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Celebrity endorsements: Shortcut or gamble?

A famous face might help a brand get instant recognition and reach but is such a model sustainable in the long run? BestMediaInfo talks to experts to find out. The arguments on both sides are strong

Celebrity endorsements: Shortcut or gamble?

A famous face might help a brand get instant recognition and reach but is such a model sustainable in the long run? BestMediaInfo talks to experts to find out. The arguments on both sides are strong

Roshni Nair | Mumbai | August 22, 2016


A Bobby Deol parody Twitter account was recently doing the rounds on internet. All the tweets from the account were hilarious but the best was probably the comment on Hema Malini and her association with water purifier Kent. The tweets from the parody account had Deol pretending and complaining about how Hema Malini loved Kent more than she loved him.

While the tweets and the account itself were in jest, it gets one thinking about the complex relationship between celebrities and brands. If done right, then it can reap rewards for both the celebrity and the brand and if not, it can have disastrous results.

Today celebrities endorse everything from soap to chocolate to ‘baniyans’ (vests). But that wasn’t the case earlier. It was rare to find yesteryear actors and celebrities endorsing products. So what has changed and why? Is there logic to the mad scramble for signing celebrities to endorse brands?

How did this trend start?

Santosh Padhi Santosh Padhi

Santosh Padhi, Chief Creative Officer & Co-Founder, Dentsu Taproot India, attributes the trend to the emergence of television. “When yesteryear actors like Dharmendra and Dev Anand were there, print was the medium and television wasn’t cheap. Thirty years back, TV became affordable and since Bollywood celebrities were ruling the roost on television, brands took this route for endorsements. Also in the old days, there was no aggressive competition like today. Every category had only two to three players, now there are 20 for the same. All 20 are racing to reach the consumer. While some adopt clutter-breaking methods, others believe in bringing some popular faces on board,” Padhi said.

An American phenomenon

Anil K Nair Anil K Nair

Anil K Nair, CEO & Managing Partner, Digital L&K | Saatchi & Saatchi, thinks the trend is a western import. “It’s actually an American phenomenon, using big NBA, Hollywood and football stars to push everyday products. India being a nation with a large middle class and youth population fits right into that trend. Also the two large followings we have in India of Bollywood and cricket lend itself to celebrity creation,” he explained.

Amer Jaleel Amer Jaleel

Amer Jaleel, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, Mullen Lintas, is of the opinion that celebrity endorsements began in order to distinguish a brand and to cut the clutter. “If we see the campaigns by Lux, they positioned themselves as the beauty soap of film stars. This was done to cut the clutter and set the premise of the brand. The premise of the brand was that it is a premium brand and a brand used by film stars. This led to the usage of the stars in Lux’s campaigns.”

While there can be varied views on how the trend began in the country, one can’t deny the fact that celebrity endorsement is now much more than just famous faces espousing the salient features of a product. Today, one rarely sees celebrities playing themselves in advertisements. It is now more about the story. Take, for example, the widely successful MakeMyTrip ads with Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt or even the recent Swachh Bharat video with a constellation of stars playing everything from a middle-class wife to a ‘panwadi’ to Goddess Lakshmi.

Evolution of celebrity endorsements

Shedding light on the evolution of celebrity endorsements, KV Sridhar, Chief Creative Officer, SapientNitro, takes us through the three phases of the trend.

KV Sridhar KV Sridhar

“Earlier ads using celebrities were like celebrity sales messages. Celebrities used to come on screen and simply ask consumers to buy the product, they were direct messages. But when the seller’s market turned to a buyer’s market, there was an evolution in celebrity endorsements too. Brands started looking for associations with the celebrity. A celebrity was zeroed in on by looking at what the product stood for. For example, when Farokh Engineer was roped in for the Brylcreem ad it was because he had a head full of nice hair. The third phase in the trend came when brands started thinking about the personality of their brand and that of the celebrity and what kind of story can be woven around the same. Now brands don’t look at celebrities as sales people. Now it is more about believability, naturalness and transparency. For example, Shah Rukh Khan endorsing an ordinary cycle brand will be hard for consumers to believe and associate with but Shah Rukh Khan endorsing a sports cycle is still believable,” he said.


While there have been success stories of brands using celebrities to endorse their products, there have been quite a few misses too. So, why do brands use celebrities and do newer players in the market benefit more by getting a celebrity on board?

Brylcreem Kishore Kumar in Brylcreem ad

Message on steroids?

Dhunji S Wadia Dhunji S Wadia

“There are quite a few benefits to hiring a celebrity to endorse a brand. The first is getting eyeballs and recognition. The second reason would be easy recall. However, the strongest would be if the brand can connect itself with the celebrity's skills. Most sports brands are sold on this premise,” said Dhunji Wadia, President, Rediffusion Y&R.

While Nair believes a celebrity is both a ‘medium and a message on steroids’ and can help a brand reach a high degree of messaging effectiveness in as short a time as possible, Padhi is not a fan of celebrity endorsement and sees it as a shortcut. He believes a better story can do more for a brand, new or old, than what a celebrity can.

Giving the example of Tea-a-me teas, a relatively newer player in the market that recently came up with the ‘Tea for Trump’ campaign, Padhi said, “There are many tea brands that have been here for donkey’s years but what Tea-a-me did was cutting edge. Consumers remember such out-of-the-box and relevant communication.”

