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Opinion : Are Brands The New Ambulance Chasers, Using Death To Grow Business ?

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Editor’s Note : Mahesh Murthy is a Managing Partner at SeedFund, one of India’s leading Venture firms with focus on India’s early-stage technology startups. Apart from being a Managing Partner, Mahesh is a respected figure in India’s start-up ecosystem and his critical analysis of the same is applauded worldwide.

I’ve written recently about the so-called charity effort that Facebook’s Internet.org claims to be. My view is that it just a cold-blooded move to acquire new users for their product from among the poor, wrapped in the flag of ‘social impact and giving back’.

The recent Nepal earthquake and tragedy, which has claimed thousands of lives has brought about a few more instances that disturb me. Tell me what you think.

Freecharge is a mobile app that aims to become your digital wallet. I understand they told their customers to give them missed calls from across the country in the aftermath of the earthquake, saying that they’d donate Rs. 20 per call ($0.30) for #NepalQuakeRelief‬.

But they didn’t stop at that – they advertised, asking all and sundry, including their customers to enroll their friends in the campaign, offering them an incentive for every friend (for ‘friend’, read ‘new prospect’) who called. And when those folks did, those numbers were saved in their marketing database, and they in turn were offered a cash incentive to sign up to use their commercial service.

They did reach their target of 100,000 in-bound calls with thousands of non-customers among them. And Rs. 20 lakh (US$30,000) was donated to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. Their PR firm sent out press releases to all and sundry touting their apparent magnificent benevolence.

But in essence, the Rs. 20 they donated per customer actually became its marketing outlay to acquire new customers via a member-get-member scheme,  under the guise of donating to earthquake relief. It also was their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) outlay. I’m sure some marketing guy somewhere thinks they’re a genius. Me? I think this is just dirty.

If you really want to help, why not just give money, or better, send your people in the field to help? Why this marketing rigmarole?

Elsewhere, eyeglass marketer Lenskart continued the trend of using the disaster as a means of getting member-to-member recruitment going, with an ad that said “Shake it off like the earthquake” and asking people to refer their friends’ names to add to Lenskart’s marketing database, and offering them a discount on sunglasses for their troubles.

Perhaps they followed the lead of India’s Prime Minister, who is trying hard to create influence in the region. While Indian Air Force planes were the first to land in Nepal with relief and supplies, the Nepalese are somewhat less than happy about the media grandstanding about what the Indian government is doing.

Starting with the Indian Prime Minister claiming, somewhat incongruously, that his Nepalese counterpart found out about the disaster, which happened in broad daylight in Kathmandu, only after reading his tweet from Delhi 40 minutes after the event.

Then last week, there were three announcements that came out of Airtel India, virtually one after another.

One was its annual results, where they proudly said their number of voice users went up 5%, their overall revenue went up 12% to some Rs. 92,000 crores (US$ 15 billion), their profit before tax went up to Rs. 11,600 crores (almost US$ 2 billion), their data users went up 30%, their revenue per data user went up 32% and they made about Rs. 9,500 crores (US$1.5 billion) in India on data alone last year.

Then within hours they came out with another announcement that actually their business was apparently in deep doldrums because of the proposed  #‎NetNeutrality‬ efforts that a bunch of us are running, and that they would need to raise data tariffs for consumers by 6 times (!!!) unless this was stopped. That’s as naked a threat to Indian consumers as any brand has ever given.

And while this astounding hypocrisy was just settling in, they came up with yet another announcement. The #‎NepalQuake‬ had just happened and they’d just made all calls to Nepal free for 2 days because it curried favour with the Prime Minister’s efforts. Apparently the doldrums had again vanished, all within 48 hours. Now, it was important, once again, to use disaster to build goodwill.

Somewhere, my cynicism quotient just went up.

To me, it seems like brands and organisations are becoming ambulance chasers, and using death and natural disaster as ways to build brand profile or to market and sell product.

And there’s something very disturbing about this all. Somewhere, we all just need to see through this stuff, and tell these folks this won’t do.

Can we just ask for genuine charity without strings, or without lead generation targets, or without PR buzz measurement and political objectives attached to it?

Can we expose these self-serving charity efforts and put the pressure on the industry to focus on saving lives before building brand preference?

Can we get a little human decency back in to our lives again?

What do you think?


Guest Writer

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