Minor celebrities make major hay

The past five years have seen a dramatic change in the way Indian brands are discovering and using stars

Some 15 years ago, when I was asked to write an article about the use of celebrities in Indian advertising, I said that there was an acute paucity of celebrities in the country. Every other brand was chasing the same few film and cricket stars.

This prompted a friend from Bengaluru (why do they all live in Bengaluru, I wonder) to comment that I should get myself listed as a ‘celebrity’ and try my hand at endorsement deals.

But the bigger point I was making was that Indian marketers were just about discovering the power of using celebrities in their ad messages; they also figured out that the amount demanded by a celeb then was a small fraction of the overall brand budget. And they were putting their money at the altar of the Khans and Kapoors.

It was around that time that FCB Ulka’s Cogito Consulting put out a report on the use of celebrities in Indian advertising. The report studied the use of stars and how brands should choose the right star for their purpose. Two key vectors were identified: Recognition Index (RI) and Trait Fit Index (TFI). The bigger film stars score high on RI, but may not have any TFI with, say, a malted drink brand. Conversely, a sportsperson who is a champion swimmer may not score high on RI, but may score very high on TFI for the same brand.

The report surmised that if the brand is looking for an instant lift in brand salience, and if the brand had the budget, the easiest option is to go with the biggest star.

The past five years have seen a dramatic change in the way Indian brands are discovering and using stars, of all ilk. For one, many brands have figured out that given the star-clutter on television, it is just not enough to show a star using the brand (yes, there is still a lot of that type of advertising on our television channels). Brands today are figuring out if the star could be made to play a role, that of a father, a mother or a friend.

The second major move has been the plethora of stars being unleashed on us poor viewers. Not only are the Bachchans, Khans and Kapoors very much in demand still, there are also endorsement deals for actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan. Not just cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, even boxer Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar are getting multiple brand deals. Among the female stars, the net has been cast even wider (obviously a lot of packaged consumer goods brands are on television, targeting the housewife).

Gone are the days when we only saw Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone in television ads; celebrity management companies are hard at work, dragging old film stars to the ad shooting sets.

So, actresses such as Sonali Bendre, Raveena Tandon, Kajol, Madhuri Dixit, Karisma Kapoor and Juhi Chawla are all in demand once again. Add to these women the superstar sportswomen, Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza.

Who would have imagined that the Big B, who very reluctantly endorsed BPL some two decades ago (he never did utter the brand name), will now be lighting agarbattis (incense sticks)? Or Kamal Haasan, who had shunned endorsement deals for the past four decades, will drop his guard to speak about vishwasam (trust) in an ad for a garment retailer called Pothys?

The use of the muscle man The Great Khali in a cement advertising campaign last year combined some of the better aspects of celebrity advertising; a recognizable big star (pun intended); a storyline that lent credibility to the star, fulfilling the aforementioned TFI and a nice twist in the tale.

Even the government of India has been using film stars for various campaigns; the Incredible India campaign recently went through a celebrity revamp, much like a packaged consumer goods brand.

Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, studied the phenomenon of star endorsement and she found, of all things, that companies’ stock rose by 0.25% on the day a celebrity deal was announced. Companies in the US report that there is a short-term brand sales uptick of almost 20%.

We know this is ending up as a zero-sum game. My competitor has Priyanka Chopra, so I get Deepika Padukone (only Bajiirao can afford both); they sponsor one film award, so I sponsor the other. And soon, we are all in the same place.

The Ad Age report said that around 15% of all advertising on American television featured a celebrity. The number for India, according to global research agency Millward Brown, quoted in the Ad Age report, was 25% (I suspect this number has climbed now). Are we alone in the overuse of celebrities? Not at all! It seems 45% of all advertising in Taiwan features a celebrity.

There is an old adage: combine a widely recognizable star, a vague brand fit, a charming story; now add to that a little kid and a dog, all the pre-test scores will just go way out of the charts.

For some years, I used to blame the celebrity obsession of Indian brands on the star obsession of brand owners and the pre-test obsession of professional brand marketers. May be those are too simplistic and the issue is a lot more complex and may have many other levers.

From stock prices indices, to retailer stocking, to B-schools magnetism, to trial purchase to sheer brand swagger.

Whatever it may be, I am happy that a number of good actors and sportsmen and women are getting a much deserved extra paycheque. We cannot blame them for making extra hay!

Ambi M.G. Parameswaran is adviser at FCB Ulka Advertising and president of the Advertising Agencies Association of India. He will take stock of consumers, brands and advertising every month. The views expressed are personal.

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