Tell us how we’re doing,” urges Pawan Goenka, president of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd’s automotive division, in a recent TV ad.
While Lee Iacocca may have pioneered CEO-led ads to revive Chrylser, similar ads are still rather unusual in the auto sector here in India where Bollywood celebrities, glamorous models and slick stunts do the selling. While the experience remains still somewhat unnerving for the 52-year-old Goenka, his marketing team thought it helped forge an emotional connect.
“Credibility is higher when the message is coming from a senior person within the company,” agrees Goenka.
Traditionally, CEOs take to the ad front in times of crisis. Even Iacocca’s TV appeals (and his line, “If you can find a better car, buy it!”) stemmed from Chrysler Corp.’s flirting with near bankruptcy. Then again, in 2006, when PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd was at the receiving end of reports alleging pesticides in colas, chairman Rajeev Bakshi’s TV?appearance tried to prop up the firm’s flagging credibility.
Now, however, it is not crisis that drives CEO-led ads. Companies have become more glamorous, and CEOs are becoming celebrities outside the boardroom, too. CEOs and industry leaders dot not just the power lists, but are also regularly rated as favourite icons of success and role models.
Model role: The Mahindra & Mahindra ad featuring the company’s president, Pawan Goenka.
“In business magazines, too, the mug-shots have given way to professionally shot photographs. They (CEOs) are celebrities in their own right,” says Santosh Desai, CEO of Future Brands Ltd. His own boss, Kishore Biyani, for instance, is a celebrated chief executive in India for creating the country’s largest organized retail empire in Pantaloon Retail India Ltd, and has recently published a book as well.
The list of CEOs who have promoted their own company starts at the top. Mukesh Ambani, who heads India’s largest group, Reliance Industries Ltd, featured in a Reliance Infocomm Ltd advertisement to talk of his late father Dhirubhai Ambani’s vision for a “one India”. The flamboyant CEO of Kingfisher Airlines LtdVijay Mallya not just figures prominently in an in-flight promotional clip, he had, as the head of the United Breweries Group, taken to the TV screen a few years ago, encouraging people to “drink responsibly”.
Estate developers Omaxe Group India Ltd featured chairman and managing director Rohtas Goel urging non-resident Indians (their target for premium residential properties) to “partner India’s growth” in an ad campaign during the Indian diaspora meet, the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas, last year. And to add an authentic flavour to MDH brand of spices, septuagenarian Dharam Pal Gulati, chairman, Mahashian Di Hatti Ltd, has made it a point to be its official mascot.
It isn’t just marketing that sometimes drives a CEO to star in a commercial.?One reason to fall back on a CEO might just be a way to kiss up to the boss or it could just be sheer lack of good ideas, says ad film-maker Prahlad Kakkar of Genesis Productions Pvt. Ltd. “It could be a situation when company credibility is on its last leg, and the only option available is to pull the CEO out of the hat and hope that works magic for the company,” says Kakkar.
Pratap Suthan, national creative director, Grey Worldwide India Pvt. Ltd, believes it is a natural progression. “It is almost like having a minister’s picture in a government promotional,” he says. And it might not always work as a tactic to win favours with the management, says Suthan. “Something like that could get you kicked out of an advertising pitch,” he adds.
But it’s not just their company that CEOs are pitching for. When a survey by United Spirits Ltd showed that whiskey is perceived as an old man’s drink and the young were switching to vodka and rum, they roped in young success icons—Alok Kejriwal of Contests2win Group, Neeraj Roy of Hungama Mobile and Ajay Bijli of PVR Cinemas Ltd, among others, to endorse their Signature brand of whiskey. Says Kejriwal:?“Consumers are more likely to listen to a person who actually walks the talk.”
“There is some credibility associated with a CEO as consumers expect them to be more mindful of the brands they associate with,” says Future’s Desai. There is, however, some risk in this strategy. “A CEO is pretty much the last recourse any company has to establish credibility,” he adds. “You don’t put the general on the front line.”
CEOs as models are, of course, not as ubiquitous as film and sports stars. Of the Rs300 crore celebrity endorsements, 80% goes to the more glamorous stars. However, the celebrity list is now expanding. “There is pressure on advertising agencies and advertisers to exploit a wider range of celebrities,” says Sam Balsara, chairman and managing director, Madison Communications Pvt?Ltd who reasons that while celebrities work, it doesn’t help the brand if everybody uses the same celebrity.
Celebrity fatigue has indeed pushed a wider range of professionals to the ad front. Hewlett & Packard Co. chose film-maker Karan Johar, architect Hafeez Contractor and automobile design expert Dilip Chhabria to endorse their personal computers in India.
Deepti Dang, head of marketing, PSG commercial and SMB, Hewlett-Packard India Sales Ltd, says, “These professionals are known for their path-breaking work. The (Hall of Fame) campaign has created a buzz around the brand.” It helps the other side too. Chhabria, who is managing director of DC Design Pvt. Ltd, did not accept any endorsement fee, saying that he benefited from the association.
The CEO ad trend is likely to continue, experts says. “As competition in the B-to-B (business to business) area hots up, we will see a lot of CEOs and company heads in ad campaigns,” says Balsara.
Vivek Shukla of Hindustan in New Delhi contributed to this story.