Corroborating his views is Prathap Suthan, Chief Creative Officer, Bang In The Middle.

Prathap Suthan Prathap Suthan

“Brands use celebrities because they are new or unknown, or they are good yet lagging behind competition. Or they have nothing much to say about themselves, but have enough money to fund celebrities. They look at celebrities as a prop to add credibility, reputation, and to gain a voice/face for themselves. It's much like a catalyst. Like nitro to gain some extra temporary acceleration. Ideally, according to me, new brands should try to avoid celebrities and build themselves without it. Because once you start on the shoulders of a celeb, it's very difficult to build your own image.”

But with so many celebrities endorsing so many brands, is it difficult to find the right fit?

MG Parameswaran MG Parameswaran

“There are two kinds of fits you need to examine. In my book ‘Nawabs Nudes Noodles’, I have dedicated a chapter on the use/abuse of celebrities. The first factor is what can be called the ‘Recognition Factor’ and the second is the ‘Trait Fit’ factor. How recognisable is the celeb? How will the celeb fit the brand’s promise? These two factors examine the two vital questions,” explained MG Parameswaran, Brand Strategist, Founder,

Giving the example of Taj Mahal Tea and its association with Zakir Hussain, Wadia talked about the importance of a common factor between brand and a celebrity. “First of all there should be a common place that overlaps between ‘The Brand’s World’ and ‘The Celebrity's World’. The best example I can think of is Taj Mahal Tea and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Zakir Hussain represented the rigour of mastering the tabla. The same rigour would go in the selection of the best tea to make Taj Mahal. There’s a parallel that came shining through to create a powerful brand – Taj Mahal tea,” he explained.

Speaking about finding the right celebrity to match the personality for the brand, a spokesperson from Coca-Cola India said, “For some brands, we have regional brand ambassadors. For example, Mahesh Babu endorses Thums Up and Samantha Prabhu endorses Maaza in Andhra Pradesh. Mahesh Babu stands for the daredevilry attitude, the will to do and go an extra yard, which closely resonates with the values of Thums Up. Samantha on the other hand brings in the fresh, youthful appeal which has helped convey the new brand philosophy of Maaza. The strategy has been working well for us as Thums Up continues to be the largest cola brand and Maaza the largest mango juice beverage in Andhra Pradesh.”

Sometimes it’s a gamble

While celebrities might have helped build brands and even rescued them at times like Amitabh Bachchan did for Cadbury from their worm infestation crisis, they are still a gamble.

“It is a gamble. One small mistake or a wrong comment on social media can have a negative rub-off on the brand. In the old days nobody could trace the guy. Consumers point out brand associations in Twitter wars,” pointed out Padhi.

Suthan raises a pertinent question. “What happens if the celebrity gets into a controversy? Or what if that person's performance comes tumbling – sports or films? Or what if the person dies? More importantly, it will be difficult to steer away from his/her image, especially if the campaign has worked,” he said.

Shedding light on the problem of celebrities becoming bigger than the brand, Sridhar said, “Getting celebrities to endorse is quite a risk. Celebrities should never get bigger than a brand. If that happens and somehow the association comes to an end, then the brand will cease to exist.”

But Jaleel is not worried about social media and the internet playing spoilsport for celebrity endorsements. He believes that things are getting a little boring with everyone being too responsible.

“While there is an element of risk with celebrity endorsements, there is more responsibility today among brands and celebrities than earlier. A celebrity is a public figure and has to maintain their public image, same goes for the brand. Everybody is getting a bit more responsible, a bit more boring,” Jaleel said.

Not only is using celebrities for promoting one’s brand a gamble, it also a much cluttered space. With one celebrity endorsing multiple products in various categories, it is difficult to get exclusivity.

Talking about the importance of having a good, sound idea and not depending on celebrities, Padhi said, “The most cluttered category in this regard is the men’s undergarments category. When there are so many actors representing so many brands in the same category, it becomes difficult to differentiate who is representing what. But if something like Yeh toh bada toing hai were to happen now, that would be clutter breaking!”

But do celebrity endorsements pay off?

“Given the number of celebrity-based ads on Indian television, it looks as if there is some economic and marketing logic behind this,” said Parameswaran.

Speaking about their celebrity associations both on national and regional platforms and how it has helped them reach out to their consumers, the spokesperson from Coca-Cola India said, “Coca-Cola India has been associated with multiple artists both on the national and regional levels. At a national level, Sidharth and Alia have been great proponents of the values of Coca-Cola. Regional protagonists like Diljit Dosanjh, on the other hand, bring in a very personal and local connect, the benefits of the local language, activations and personal local experiences. Diljit brings in the added dimension of being a popular singer and our first association with him was to create a song that stood out to the listeners of Coke Studio. Earlier in the year, he performed live for the audience of Coke Studio in Jalandhar. He will now go on to meet some Coca-Cola consumers even as he continues to entertain them with his films and performances. He therefore connects with his audience (who also are Coca-Cola consumers) at multiple levels.”

While Suthan is of the view that the big guys somehow always manage to make it work, Nair believes there is a growing threat to the trend.

“There are many case studies of celebrity endorsements paying off exponentially and even more of failures. But having said that there is the growing threat to the celebrity endorsement culture from the non-celeb influencer community that is now being used by brands as a credible organic channel for brand building and outreach,” he said.

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