Challenge to win hearts and minds, greatest marketing war of our times
Marketing War without
The marketing war between Brand War and Brand Peace is one where marketers strangely remain unengaged. By this I mean the business sector, which is no doubt significantly affected by the ground situation, and professional marketers, who are reputed as mass market persuaders and influencers of public opinion.
The fact that the now intensified war, dubbed as the undeclared Eelam War IV, has adversely affected not only all sectors of Sri Lanka’s community at large, save for a privileged and protected few perhaps, but also the business sector without doubt, raises the question whether the business sector sees that they may have a justifiable and significant role to play as a voice in influencing policy making and national governance.
The business community, reputed as risk taking entrepreneurs, appears to have decided that this is one risk that they would rather not take. Business leaders would rather refrain from expressing an unequivocal statement whether they support Brand War or Brand Peace. Whether this is due to the lack of perception about the consequences of a continuing war on the economy, businesses and the civil population at large, or whether they feel that the Brand War option is the best, or a confused state of ambivalence between the two, or fear of public expression, is yet to be ascertained.
I have, for some time now, been listening to talks at various business forums where we discuss interesting marketing strategies that we need to follow, but whether the environment or enthusiasm is there for marketers to put these into practice is in question. In a recent talk, the Chairman of CIM’s International Trustee Board challenged CIM Sri Lanka’s marketers to rise above their preoccupation with tactical marketing and consider a greater involvement with strategic issues.
Such strategic issues that they may concern themselves with exist not only in the ambit of the company and the industry in which they operate but also at a national level. What greater strategic issue demands the attention of marketers as the battle between Brand War and Brand Peace? On the same occasion, the US Ambassador advised marketers to involve themselves with peace building. Now, whether marketers truly perceive that they may have a role to play, and would be challenged to explore the possibilities of such engagement is yet to be seen. To move beyond the 4 Ps to the bigger P is the challenge of the hour for marketers.
Brand War vs. Brand Peace
To set the ball rolling here is my contribution. This article is a result of some thoughts I have been entertaining for some time about application of the expertise that marketers possess and the concepts that we use to think through issues in reaching out to mass audiences to sell not only products and services but also concepts and causes.
We sell our concepts packaged as brands. People buy brands, claim ownership over them, and display affinity to the brands they believe in and love. Brand Peace and even Brand War are not brands owned by companies, though activists for either concept may take charge of these and drive them. Like any brand, they may be accepted or rejected, owned and cherished or repudiated by the people at moments when they have a free choice to make.
So, in this regard, what choices are people making? Are they making an informed choice? How effective has been the information flow? Have the brands been well presented and explained to citizens? Have they understood them well and evaluated the pluses and minuses between the two brands? Have they seen the relevance of these brands to them and their future? Have there been opportunities for discussion of the merits of each brand? Are there strong champions for these brands? How equitably has the Media covered these brands? Which brand has greater share of mind and why?
Brand War seems to be winning
For now, Brand War seems to be winning. Let us understand why and what it will take for Brand Peace to change the tide.
Why is it that people universally profess that they want Peace and yet seem to endorse War? In a recent survey commissioned by the National Peace Council and conducted by the Marga Institute, there was near universal (99%) agreement that “the prevailing state of war should be ended as early as possible and security restored in all parts of the country”.
When asked a second question viz. “Regardless of military action to end the war there has to be a political solution to the present conflict?” the percentage of people agreeing dropped to 72% while 25% disagreed. It can be surmised then that a quarter of all people believe in a military solution sans a political one. This may be seen as the core market for Brand War, amounting to a share of 25%. One needs also to understand the seeming contradiction between the universal appeal of Peace and the vote for a military solution by a quarter of the population. This could be explained by examining the Brand Essence or Promise of the two brands. In fact, both brands have Peace as their core promise or deliverable. The difference is that Brand War promises peace through war, while Brand Peace promises it through pacifism.
The market for Brand War seems to expand from the core believers of a military solution to a significantly larger majority of 68% when another question is framed thus: “In order to achieve peace, the government should continue the present strategy of weakening the LTTE militarily?” with 59% fully agreeing and a further 9% agreeing partly. Thus most people subscribed to the position that hostilities and military action should continue.
If you look at the appeal for the Brand Peace proposition of peace through pacifism or non-violence, interpreted as the cessation of hostilities, this is seen in the answer to yet another question viz. “In order to achieve peace as soon as possible, the government should offer a political solution to all communities, declare a cessation of current military operations and invite the LTTE for negotiations?” Now only 42% agree with 11% agreeing only partly and 55% disagreeing. If the ‘agreeing partly’ is taken as disagreeing somewhat, then those for a continuation of military action rises to 66%, which is similar to the result obtained to the earlier question.
An alternative hybrid brand which combines aspects of Brand War with an added ingredient of a political solution gets a preference vote from 57% (42% fully and 16% partly). However, we need to be cautious in interpreting what this really means, as this question viz. “In order to achieve peace the government while pursuing the current strategy of weakening the LTTE militarily, should offer a political solution to all communities and negotiate with all parties including the LTTE?” like the previous one, has dual/multiple propositions, and so it is difficult to interpret particularly the intentions of those who partly agree viz. what part they are agreeing to.
