“When consumers are espousing the values of tolerance and diversity, brands naturally want to align themselves on the same axis”.

As the creative force behind Petronas’ ‘I Am Muniandy’ campaign, the team at Leo Burnett KL have been immersed within the issue of tolerance throughout Malaysia.

We discussed stereotypes, local dynamics and the future with Eswara VAN Sharma, their Business Director, to gain further insight into one of TRUTHFUL CONSUMERISM’s key innovations.

Of course, we know all about the campaign and the message it spreads, but could you explain a bit about the campaign in your own words: what is it about, what is the core message, who is it aimed at?

On the occasion of the Hindu festival of Deepavali, we wanted to spread the message of understanding and tolerance. Stereotypes exist all over the world; Malaysia, despite being a multicultural nation, is no exception.

While there are many stereotypes associated with Malaysian Indians, we chose to focus on the most common one: the gangster, or hoodlum. We knew that the average Malaysian is warm, welcoming and tolerant. Outside factors may have influenced their perceptions, but at heart we are all uniquely Malaysian. The communication seeks to remind people of this truth. 

Can you talk me through the inspiration for, and the thought process that led to, the campaign? How did the idea for the video come about? What was the input of Petronas to this process?

PETRONAS gave us the inspiration whereby they wanted get people to stop and think before pronouncing judgement. And what better time to do that than during Deepavali, a religious celebration of good triumphing over evil?

The clip deals with stereotypical visions of Indians in Malaysia. What has the response been like to the campaign in the country? Has there been a particular response among the Indian community? Has there been any negative response?  

The response has been hugely positive. Malaysians, cutting across race and age have appreciated the campaign and many have acknowledged publicly on social media, their own instances of  stereotyping Indians they come across.

Formal research on the campaign, conducted by Millward Brown, has shown a very high acceptance and positive sentiment amongst all Malaysians and the Indian audience in particular. There was a strong uplift on brand preference, brand health and brand imagery scores as well.

We did encounter some negative responses from who we believe are ‘traditionalists’ who expected to see more Deepavali messaging that was more religious or cultural in nature, in the campaign. However, this was from a very small proportion of the total audience.

Why was it important to Petronas to spread this message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity?

Petronas pioneered the category of what we call ‘Festive’ advertising in Malaysia. Leo Burnett and Petronas have been developing such communication for Malaysia’s major festivals for over two decades, and this film is a part of that effort.

One of the roles that Petronas sees for itself is in the area of nation-building. Apart from the obvious economic benefits of being an oil & gas giant, Petronas also believes in using its influence to provide social and emotional benefits to Malaysia.

Consequently, there always has been messaging around unity, diversity and bringing Malaysians together. After a fractured mandate in the last general election and efforts on by politicians to polarize the electorate along various lines, Petronas felt that it was all the more important to spread such messages, and used the opportunity of festivals that are celebrated in Malaysia, to do so. Some more examples of this can be found here, in the ‘Festive’ section. 

Social Tolerance

We saw a spate of tolerance-themed adverts around the Super Bowl this year, including Coca-Cola and Budweiser. More broadly, why do you think it is valuable for brands to position themselves as supporters of tolerance and diversity? Why do you think so many brands are aligning themselves with this message now?

In our opinion, it starts with consumers who are fed up with the warmongering and the divisive actions of those in power. Examples abound, from opposition to Brexit, to the mass welcoming of refugees and migrants as a counterpoint to Trump’s immigration crackdown.

When consumers are espousing the values of tolerance and diversity, brands naturally want to align themselves on the same axis, and that is why we are seeing the emergence of such campaigns.

Are Petronas planning any follow-on campaigns or messaging that spreads a similar message?

As mentioned above, this is an ongoing effort from Petronas. Of course, the focus will be in the Malaysian context, but the key objective of bringing people together will remain – and this may well lead to similar messaging as a result.

What do you think of our big idea that, despite all the current polarization and anger, we are moving towards a more tolerant future – and this is a force that brands should tap into?

We believe that we are indeed moving towards a future where people are realizing that being more tolerant and inclusive brings benefits to everyone. Whether political leadership realizes this and actually enables and promotes a more tolerant future, or not, remains to be seen.

However, brands need to be about consumers and not politics – and so there is opportunity for brands to espouse this sentiment, and there is potential for brands to actually empower change in this direction.


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