As Zomato Confronts Communal Bias, Liberal Stand Could Bring It Some Pain and Gain

It remains to be seen how much brands really stand to lose by appealing to a more moderate audience.

New Delhi: On Wednesday afternoon, a communal Hindu man caused a ripple on Twitter by complaining about the service he had received from Zomato, the food delivery company. The man, whose Twitter handle was @NaMo_Sarkaar, was angry that he had been assigned a Muslim delivery agent, and wanted Zomato to send his food through someone else or refund his money.

The Zomato support desk said they could not change the rider, and also would not refund his money, at which point he said he would be removing the company’s app and consulting his lawyers. “We have Shrawan and I don’t need a delivery from a Muslim fellow”, wrote @NaMoSarkaar in the conversation.

Unusually for a company in these polarised times, when right-wing internet lobbies draw added clout from their ideological proximity to the ruling ‘parivar’, Zomato took the opportunity to take a stand against communalism, tweeting: “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.”

The response led Zomato to the #1 trending slot across the country, with Twitter curating a moment celebrating the positive responses aimed at Zomato.

Zomato CEO Deepinder Goyal added an extra helping of bite to his company’s original response, saying, “We are proud of the idea of India – and the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners. We aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values. ??”

Predictably, the right wing backlash began almost immediately, with various Twitter users pointing out that Zomato had made exceptions to return food that was not Halal, but was declining to do so if there were Hindu religious requirements (shravan), with right wing website OpIndia going on to make the hysterical claim that “Companies like Zomato are feeding the chaos that is threatening to take over the country.”

That the comparison was a false one was obvious to many – customers have the right to reject food they didn’t order and can’t eat but not the religion of the delivery agent –  but was best summed up by one Twitter use: “Was [@NaMo_Sarkaar] going to eat the delivery guy?”

Journalist Sandhya Ramesh also brought to the attention of @NaMoSarkaar that Twitter, the platform on which he was voicing his protest, was also owned by a non-Hindu.

(Of course it isn’t; Raheel Khursheed was the site’s India Head of News Partnerships for a while.)

The @Namo_Sarkaar account also featured a number of communal comments, screenshots of which are below.

It was also found to have been followed by the Official Account of Piyush Goyal. The account has since locked its handle and privacy settings.



The warmth generated by Zomato’s stance stands out at a time when communalism has been steadily normalised in New India. This is not the first time that brands have had to risk the wrath of the right wing while capitalising on secular credentials.

Hindutva bigots also targeted Hindustan Unilever’s Surf Excel ad campaign #RangLayeSang, which featured a young (Hindu) girl helping a young (Muslim) boy in March of this year. Earlier that month they had also targeted a tea brand (Brook Bond) for ‘projecting the Kumbh in the wrong light’ by showing a (presumably Hindu) man deliberately attempting to abandon his father there. The troll brigade aimed to boycott all HUL products, trending the hashtag #BoycottHUL on twitter with pictures of an assortment of products they had bought in the trash.

This is also not an India specific trend – across America as well, conservative groups have protested brands taking up a stance against brands that support liberal causes – even when they are as vague as the Gilette ad in January of this year.

Gilette had a simple message protesting toxic masculinity, saying, “We can’t laugh it off. Making the same old excuses. But something has finally changed. And there will be no going back. Because we believe the best in men.”

Twitter was rife with pictures of men abandoning their razors, one memorably in a toilet (the manly approach to dealing with one’s feelings).

While the backlash has been dependable, it remains to be seen how much brands really stand to lose by appealing to a more moderate audience. ‘Woke Marketing’ has been a burgeoning phenomenon in the advertising space, with huge budgets being spent on appealing to demographics that care about social justice, with sometimes undependenable results. Pepsi had to withdraw an ad featuring Kendal Jenner appearing to defuse tensions at a Black Lives Matter protest by offering a policeman a can of the multinational corporation’s beverage.

But those that have managed to do it right stand to gain financially, according to the Economist. The gamble is that the free publicity from the controversy offsets the sales lost to hardliners who care more about ideology than they do their products. Nike was among the early adopters of this strategy, having consistently delivered advertising focusing on social inclusion after their campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick taking the knee in 2018.

An IBM report on the marketing trends to watch out for in 2019 featured this campaign to illustrate the criticality of brands forging connections to their younger cohort by emphasising loyalty to the brand’s purpose rather than simply providing a service. Nike appealed to the social justice mindset of a new generation of consumers – and ultimately generated around $43 million. The data in America suggests that the millennial demographic is more socially conscious, and cares about companies – and is growing large enough to discard an older, more conservative generation without much loss.

While we don’t know if this data can necessarily be applied to the Indian millennial demographic, what these brands do have in common is that they capitalise on a feel-good sense of personal justice, even if their in-house business practices are not so just.

While Nike captures hearts at home, the Ethical Fashion Report gave them the lowest score in terms of employing people at living wage as well as transparency in terms of their workers conditions, while also blocking labour rights experts from monitoring their supplier factories. Gilette strongly condemns toxic masculinity while ensuring women pay the ‘pink tax’ by making their ‘women’s’ products more expensive than those for men.

HUL, whose heartwarming ad beamed a message of equal human rights, fell somewhat short of that when it refused to take responsibility for causing widespread mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal, with crony capitalism ensuring that the government let it off the hook.

And Zomato, today the liberal darling, has consistently had a terrible track record when it comes to labour rights for their contract workers. A study by the Fairwork Project led by two Oxford researchers  ranked it as having among the worst working conditions in Indian startups. It gave it a score of 4/10 based on five core areas: pay, conditions, contracts, management, and representation. Zomato did not recognise a worker’s union, and their point-system based on how many kilometres the payment model forces workers to work unreasonable hours, and incentivises travelling 180 km to 200 km over five days. IndiaSpend reported one Zomato worker saying that “At Zomato, people have to be logged in constantly for a certain period otherwise they do not get the health benefit.”