February has begun on a disastrous note for Hyundai in India thanks to a dangerously provocative tweet put out by a dealer associate in Pakistan.
It was completely unnecessary and quite predictably caused a furious backlash back home. Customers in India threatened to cancel their bookings for Hyundai cars and the Twitter universe was just clogged with angry reactions as news spread like wildfire.
The issue has now assumed a political dimension with Korea attempting to douse the fire and Hyundai reiterating its commitment to India. It is very likely that customer fury will linger for a few weeks longer and will largely depend on how long social media will constantly add fuel to the fire.
As an automotive CEO says, “At best, Hyundai could lose numbers in February but this will soon be forgotten. Public memory is short by the end of the day and there will always be other distractions.” He has a point except that this particular incident is a grim reminder how social media can wreak havoc across spectrum.
It is also likely that this incident could even be taken up as a case study on crisis management in the future. There will be discussions galore on how Hyundai’s Indian arm could have reacted to the situation except that wisdom is always easier in hindsight.
To douse an inferno on social media especially when it concerns a sensitive subject relating to India’s territorial integrity is practically next to impossible when tempers are running high. Nobody has the time or inclination to listen to any voice of sanity.
In this case it is even more complicated with Pakistan in the picture. The frenzy seen in cricket matches between the two countries is tantamount to a war being played out on the field. Given this background, the reckless tweet from the automaker’s Pakistan network caused emotions to spill over at a frenzied pace.
What makes this even more volatile at this point in time is that it is happening at a time when states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are going to the polls. The potential to cause widespread mob fury in political rallies is too scary to even contemplate. Any provocation can lead to showrooms and vehicles being targeted and this is where things can go out of control.
Hopefully, all this will have passed in the next few weeks but it is a grim reminder that customer emotions can swing from one extreme to another at the drop of a hat or, in this case, a tweet. Hyundai has been around in India for over 25 years and emerged the fiercest rival to market leader, Maruti Suzuki. Its products have caught the fancy of customers and the Korean automaker has been pushing the envelope relentlessly in making top-class contemporary cars and SUVs.
None of this mattered when news of the tweet from Pakistan started doing the rounds and the clarion call began for cancelling Hyundai model bookings. Never mind that the company is committed to growing its India presence when other big brands like General Motors and Ford have called it quits.
Kia, another Hyundai Motor group company, has been a recent entrant but already made its intent clear with an aggressive product line-up and retail strategy. It also had to face the ire of customers online who were still smarting and sought a boycott of Kia products too.
Strangely enough, a handful of other auto brands which put out similar provocative tweets from Pakistan did not have to weather such a storm online. Perhaps, as a political observer says, Hyundai should have apologised faster rather than allow the situation to fester.
These are difficult times for businesses especially when it means countering nasty, unexpected surprises on social media. The CEO quoted earlier agrees that there are no easy solutions in such situations. “The world is going through turmoil be it the pandemic, global warming and geopolitical tensions. Companies will just have to be prepared for unexpected situations and react in the best way they can,” he says.