians. It is time for Amazon to take a look at its entire product portfolio and see if there are any other dicey products that could provoke Indian ire, and quickly withdraw them.

More importantly, it is time for the company to reiterate its good intentions and demonstrate to India and Indians how important they are. If it is a time to eat humble pie, so be it.

Remember, ego is great but will always be a poor second to national pride!