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From boats to Sehwag: Ola's hashtag branding courts controversy, keeps campaign buzzing

Alnoor Peermohamed | Bengaluru Jun 29, 2017 09:16 AM IST
File Photo of Cricketer Virendra Sehwag during a promotional event in Mumbai on Friday. (Photo: PTI)
At a time when brands prefer to err on the side of caution when picking their celebrity endorsers, Ola is embracing the controversial with its choice of social media campaigns and ambassador. Virender Sehwag, who has raised quite a storm on his Twitter handle over a range of issues and is known to do anything but play safe on and off the field, has come on board as an influencer for Ola Share, a service that allows commuters to share their ride and competes with rival Uber Pool.
True to form, Sehwag announced his association with the brand by offending many with a tweet early this month (June 2). His tweet called out all climate warriors in the country, insinuating that global warming might be a phenomenon in the US but wasn’t a real issue for India. He drew the response he knew he would. He was roasted on Twitter by environmentalists, concerned citizens and even the media, though there were a sizeable number standing in his corner too. Sehwag waited a couple of hours and followed up with a tweet that cleared his name and promoted Ola Share as an environment friendly brand.
An employee speaks over his phone as he sits at the front desk inside the office of Ola cab service in Gurugram (Photo: Reuters)
“Great to see so much concern.Traffic & pollution r real issues! This World Environment Day, Ola Share karo, congestion ghatao #FarakPadtaHai  (share an Ola, reduce congestion, it makes a difference),” Sehwag tweeted. He also uploaded a video message in which he admitted to stirring up the controversy. But it was all in good humour and for a good cause he said; he was only doing it to gather everyone’s attention for something important. It was a blatant plug for Ola Share, but it worked. “Keeping the approach fresh, relevant, and innovative, at the same time impactful and engaging, continues to be the focus at Ola.” said Anand Subramanian, senior director of marketing communications at Ola. Roping in Virender Sehwag is part of Ola’s social media branding strategy. Like Ola, a handful of brands across the world use their social media handles to deliver sassy comebacks, pick on rivals (tongue firmly in cheek) and stir up mock fights. Sometimes brands blow an issue up disproportionately to get the tweets and comments flowing on their handles and pages. These tactics are in line with guerilla marketing, experts said.
Ola’s campaign during the Chennai floods in 2015 where it promoted ‘Ola boat’ as a service to rescue stranded people is a classic example. The company has just one boat, which operated in just one area, but social media posts conveyed the impression that it was mounting a full-fledged rescue effort.
“It’s all about creating some sort of friction in a user’s mind and using that to have them remember the brand. It’s a fairly interesting idea and hasn’t backfired in any enormous way except maybe once or twice. The good thing is that they’ve managed to maintain that,” said Karthik Srinivasan, national lead for social at Ogilvy & Mather.
However there are risks. Given the capricious nature of social media, it takes very little time for the crowds cheering a brand on to turn against it. The most recent brand to be hit by online outrage is Uber; it all started with accusations of sexual harassment against the company and then the video with former CEO Travis Kalanick abusing a driver going viral and finally, his resignation from the board. The brand is being pilloried on Twitter with special handles created for complaints against its service and memes about Kalanick’s outrageous behaviour dominating screen space on every media platform. 
Ola has been uncharacteristically restrained about Uber’s troubles. According to sources, the company has been instructed to tone down the cheekiness when it comes to the present predicament of its rival by associates, but Ola refused to comment on the issue. Harish Bijoor, brand consultant said that there are many young companies that take marketing risks in the name of connecting with young and fun audiences. They haven’t been in the market for too long and don’t have the same level of trust  and when things backfire it can be devastating, he said. “In this day and age of app uninstalls, it takes just a few minutes to fall flat on your face. Young brands need to understand this, and I feel they take unnecessary risks,” added Bijoor.
Online campaigns however will continue to play a big part in Ola’s brand story. “We have seen tremendous response to our social campaigns such as #PeekeMatChala, (Don’t drink and drive) #FarakPadtaHai (it makes a difference), and several others, where we not only drove the message home but also, succeeded in inciting action,” says Subramanian.
The campaign was launched on Christmas Eve (24 December 2016). Ola’s Twitter handle began spewing out absurd tweets, some humorous, some needling other brands and even a few individuals. The campaign that was looking to recreate ‘drunk texts’ began driving conversations on the social network, with users speculating if the company’s account had been hacked and much more.  “About those last tweets, drunk tweeting is dangerous; imagine what drunk driving can do. #PeekeMatChala,” the company finally tweeted.
Smart social media campaigns however are not enough to build a credible and lasting brand, experts point out. To stay the course in the long run, sassy brands need to grow beyond the comebacks and smart quips.

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