State Of ORM In India

From ‘reactive’ to ‘proactive’, from ‘important’ to ‘core and critical’, Online Reputation Management in India is transitioning towards top priority for businesses. The headroom for growth however remains massive, with a wide gap between adopters & laggards

To call digital mainstream can be considered a cliché as early as a decade ago. The ‘next normal’ however reminds us that when it comes to virtual in India, there is only ‘a significant more’ to achieve and never a finish line. A direct fallout of the accelerated digital adoption for the at-home consumer was ‘shock to brand loyalty’ as some experts dubbed it, re-arranged consumer expectations as experienced by all businesses; even the sheer turnaround time for a query or a complaint has painfully shortened in the instant gratification world.

Online Reputation Management (ORM), in this backdrop, is equivalent to brands and businesses’ readiness for the unexpected, contributing towards building ‘trust’ and ‘value’ in the life of a consumer, in the course making brands future fit.

Still At A Nascent Stage

In ORM specifically, it would appear that the divide between the adopters and laggards is still noteworthy in India. Large spenders are leading the curve here, but a vast majority of businesses are yet to imbibe ORM in their consumer engagement and connect strategies. Even among the perceived adopters, leading marketers indicate that while the significance of ORM is understood, the action undertaken by a company, and the skillsets residing within, are still trailing market needs and demands. Hence, the headroom for growth.

The BW Marketing World and DDB Mudra Group study, ‘State of ORM in India’, finds out that over 86 per cent marketers (comprising chief marketing officers, marketing heads, heads of brands, brand managers) agree that ORM is becoming critical to marketing playbook. These marketers are however quick to add that ORM is still some distance away from maturing in India.

The senior category head at Parle Products, Krishnarao Buddha, agrees with this school of thought. He notes that while some leading brands have taken cognisance of ORM and have started including it as part of overall marketing and business strategy, India is still in an “evolutionary stage, and would take at least another three to five years to reach maturity”.

“ORM surely is on the road though,” adds Karthi Marshan, the president and chief marketing officer of Kotak Mahindra Group. Marshan says, “We have seen a wide variety of crises hit brands in the last few months, and while the strategic response may have been debatable in some cases, we can safely say no one was caught sleeping at the wheel.”

While most leading marketers echo this standpoint, the difference comes in the long tail. The irony here is that it counteracts earlier digital marketing trends, where smaller and lesser spending brands would feature among the early adopters of newer platforms at the time. One argument to explain this behaviour is in the lack of understanding the scope of ORM for modern marketers.

Parle’s Buddha observes that while the majority of respected and leading brands have adopted ORM as part of their business strategy, the concern lies with “the smaller brands”. “The brands are yet to integrate ORM in their marketing strategies and not just as a part of crisis management,” he says.

A counterview on this however comes from the managing director of eye health product company Bausch & Lomb, Sanjay Bhutani, who states that for the new Indian organisations and startups, ORM forms a core part of product and marketing strategy. He explains, “They use it as a strong tool for consumer insights, and not just to manage consumer sentiment and drive business and brand positioning via ORM. Traditional businesses have been slow to evolve but many large organisations are moving towards a coherent strategy.”

Even as sectors in India are responding differently to ORM at present, the larger majority of marketing leaders believe that propelled by monitoring and social listening, ORM enables brand readiness and preparedness. Emerging tech and tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), voice, chatbots, video content, and ecommerce are all forming part of a holistic ORM strategy, that was once limited to only social, influencers, search and PR as its key pillars.

The study indicates that ORM has gone beyond only reputation and brand management. And that it now entails crisis management, response and consumer feedback mechanism, commercial operations & competitive benchmarking.

The Counter View, Courtesy Ecommerce

One of the findings of the BW-DDB Mudra study indicates that over 74 per cent of medium and small business still park ORM in “not indispensable” and “yet to become priority”. Large marketers too have observed this trend, and attribute it to the offline versus online scale in India, which has a direct impact on the ORM play for companies.

“While the pandemic further accelerated India’s digital journey, but digital penetration is still growing, and many organisations are yet to embrace the medium,” reminds Anjali Krishnan, Senior Manager - Media, Mondelez India, adding, “They continue to survive in a brick-and-mortar environment and ORM is not a priority for them yet.”

India is indeed still considered among emerging markets for most digital activities. In 2020, the country has registered some of the biggest numbers in urban versus rural digital adoption, indicating some early signs of a ‘flat India’, where many companies saw Tier 2 and Tier 3 markets bouncing back to growth faster. The DGM marketing at TTK Prestige, Ankur Agarwal cautions though, “While data suggests that the adoption rates has been fastest in India, it is still a long way to maturity considering the strong trade and offline influence that the country has. The big change I see happening in the future is offline trade befriending ORM to their advantage.”

While this is one side of the coin, the rise of ecommerce at the speed seen in the year of nationwide lockdown, paints another picture that reflects some green shoots in this context.

The timeline for service-level agreement (SLA) not so long ago, would be over the course of a few days. As of today, however, several brands have moved to much shorter SLA timelines, arguable even within minutes. A case in point here would be Tata Motors that invested heavily in its ecommerce and ORM plans in the year gone. “With customers cross-shopping between industries, their expectations remain consistent from brands across sectors. To cater to the same, we are formulating strategies that acknowledge this need and are shaping our teams and operations to meet the desired customer expectations,” informs Vivek Srivatsa, Head, Marketing, Passenger Vehicles Business Unit, Tata Motors.

Commenting on the bigger picture, he notes, “We believe that India is a mature market in terms of ORM play and the maturity has been brought about by ecommerce brands that have raised the bar in terms of customer management.”

The Challenges To ORM

Even though there is some difference of opinion on how far ORM has come in India, some aspects that all marketing leaders are united on is that the road ahead for ORM has its share of challenges.

“The ORM industry is relatively raw. There is a lot more nuanced insight I seek as a brand, about the quality of chatter online about us, as well as analytics about the voices chatting, than is meaningfully available today. One downside of this is that brands tend to confuse noise and signal, and end up over-reacting to assaults from the fringe, which arguably might have died a natural death, if left alone, for example,” says Marshan.

Authenticity also has been highlighted as a “big challenge” by several marketers. Elaborating on this, Mondelez’ Krishnan reflects, “This is a challenge both in terms of reviews by consumers as well as responses by companies. We in fact even see brand safety and suitability as another area of concern.”

Srivatsa from Tata Motors alludes to a “defensive or a lack of proactive approach to ORM” as a challenge as that can result in “neutralising any good that an organisation or a brand does in other areas”.

The manual dependency on ORM has been reduced drastically over the last few years. However, we the turnaround time of certain consumer tickets due to non-working hour queries generated is also highlighted as a concern.

Marketing leaders do site timely strategies and collaborating with the right partners as some of the solutions that will overcome these challenges to make ORM work harder for brands and businesses in India.