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Aamir Khan-Snapdeal backlash: Lessons for both brands and ambassadors

Industry veterans share their views on the connection between a brand ambassador and the brand, and how one can impact the image of the other

Aanchal Kohli | Mumbai | November 26, 2015

A still from the latest TVC by Snapdeal. A still from the latest TVC by Snapdeal.

Snapdeal’s successful innings in the Indian market hit a minor roadblock when the brand’s much loved ambassador Aamir Khan spoke out about the issue of intolerance. Khan was speaking at the Ramnath Goenka awards and little did he know that his words would trigger a backlash on social media. The ripple effect reached Snapdeal within a day and netizens urged each other to uninstall the Snapdeal App.

Brand ambassadors in India wield a good deal of influence among consumers. This leads to immense pressure on the ambassadors, to be politically correct at all times even when expressing their personal opinion. One misstep can lead to serious damage to the brand’s image. Khan’s seemingly innocuous statement led to trouble for Snapdeal. Hashtags like #Appwapsi and #saynotosnapdeal started trending on Twitter. Many users gave the App a one-star rating to protest.

While marketers and advertisers have been discussing the changing behaviour patterns of consumers, the question still is whether they have really evolved. The way they connect the brand with its ambassador just shows how they can be easily influenced. This controversy saw Snapdeal’s App fall in ratings on Google Play Store.

Thousands of people took to social media to voice their discontent over Khan’s remarks against growing intolerance in the country. Some also targeted Godrej on Twitter for the company's alleged association with Khan. But Godrej denied the link. “Aamir Khan's contract with Godrej ended in March 2014. The said current views are his personal and in no way connected to us,” the company replied to Twitter users. spoke to brand experts to know what implications will this kind of backlash leave on both brands and their ambassadors in future.

Naresh Gupta Naresh Gupta

Naresh Gupta, CEO, Bang In the Middle, said, “This is a new one, this has never happened before, so the brands do not have a set template to respond. People have protested against brands before, but those were localized to a store or geography, but this time it’s national. In the new order, what is interesting is that both protestors and non-protestors have used the same platform to be heard. There are enough sane voices on Twitter on the same hash tag. There is only one way to look at this, if people are unhappy with a brand, they will protest. But this is the real issue: of the 91000 one star reviews that exist, why are hundreds of reviews without a profile picture? Does e-commerce also have to deal with troll army?”

As mentioned, Snapdeal’s image too is getting affected by the deluge of comments on Twitter. But Gupta is hopeful that in the long run it will not affect the brand one bit. The issue with mob frenzy is that the frenzy cannot be sustained; the mob will find another fight to watch and move on, those who are engaged with the brand will stay with the brand. .

Zafar Rais Zafar Rais

Zafar Rais, CEO-MindShift Interactive, stated, “Social media today is the medium used to spread news. It's fast and influential and that leads consumers today to be hypercritical about various situations. While the comment by Aamir Khan has been the talk of the town, roping in Snapdeal into this conversation due to him being the brand ambassador is a bit much. The overall outburst is far louder than it should have been and the impact it has had on Snapdeal is totally uncalled for.”

Sanjay Tripathy Sanjay Tripathy

Sanjay Tripathy, Senior Executive Vice President, HDFC Life, mentioned that celebrity endorsement is a means of communication – a choice the company makes on how they want their message communicated. An actor or spokesperson is chosen because the celebrity has certain traits that are in line with the image the brand wants to portray. “However, at the end of the day, in these advertisements, all celebrities are just actors, delivering lines. What people tend to forget is that the brand is not the actor, and the actor is not the brand. They are separate entities with different views and opinions, who have come together for a cause and part ways on every other aspect other than that particular cause,” Tripathy said.

KV Sridhar KV Sridhar

KV Sridhar, ?Chief Creative Officer India SapientNitro, feels that it is bound to happen as brand ambassadors are somewhere the face of a brand hence a brand suffers but this was a temporary issue. “People today have no patience to sit and understand what he actually meant. He was not expressing the fact that he will be leaving the country, he just expressed what his wife had said. This issue will settle down very soon. No doubt about the fact that a brand has a strong relationship with its brand ambassador.”

Harish Bijoor Harish Bijoor

Harish Bijoor, a brand expert and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., said, “A relationship between a brand and its ambassador is an umbilical one. In this case the brand ambassador has represented his personal view point but when a brand ambassador makes a personal comment he/she should be a bit careful because there are a whole lot of people on digital who would oppose it, who are unable to distinguish between a person and a brand ambassador. Celebrities are public faces and it sometimes becomes hard to distinguish between a person and a brand ambassador. So when Amir Khan says something about his personal being it might affect the brand he is endorsing. But I am sure this is a small issue and it will die down very soon.”

Tripathy mentioned, “It is both unlucky and unfair that Snapdeal has got caught in the backlash of the reaction to Aamir's comments. It is primarily because of the very visible campaigns done in the recent past. This is also known fallout of associating with a celebrity since they, as public figures, do speak and interact on different forums and can be caught in controversies. So the only option the brand has in this matter is to select the celebrity carefully and act on time, in case of controversies to manage their image and stakeholders. And this is where Snapdeal could have been more proactive, especially managing this controversy on media and social.”

Subhrangshu Neogi Subhrangshu Neogi

Subhrangshu Neogi, Director, Group Marketing and Brand, Religare Enterprises, said, “The views expressed by Aamir are his personal views which triggered these reactions from people. I would not want to comment on the broader issue of whether his views are right or wrong. However, from a brand standpoint, it is a risk that you run if you are being endorsed by a celebrity or public figure. This is not the first time we have seen this happen that brands bear the backlash for no fault of theirs and I am sure won’t be the last. It is certainly a tight rope that you walk.”

In its blog, Snapdeal stated that it was neither connected nor played a role in comments made by Aamir Khan in his personal capacity. Snapdeal is a proud Indian company built by passionate young Indians focused on building an inclusive digital India. “Every day we are positively impacting thousands of small businesses and millions of consumers in India. We will continue towards our mission of creating one million successful online entrepreneurs in India,” the company added.

Experts believe the controversy will be short-lived and that it would soon be business as usual for both Snapdeal and Aamir Khan.

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