Those who disagree may also be stating the lack of appeal of such a hybrid brand. The other aspect that has not been ascertained is whether such a carrot-and-stick approach would work in practical terms. Would a party under attack be in a ready frame of mind for negotiations unless totally weakened into submission?
Brand War - Credibility and Acceptance Factors
So, from the responses given to the survey, more people seemed to buy into the Brand War concept than the Brand Peace one. While Peace is seen as a naturally desired state and was expressed as such almost universally by the Sri Lankan people, and would have been assumed to have won favour given our religious traditions, why is it that the majority seemed to choose Brand War? The secret may lie in the way that people choose brands, more from emotional responses than from rational decision-making. It may also lie in the lack of enough comparative information about the implications and consequences of the two concepts, for rational decision-making. It may be that there was more media clout, coverage, and propaganda for Brand War against a lesser share of voice for Brand Peace. It may be that Brand War was more attractively packaged in Peace wrapping.
Would people continue to believe that Peace through War is more desirable and achievable than Peace through Pacifism viz. cessation of hostilities and negotiations, or would that change in time? What would it take for Brand Peace to gain share of mind? More lives lost and more displaced people? More cost burdens and taxes that begin to hurt the common man? The shift of violence to civilian centres closer to home? Are we now reaching that breaking - point and is the anesthesia of the war euphoria beginning to wear off as the cost of living pains begin to grow stronger? How long more before the economy begins to succumb to the cost of financing the war compounded by other cost burdens? How long more before the fallout of war irrevocably drives down businesses, many sectors of which are already badly affected and going through a difficult year, and the economy itself? Brand War, in fact, has many credibility issues including these and others - such as doubts about the viability of a military solution, the dilemma of what a military solution means in human and ethical terms, doubts about the sustenance of a real, stable and permanent peace without commitment and progress to address and resolve the underlying structural and cultural issues, and the negative effect on Sri Lanka’s external image and our isolation with growing international pressures including the possibility of sanctions and curtailment of assistance.
All these negatives seem to be overshadowed by the strengths of Brand War which result in its acceptance and preference at this time. These include the concept of a ‘Just War’ against the evil of terrorism which has perpetrated many atrocities and usurped parts of the nation’s land. The affinity to this concept is supported by the fear of the terrorist threat and justification and support from religious opinion leaders. Emotional appeal for the Brand derives from the chauvinism of the majority including vocal pro-war advocacy by anti-separatist opinion leaders, as well as the fear appeal thrust on the general population due to coercion, suppression and negative labelling of dissent resulting in their silence, and the tacit approval of the intelligentsia including the business sector.
Brand Peace - Credibility and Acceptance Factors
The strength and acceptance of Brand War rises in direct proportion to the factors affecting the credibility of Brand Peace. Chief among the credibility issues for Brand Peace is the doubt about the LTTE’s intentions and their participation in a democratic process. In the NPC sponsored survey, a significant 77% of the respondents indicated that the government must act on the basis that the LTTE will not give up their aim of Eelam and will not enter the democratic process. An even higher figure of 84% confirmed that the government should concentrate on a full military defeat of the LTTE and recapture of all the territory controlled by the LTTE.
Strangely, however in the same survey, when respondents were asked whether a reasonable political solution will persuade the LTTE to give up their separatist aim and come into the democratic system, 43% agreed. Clearly the vote for a political solution arises as people see no permanent peace in the future even in the context of a military victory unless a political solution emerges. 89% of the respondents believe that even in the event of a military defeat the LTTE could continue as a guerilla force mounting a threat to peace and security across the nation. 72% thus conclude that the best guarantee of lasting peace is a political solution that all communities can accept and that includes the LTTE in a negotiated settlement under which they give up their demand for Eelam and come into the democratic system.
But the support for Brand Peace lies diminished as long as there is no movement in the progress towards working out and offering a political solution. With the APRC remaining shackled while the military option progresses, peace remains elusive. Other factors that affect the credibility of Brand Peace are the limits of Sinhala majority’s willingness to concede devolution that will be substantive as evidenced by the stances taken by the hardliners, as well as the ability of the Tamil population at large to influence the LTTE on the acceptance of a political solution. International mediators who could have bridged the gap now remain sidelined. Some movement in this regard and revival of the peace negotiations process is essential if progress is to be made, as underscored by recent urgings of the international community including India, the EU and the US.
At the same time, peace-building between communities at the grassroots level must occur to bridge the distancing that has occurred and establish genuine people-to-people bonds. This is an area that has been vastly neglected and one that may be championed by civilian and business peace builders. A few years ago my agency team and I (inspired by the idealism gathered during my younger-days’ experience as an AFS cultural exchange student) put together one such programme called “Write, Visit, Play & Tell” for grassroots peace building. This envisaged encouraging pen-friendship between children of the North and South, eventually leading to visits, sports encounters and a dissemination of the stories, insights and feelings of the experience to a wide audience.
