When I moved to Delhi in 2013 with Contract Advertising, our largest client was NIIT and their much-loved brand ambassador was Vishwanathan Anand. Although a practising sportsman, his intellectual credentials were impeccable and there was a distinct connection to IT education, thus leading to source credibility. While the finest fan of Shahrukh Khan would happily concede that his eligibility for representing a higher education brand is rather suspect.
In fact, this is a prevalent pattern now with sportsmen and film stars being the endorsers of new-age academic institutions, ranging from Virat Kohli to Deepa Malik. The latest to join this circus being the juvenile coding centres which present themselves as the ultimate top up to conventional education. Prima facie, this seems to be a logical fallacy as surely in a sensitive nation like ours, we take our studies damn seriously. Since early childhood, the distinction between study and play has been clearly established and truthfully, the legacy coaching centres still flaunt successful alumni as the greatest evidence of vitality. So much so that JEE toppers sneakily model for multiple brands, further proving the power of credibility. In all this though, non-academic role models coming to the party seems to be an aberration but one which can be partially explained by certain larger societal trends.
Thirty years after liberalisation, urban India is finally showing a bias for outcomes and not just output. The difference is simple but stark — ‘output’ is the noble profession of medicine or the complex craft of engineering while ‘outcome’ is the ability to be wealthy, happy and purposeful. It started with liberal parents encouraging their wards to become disc jockeys or bartenders as long as they were sincere and successful, demolishing the Maths & Science monopoly that had defined our worldview. A key caveat certainly was success as we started appreciating the undeniable boons of wealth, often derided as the crooked man’s prerogative. When salaries improved and it was possible to lead a first class ‘white’ life, our thinking also changed and we tended to value outcomes way above mere output. But ‘value’ in an indigenous manner laced with sufficient integrity, as affluence led to satisfactory family lives and continuity of necessary tradition.
This was clearly not the pattern of yore which operated in a rather straight lined fashion. Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar commenced their endorsement careers from cricket equipment (core domain), moving on to energy drinks (adjunct domain), getting entrenched in carbonated beverages (youth imagery) and extending to a few dilettante categories like apparel. Film stars followed the imagery trail which could be romance, machismo (remember Bagpiper) and aspiration which in every case was a reflection of hard earned silver screen equity. In the 1940s, Branolia was endorsed by none other than Rabindranath Tagore while Satyajit Ray was tapped sincerely by a Unilever tea brand to corroborate its discerning credentials. But this was clearly the era of domain credibility, which could extend subjectively via imagery or derived association, Farukh Engineer could endorse Brylcreem because he was dashingly handsome.
The pattern of today is clearly a cross-functional influence of unquestioned success whatever be the designated sphere of influence. Which in turn is diminishing the holy grail of source credibility, which was such a defining bedrock of communications theory. What is actually changing is the definition of both source and credibility — source truly becoming open source and credibility now a subject of worldly outcome and not focussed output. Parents would thus want their kids to be the Virat Kohli of mechanical engineering or the Shahrukh Khan of rocket science and find this metaphor to be a compelling provocation. Exactly why serious academic ventures are daring to follow a star celebrity route in endorsement, daring beyond conventional mores of source credibility. Most surely, driven by the impact of the endorser’s success, a situation they dearly wish for their wards.
Of course, let it not be denied that mainstream celebrities add weight to the valuation game and make promoters richer, but that is a legitimate view and not a cynical view. It would mean the product would get sharper and benefit many more worthies and that, God knows, is a super-worthy cause. But what I found fascinating is the potential for cross-application that is currently just being mildly explored — imagine Virat Kohli endorsing Viagra, Shahrukh Khan vouching for baby food and Donald Trump being an advocate of diversity. In each case, the successes of the protagonist lead to the ultimate source credibility, superseding the compatibility with the domain.
On the profitability of hotels, Conrad Hilton had famously said — location, location, location. On the virality of endorsement I must vehemently say — success, success, success.
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