#NoBindiNoBusiness: How brands can get it right this Diwali

People & Culture

Indian consumers boycott brands whose Diwali campaigns don’t acknowledge the festival’s indigenous Hindu origins. Editor Vidhu Sharma explores how brands can get it right this Diwali.

Diwali is often referred to as the Festival of Lights, or the Indian New Year. Much like Christmas in the West, sales during this time consistently skyrocket by more than 10% year-on-year, and there is no doubt great opportunity for big brands and small businesses alike to capitalise on the generosity of those celebrating. 

Most Indians wait until the season to make large-scale purchases and share gifts with one another. However, Diwali is much more than that, and much less about excessive indulgence and superfluous spending.

More traditionally known as Deepavali, Diwali means something to over 20% of the world’s population. The five-day Winter Solstice festival originates from ancient India, and is celebrated on the new moon of the last harvest of autumn. The largest demographic of celebrators are Hindu, followed by Sikh, Jain and Buddhist. 

It’s important to note that Indians are not a homogenous group of people. In fact, the country is home to all major faith groups and religious traditions of the world, and its festivals embody this same diversity – in meaning and in practice.

Infographic: Diwali: Festival of Lights, Gold and Shopping | Statista

In recent years, there has been a growing contention around the advertising sector and its misrepresentation of Diwali’s origins. Many Indians feel that the industry is very selective when it comes to recounting Indian history, and continues to dilute the meaning of the festival to be ‘good over evil.

Diwali is a period of great significance for the Indian subcontinent. During the five days of festivities, celebrators will engage in activities tailored towards removing darkness (negativity, prejudice, ignorance) and bringing light (clarity, purpose, action) into their lives. They will clean their homes, engage in community work, practise meditation, conduct rituals, light lamps, and congregate with loved ones.

However, did you know that the celebration of Diwali was banned across India during the 17th century? Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb launched a “Noise-free Diwali” brigade during his 49-year rule, which continues to have an effect on the narrative around the festival today.

We often talk about the British colonisation of India, but a deeper dive into history shows it was a drop in the ocean compared to the central Asian invasion that came before it. As a country that is still recovering from over 1,000 years of colonisation and imperialism instigated by foreign powers, the path to claiming a seat at the table as one of the oldest living civilisations in the world has not been easy for the indigenous communities of India. 

It has long been felt that Diwali is targeted each year to derail efforts to decolonise and revive India’s ancient traditions. The market has been growing more tired and more vocal about the lack of representation of – and respect for – the largest demographic of spenders during the festive period.

In one brand’s 2021 Diwali campaign, the Sanskrit-origin name of the festival, ‘Deepavali’ – which translates to ‘row of lighted lamps’ – was relabelled as ‘Jashn-E-Riwaaz’ (an Arabic term for celebration). This caused a huge uproar and a mass social media boycott of the Indian retailer, which forced an overnight renaming of the campaign to ‘JhilMil Si Diwali’ (a sparkling Diwali). Other large corporations have been called out for misrepresenting the festival – omitting Hindu symbols such as bindi, rangoli designs, diya (oil lamps) and puja (rituals) – and the target audience has felt largely isolated and disrespected.

One thought leader has been paving the way for Indian consumers to take back the reins and protect the indigenous roots of the festival from further dilution. Shefali Vaidya is an award-winning columnist and renowned media personality. With a single tweet, she managed to shake the entire commerce industry in India. 

Her post spiralled into a viral campaign, with #NoBindiNoBusiness capturing the hearts and minds of Indians worldwide.

Shefali’s tweet has changed the way ordinary people are buying and spending this Diwali, with mass pushback from consumers forcing many brands to do a complete U-turn on their campaign strategies. One of the biggest pain points is that advertising has a proven track record of direct and powerful influence, so the sector really ought to get the narrative around Diwali right. 

Another challenge that Indian consumers are confronting is the agenda of homegrown Indian brands who seem to be purposefully going out of their way to get it wrong. Western brands have stepped up, and are keen to show that they understand the sentiments of the tradition and the market.

There are a number of ways brands can get it right this Diwali:

  1. Represent your target audience – Bindi and tilak are the most visible mark of identification for Indians; they are still worn by a large portion of the country’s 1.2 billion population, villages and cities alike. Aside from being decorative, the bindi holds great cultural significance for Hindu and Jain women. It is placed in the middle of the forehead, a place which the rishi-muni (ancient seers) of India recognised as the eye of intuition and intellect and the sixth of seven chakras (energy centres) in the body.

    In a Bobbi Brown makeup tutorial, a model completed her look with a bindi. This simple gesture highlights how a brand doesn’t have to be Indian to understand the sentiments of their target audiences. Placing a bindi in the centre of the model’s forehead and honouring this ancient tradition shows an entire subcontinent that Bobbi Brown cares that they feel seen and represented. Inclusive initiatives like this are key to ensuring positive association and brand loyalty.

  2. Don’t tamper with ancient traditions and names – India has 28 states and hundreds of indigenous languages to source authentic inspiration from.

    Facebook’s More Together campaign uses visual markers that represent the Sikh community, including the central spiritual site for Sikhs, the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Panjab. The protagonist is a struggling sweet shop owner. Adopting the Sikh values of sewa (selfless service), she takes to social media to announce she will hire anyone who has lost their job due to the pandemic. From the use of Panjabi and regional dialects, to the depiction of different styles of turbans on the male characters, this ad accurately, respectfully and unabashedly shines a light on the lives and values of Panjabis and Sikhs across India.

3. Show respect unapologetically – The Indic civilisation is the oldest living civilisation in the world, with roots entrenched in ancient sciences and humanities. It has consistently shown that its ideas and practices can stand up to scrutiny and logic, and does not need to be schooled on sustainability during every festival.

Paytm’s Cashback Dhamaka subtly claps back at the ongoing criticism about the sustainability of the festival of Diwali, while HP India’s #YeDiwaliDilWali’s campaign stands tall and unapologetic about India’s traditions. The ad features a young boy who learns about rangoli designs, which are created on Diwali to honour and welcome the deity Lakshmi into the home.

Lakshmi symbolises wealth, fortune and beauty, and to bring good fortune to a struggling seamstress, the boy uses his HP laptop and printer to create a colourful trail to redirect Lakshmi from his house to the seamstress’ shop. The seamstress is overwhelmed by the child’s innocence and empathy, and his imbibing of the true spirit and philosophy of generosity in action. These details speak to consumers who value authenticity and sincerity when it comes to depictions of their traditions.

Each of these examples win on so many levels. They all treat the cultural heritage of the festival with sensitivity and respect, as well as show how their own products champion creativity and tradition. Some even bring the meaning of Diwali into the current context and address the needs of the now, encouraging people to support those who are still coping with the effects of Covid-19 on their businesses and personal lives – truly shining a light over darkness this festive season.