Though presented to a number of NGOs, the programme failed to gain funding and went into limbo. In today’s context, such an initiative would be more difficult to implement but still remains desirable.
Peace requires much public education as well as conviction, even bravery and a sense of activism to see it embraced as a “lovemark”. War can exist in the wake of passivity, apathy and inertia of the people, while Peace demands an activist approach. The lack of sufficient brand champions for Brand Peace and the delay in the coming together of a strong and effective peace lobby has been another reason for its diminished position. True believers and brand advocates are needed among the media, civil society, the business sector and political fronts.
Though there is a wide reporting of the war on the mass media with even mobile updates of guerillas killed, peace journalism remains overshadowed by contrast.
One voice that has been consistent is Young Asia TV’s “No War Zone” and related programmes which continue to explore civilian views and predicaments. While there have been a few other ad hoc progammes on IDPs, etc. coverage of conflict analysis, review of structural and cultural causes of violence, and promotion of non-violence and peace initiatives have found few journalistic champions. While there are several websites and e-newsletters that advocate peace such as those of the newly formed Prayathna, National Peace Council, Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Groundviews etc., vital peace journalism in the mainstream media is essential to educate the general public.
On the political front, the approach has been cautious given the chauvinistic stance of the majority electorate. In a replay of New Coke’s “I-wanna-be-like-you” fiasco, in a brief moment of confusion, perhaps having been privy to the above-mentioned research findings, some opposition politicians recently sought to emulate the Government stance. It is only by adopting a boldly different stance, which may not seem popular but may be made popular in the future, can the Opposition differentiate itself. This requires convinced brand champions to speak out and educate people rather than play to the gallery.
Civilian organisations committed to non-violence such as Sarvodaya have gone silent, with the collapse of the peace initiatives. Prayathna which started out as the National Anti-War front has now embraced so many issues, possibly to satisfy the wide market it was seeking, and in trying to be all things to all people, has lost its peace advocacy focus and positioning - a key precept in marketing.
The NPC and CPA, while being peace-focused and doing some extensive work on peace education, research and discussion, remain lone voices and do not appear to have the critical mass by themselves to form a broad-based peace movement. The NPC could take the lead and demonstrate its mobilization capability as it has done in the past and build the bridges to bring together all civil society, business and even political forces that subscribe to Brand Peace. Legal battles that advocate peace and related human rights issues, as filed by the CPA, also provide visibility and opinion making for the cause of peace.
Some business sector organisations that were formed in less trying days to promote peace and national oneness have also fallen silent. Today’s needs have moved significantly from erstwhile hand-holding campaigns to more involved tasks covering education on conflict issues, promotion of non-violence, grassroots bridge-building, conflict resolution and peace building in its broadest sense as outlined by Johan Galtung’s concept of a positive peace that can come from resolving and removing the underlying causes of conflict.
Peace marketing strategies
Whether the increasing civilian deaths and close-to-home incidents will harden the stance of the majority or make them think of the futility and costs of war and move them towards seeing the value of Brand Peace has yet to be seen. Changes in the dynamics of the war scenario and that of civilian life, which has put up with many a hardship thus far, could cause a brand preference swing in either direction. However, if Brand Peace is to overcome the attraction to Brand War, as recorded in the NPC research conducted in mid-2007 at the height of many military victories - and such brand switches are not unthinkable and may already be happening - then the citizen must make a better informed decision having moved away from giving emotional responses to making a more educated and rational decision in choosing between War and Peace.
Champions for Brand Peace have much to do in terms of citizen education and re-positioning the competitor (like ‘New Generation’ Pepsi did Coke), to show the true nature and credibility issues of the Brand War proposition, while addressing its own credibility issues. They - political, civil society & business groups - all need to come together mobilized as one alliance committed to one unequivocal goal rather than work in their separate corners. Such an alliance needs to muster the voices of a wide array of opinion leaders such as religious leaders, youth celebrities, international figures (like those gathered recently for a peace summit) and eminent local figures like the Chief Justice, who recently declared that “Any person who says that we can win peace through war is talking about something which is impossible”, to their crusade. It is an indictment on our youth and its leaders and stars, that unlike in many other situations (e.g. the Anti-Vietnam War protests in the US in the ‘60s & ‘70s), they appear not to be touched by or concerned about the war to lend their voices for peace.
Other than the unbearable burdens of war, what will finally make that swing is ‘what could be’. And that is when people buy into the Peace Dividend. Change will happen when people see the vision of a better and more peaceful tomorrow. A tomorrow where non-violence prevails, life returns to normal, civilian deaths and hardships are eliminated, burdens lessen, business flourishes, international assistance and investment flows in, the economy grows and tourists arrive.
(The writer is CEO of BatesAsia Strategic Alliance, 141 Integrated Communications and Rowland PR. This article is being published courtesy “THE CHARTERED MARKETER” – January 2008 issue to be released next week).