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Guest Column: Sachin Tendulkar & the marketer’s dilemma

LK Gupta takes a look at the dynamics of celebrity endorsement in India and to what extent the Master Blaster can connect brands with the consumer post his retirement

December 26, 2012

LK Gupta

So, the biggest sporting icon India has seen, Sachin Tendulkar, retires amidst paroxysms of debate, general chest-beating and expected showering of well-deserved encomiums.

Being one of the most visible faces on television as brand ambassador for more than 15 brands, Sachin’s retirement from ODIs throws up a number of questions for marketers. Is he viable anymore? Who should link up with brand Sachin now, and who shouldn’t? What is his remaining shelf-life? How much money is he worth now… or next year?

There are two important things that marketers must consider when signing up any celebrity:

1. What is the brand’s need for a celebrity? If your brand lacks on parameters important to convince the consumer about your value proposition, you’d want to take a shortcut to build it via association with a celebrity who already has that elusive proposition. Eg., a touch of male ruggedness for an underwear brand might make them consider an Akshay Kumar or Sunny Deol. Or, impart laptops the glamour quotient when your new-age consumers are besotted with the Mac – that brings in Kareena Kapoor as the ultimate diva to seduce the consumer.

Another reason you might want a celebrity, and I suspect this is the major reason most brand endorsements are being done today, is to cut the ad clutter on television with your 30-sec spot. I don’t want to give any specific examples for this because you only have to turn on your TV sets to see dozens of them.

2. How do you plan to use the celebrity once you sign one up? The obvious use of the celebrity is in your TV commercial, for her/him to hold or wear your brand/ product wherever he/she appears, and at times make appearances on your behalf during conferences and events. My question is this: How many of us are using a celebrity brand ambassador to connect with the consumer in the new age milieu in more profound ways than just pulling mouthing written scripts on TV for you? When Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space, he didn’t just set new records. He embodied Red Bull’s brand essence of energy and pushing the boundaries. In being a sponsor for this eye-popping exercise, Red Bull became a content creator for millions of consumers worldwide that creates brand value far beyond any TV commercial.

When Vodafone sponsors the McLaren Mercedes Formula One team, they get Lewis Hamilton to deliver talks to elite groups of people in their corporate box – to talk about motivation, daring, about the hallowed sport of F1 racing and his experiences. Vodafone is not just peddling network services; it’s pushing its brand values without advertising.

I’m quite certain that 90 per cent of heads of marketing are neither asking these questions enough nor answering them. It is my contention that half the money being spent on celebrities in India today is wasted. Considering that all major brands nowadays have one or the other celebrity in their TV ads, you cannot go through one ad break without seeing at least two celebrities in the space of minutes, and consumers today are smart enough to know that these celebrities will pretty much support anything for money. What are we as brand marketers really building if nothing more than ephemeral recognition of our advertising of the season?

The other aspect of celebrity endorsement that marketers in India are painfully aware of is that only two things sell – either movie stars or national cricketers. As you know, both these types are notoriously inconsistent in their performance on screen and on field, and the marketer has to contend with fickle public sentiment. So, to hitch your campaign’s fortunes on one (or two) stars is myopic to say the least. Risk management is as much part of the game as communication of brand proposition.

The two companies I’ve seen handling this very well are Pepsi and P&G, the former with its big array of movie and cricket stars and the latter with its deliberate avoidance of top stars. Pepsi’s celebrity strategy ensures that it always has one or more recently successful stars to make its campaign a success even if some of the others in its bank are not performing well. P&G, when it contracts with second or third level celebrities or past No. 1s, manages to link the message-celeb-proposition expertly without taking attention away from the brand. And the costs don’t shoot to stratospheric levels. Check out their usage of the likes of Neha Dhupia, Malaika Arora Khan and Madhuri Dixit Nene for Gillette and Oral-B. Very smart!

Which brings me back to Sachin Tendulkar.

Fact is that Sachin has been out of the market for a number of brands already, given his age and recent lack of form. These include almost all brands that target the youth. Young Turks like Dhoni and Virat on one side, and youth icons like Ranbir have it going for them as the old guard gives way. Now that Sachin has retired from the faster version of the game (remember, he already refused T20 internationals), you can rule out all the brands that want to build on speed, glamour, sass, frenetic action, hi-tech and even coolness.

He is, however, gold for brands that want to build propositions related to dependability, long-term performance, return on investment, health and perhaps nostalgia. Gear up to see our Sachin endorsing more of insurance, banks, mutual funds, water purifier and cement brands. But wait a minute! Isn’t he already doing all that? Heh!

What I’d love to see is marketers using Sachin to engage in many more ways with a digital audience. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see brands creating content to entertain, educate and inform their constituencies using the infinite credibility and stature of someone like Sachin Tendulkar?

I’d like to see that.

(The views expressed here are the author’s personal. The article is sourced from his blog. The writer can be reached @Lk_gupta)

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