Can Indian banks ride on celebrity brand ambassadors?

Brand ambassadors, such as Deepika Padukone (Axis Bank) and Virat Kohli (PNB) can support a bank to grow its business but cannot carry the burden of non-performance


The recent SBI ad featuring chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya was a rare instance where the bank chief, and not a celebrity, was the brand ambassador. Photo: S. Kumar/Mint
The recent SBI ad featuring chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya was a rare instance where the bank chief, and not a celebrity, was the brand ambassador. Photo: S. Kumar/Mint

In a recent advertisement looking for probationary officers, the State Bank of India (SBI)—“the banker to every Indian”—has used a photograph of its chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya, a 1977 batch probationary officer. It says “every leader is a beginner somewhere”.

Typically, most SBI chiefs are home-grown; they start their career as probationary officers. For instance, Bhattacharya’s immediate predecessor Pratip Chaudhuri was an SBI probationary officer in 1974 and O.P. Bhatt, whom Chaudhuri had succeeded, was a probationary officer of the 1972 batch. However, India’s largest bank by assets had never used its chairman’s photograph to attract talent—until now.

Indeed, CEOs are the biggest brand ambassadors of banks, but they are seldom used as they don’t have mass appeal. Bhattacharya is a leader who carries her team along with her, has a fine understanding of the business of banking; calls a spade a spade at open forums and, at the same time, has the lady-next-door image which people can relate to. This is probably why SBI has made an exception.

Banks are always in search of the right brand ambassador who can create trust and help sell financial products. Unlike the FMCG business, savings and credit products are not sold on impulse and this is why it’s not easy for a bank to identify the right person, globally. Moreover, a celebrity cannot be a winner always as there are other complexities. For instance, Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins led Barclays Plc’s ‘Big Bank’ campaign but it miserably flopped as the campaign took off at a time when Barclays had closed several of its branches in Wales. Similarly, Prudential Plc’s Egg, Britain’s first Internet bank, used Stephen Hawking, the physicist, in a high-decibel advertising campaign to launch its first online “fund supermarket”—an American concept where private investors buy and sell a range of funds. But the platform did not last long and Egg sold it to Fidelity group as part of a drive to focus on its core banking business.

One Indian bank faced a similar situation although for a different reason. In 2011, Corporation Bank engaged Ashwini Akkunji, who bagged two gold medals at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, as its ambassador but after Akkunji failed a dope test, the Mangalore-headquartered bank had to bench her.

Researchers always debate whether celebrities convince people to purchase something they don’t want, particularly in the financial sector where one runs the risk of losing money if the decision goes wrong. But banks crave using celebrities to endorse their products. In India, cricketers and film actors are the first choice but in other parts of the world, banks are not shy of experimenting with others with mass appeal.

The Security Bank in the Philippines used Megan Young as its face when it did a major rebranding in 2014. The Miss World 2013 title-holder “personified what the bank wants to be recognized as: World class”, its chief executive officer Alberto Villarosa told a news channel.

When Bank of Baroda undertook a major rebranding exercise as “India’s international bank”, it used cricketer Rahul Dravid as its brand ambassador in 2005. Dravid symbolizes solidity and trust, and a bank cannot ask for more.

Similarly, ICICI Bank Ltd used Amitabh Bachchan when it got into retail banking in a big way in 2001. It brought back Bachchan in 2013-14 for a different purpose and also used Shah Rukh Khan to boost its overseas business, cashing in on his appeal among non-resident Indians in Dubai and the UK.

While ICICI Bank has chosen Bachchan and Khan at different times, another private sector bank, IndusInd Bank Ltd, has been using actors—Farhan Akhtar, Sharman Joshi and Boman Irani—rather than stars. Joshi sold an innovative service called ‘My Account, My Number’ which empowered customers to get the bank account number of their choice. Akhtar and Irani featured in a new service in 2016, called ‘fingerprint banking’, which allowed customers to carry out end-to-end banking transactions on its mobile banking app ‘IndusMobile’ by using fingerprints.

Another large private bank, Axis Bank Ltd, engaged Deepika Padukone to connect with the new generation in 2014. Padukone combines intelligence, ambition, glamour, acting abilities and, above all, success—the right ingredients to give a push to the bank’s plan to reach out to young customers.

Yet another private bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd, used actor Vinay Pathak to draw attention to its savings bank accounts after the Reserve Bank of India freed interest rates. Breaking through the clutter, Pathak brought in an element of comedy, something which Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin had done for Capital One for years. Baldwin had created a number of comic ads promoting the bank’s Venture Rewards Credit Card.

Currently, very few public sector banks are in good health, even as the universe of listed Indian banks is struggling under a pile of Rs7.2 trillion bad assets. Some of them have been shrinking their balance sheets and more than business growth, for them the challenge is to stay afloat. This is why probably they are looking for aggressive brand ambassadors.

Punjab National Bank has chosen cricket star Virat Kohli, an account holder at the bank since he was 16, to steer the ‘PNB is Mera Apna Bank’ campaign. The 122-year-old public sector bank is trying to reinvent itself using Kohli, who stands for performance, aggression and leadership qualities. He is the first Indian sportsperson to sign a Rs100-crore endorsement deal with a single brand—sports lifestyle brand Puma.

Canara Bank, in 2014, employed another cricketer as its brand ambassador—Shikhar Dhawan, known for his fastest Test century as debutant in Mohali in 2012-13. The bank chose him as a youth icon who represents aspiration, confidence and energy. The Bengaluru-based bank had earlier had another cricketer for endorsement—Venkatesh Prasad.

Among foreign banks, Royal Bank of Scotland engaged Sachin Tendulkar as its brand ambassador in 2008; Standard Chartered Bank hired Kapil Dev in 2003, many years after he retired; and Sunil Gavaskar joined Sania Mirza as brand ambassador for Deutsche Bank in 2006.

None of these partnerships could lift the fortunes of these banks in India. This clearly shows that even high-profile brand ambassadors can just support a bank to grow its business but cannot carry the burden of non-performance. Their financials must tell us a compelling story.

Tamal Bandyopadhyay, consulting editor at Mint, is adviser to Bandhan Bank. He is also the author of A Bank for the Buck, Sahara: The Untold Story and Bandhan: The Making of a Bank.

His Twitter handle is @tamalbandyo

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