Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Can Salman Khan connect with Pepsi consumers?
Bollywood actor Salman Khan. (Photo: IANS)
Bollywood actor Salman Khan. (Photo: IANS)

Opinion | Can Salman Khan connect with Pepsi consumers?

In a surprising announcement on Tuesday, the company said that it will build further on its ‘Har Ghoont Mein Swag’ proposition with the popular actor

Beverage and snacks maker PepsiCo. India Holdings plans to build its flagship cola brand, Pepsi, with Bollywood star Salman Khan in the coming year. In a surprising announcement on Tuesday, the company said that it will build further on its ‘Har Ghoont Mein Swag’ proposition with the popular actor. An earlier column in this space analysed how brands are cashing in on the “swag" factor among youth which was synonymous with their confident spirit.

Predictably, the announcement was received with shock and disbelief. Anuja Chauhan, the former creative head at JWT who created some iconic taglines for Pepsi including ‘Nothing Official About It’ and ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’, says Pepsi has been associated with youthful irreverence.

“The news about its association with 53-year-old Khan does blow your mind," says Chauhan.

For several years, Salman was the ambassador for rival Coca Cola India’s home-grown brand Thums Up. That was a great fit as Thums Up with its distinct strong taste (‘Taste The Thunder’) was endorsed by the macho man seen as being overtly masculine.

“While we did not call Pepsi a feminine brand, it was the sweeter drink. It was liked both by men and women," says a former Pepsi executive, who did not want to be named. “However, with Salman, the brand seems to have taken a completely different direction," he adds.

Marketing requires strategic thinking. In the 1980s, colas were cool, represented youth, and were mascots of change. “Now they are irrelevant and technology is cool. However, cola marketers still think that celebrities are the only route to excitement," says the former Pepsi executive.

Salman, who plugged Thums Up for many years, will now sell Pepsi. Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor, who earlier endorsed Pepsi, are now with Coke. This confuses the consumers as they are unsure of what the celebrity actually stands for.

“The brand endorsement industry is mirroring politics. Celebrities are getting into bed with brands without thinking. It is like a game of musical chairs," feels Chauhan.

Surprisingly, in 2008, Pepsi found Shah Rukh Khan, then 43, too old for the brand and did not renew his contract. It also dropped Sachin Tendulkar at the age of 35. So, signing up Salman at 53 is perplexing. Also, Salman is a polarizing figure. People either love him or hate him. He has had several brushes with the law, including a couple of poaching cases as well as a hit-and-run case. Brand Pepsi, meanwhile, is a unifying force. It stands for equality, say experts.

Yet, some see the development as more nuanced. With rising health consciousness, there is an increasing number of consumers in the higher socio-economic segments who are eschewing carbonated beverages (or sodas as they are called in the US) in favour of healthier alternatives.

“Growth in this category, therefore, needs to come from market expansion and penetration, which necessarily means addressing the masses," points out Samit Sinha, managing partner Alchemist Brand Consulting.

In that context, the choice of Salman is an interesting one. “While he is clearly not the darling of the intellectual elite, his appeal among the masses is undeniable and cannot be underestimated. He has the ability to deliver a Bollywood blockbuster almost at will," he feels.

Salman will soon be seen in Dabangg 3 releasing during Christmas. Pepsi, which is tying up with the film, promises that it will give consumers a sneak peek into what the Pepsi 2020 campaign will look like.

In 2010, Dabangg made 141 crore and was one of the earliest entrants to the 100-crore club. It’s also considered quite the cult film in pop culture discussion, given how it established him as the hero of the masses and also made the small-town setting cool. Dabangg 2 did well, too, but didn’t enjoy the same cult status. While Dabangg 3 is much awaited, the franchise may be losing its sheen. In fact, Salman has had a chequered couple of years at the box office with none of his last few films (Bharat, Race 3) recovering their production costs.

Sinha feels that though Salman has a lowbrow image, he also has a certain campy appeal that cuts across demographics, somewhat like actor Govinda in his prime.

“Also, the Pepsi brand stands for irreverence and taking on the establishment, which Salman is able to pull off effortlessly on screen," he adds. All things considered, the choice of Salman is not as counter-intuitive as one might think. The main problem could be his age. Can being 50 plus still make him the choice of the new generation?

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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