Wishing on stars

Despite concerns about its efficacy, celebrity brand endorsements are showing no signs of fading out

In the globalisation era, an Indian company taking on the world is no longer big news for consumers. For the companies, however, catering to a global audience is serious business — both literally and metaphorically — and they are coming up with specially orchestrated celebrity-led advertising campaigns to communicate their intent. Given that letting the products speak for themselves could take years, these campaigns serve as shortcuts to build brand perception.

A case in point: in November 2015, Tata Motors chose footballer Lionel Messi as the global brand ambassador for its passenger cars for the next two years. The company’s press release speaks of plans to expand its footprint across the globe and Messi’s ability to transcend geographies. “The idea is to engage with young people and we found that football and Messi held a lot of connect with the youth,” Mayank Pareek, president, passenger vehicle business unit, Tata Motors, was quoted saying in the media. And this isn’t a new trend — last year, Hero MotoCorp signed on golfer Tiger Woods for a four-year period, shelling out a whopping ₹200 crore, the highest amount ever paid by an Indian company for a celebrity endorsement.

“Tiger Woods is not just a sports celebrity but one of the biggest global icons. His appeal cuts across geographies, nationalities, age and gender and, therefore, he makes for the best brand fit as our corporate partner as we go global,” Pawan Munjal was reported to have said in an interview. It was not too long ago that Micromax had signed on Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman to endorse its mobile handsets, as the company was looking at tapping markets outside of India. “Several companies want to shed the image of being an ‘Indian’ company and think that celebrity endorsements are a good way of doing it,” says Manish Porwal, managing director, Alchemist Marketing & Talent Solutions.

Celebrity endorsements are an easy way of building brand perception, but they certainly don’t come cheap. While its efficacy might be questionable, the cult of celebrity advertising is only growing. In 2001, no more than 25% of all advertisements in the country featured celebrities; that number is at 60-65% today. In India, celebrities endorse pretty much everything from hair oil to cars and from photocopy machines to detergents. They stare blankly at you from every traffic signal and take up significant footage on prime-time television.

With such a large chunk of advertising being led by celebrities, how much the consumer actually absorbs and retains is a moot point. Abhijit Avasthi, co-founder, Sideways Consulting, and former national creative director, Ogilvy & Mather, maintains that it is more important to know how to use a celebrity than to just feature him or her in the commercial.

“If you do not get that right, it is your money and a good opportunity wasted,” he says. Avasthi cites the case of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, pointing out that the cricketer endorses close to 20 brands. “If you cannot name more than five, the others simply were a waste of time and effort.” Usually, there are fewer hits and a large number of misses. While Akshay Kumar worked well for Thums Up or Shah Rukh Khan for Hyundai Santro, Farhan Akhtar for Dulux or Akshay Kumar for Manappuram Finance were flop shows. Hyundai Santro, for instance, was a mass-market brand looking for visibility to build market share. Having Khan — who had great mass appeal — as its brand ambassador helped the company achieve its goal.

On the flip side, macho stunt man Akshay Kumar might have been a perfect fit for Thums Up, but surely not for endorsing gold loans with Manappuram Finance. The million-dollar question, then, is whether the celebrity really is a good fit for the brand and if the brand communication is actually effective. 

Analysts say the obvious advantage of celebrity endorsements is the initial level of interest created for the brand. “A celebrity can be a great messenger for an idea, provided you have an idea in the first place,” says Avasthi. He has been involved in creating advertising for brands such as Fevicol, Asian Paints, Perfetti Van Melle and Bajaj Pulsar.

“None of these brands ever used a celebrity and they worked very well,” he explains. On the other hand, bringing in a legend like Amitabh Bachchan for Cadbury Dairy Milk in the middle of the worms controversy or to spread polio awareness worked. “It is not good enough to just sign on a celebrity. You must be clear about how he or she needs to be used,” reiterates Avasthi.

Marico’s Nihar Naturals Shanti Amla hair oil, endorsed by Vidya Balan, is an example of a great fit — the product’s quality and reputation was in place and it just needed an endorsement to complete the picture. Balan was signed on in 2010 and the brand has since moved from a 9% market share back then to 34% today. But such instances are few and far between. According to Porwal, a celebrity can never replace a good creative. Besides, signing on a celeb means more spend on air time for the campaign as well.

In today’s high-decibel environment, celebrity endorsements thus only make the communication exercise more challenging; the international scene is even tougher. And given that companies are paying top dollar, this experience might well turn out to be a very expensive lesson for advertisers.