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Case Analysis: We Are Ready For It Now

Is the use of foreigners in advertising just lazy marketing? Continuing use of foreigners in advertising shows that it is working somewhere, writes Vivek Sharma

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By Vivek Sharma

Is the use of foreigners in advertising just lazy marketing? Or is it merely exploiting the consumer’s agelong conditioning that ‘white’ is better? Or is it simply exaggerating a brand’s origin and claims, its performance promise, sometimes bordering on misleading? Should marketers use a mixed bag — Indians and white skinned westerners — to connect with consumers in a deeper emotional way? The answer to all these questions is YES, and perhaps MAYBE, and also WHY NOT? But let us not get judgemental about marketers using foreigners in brand marketing because, for one, it is working somewhere and two, they have a job to do. And that tough job is to convey the brand message in most effective and efficient way, as long as it is not about misleading consumers, or making false claims.

Many years ago, an Indian cement brand began its campaign with a respectable, serious and middle-aged foreigner coming on the screen and saying ‘Sasta nahin, sabse acha’ in a very predictable but endearing foreign accent. It perhaps conveyed that a ‘white man’ endorsing the cement must be an expert and he was saying that this Indian brand is better than renowned global brands. It also perhaps hinted on some foreign collaboration, or foreign origin conveying technological superiority of the product or so forth. But no one paid critical attention since it was cement and not some cola. Over the years, the brand has moved on to tell its story with humorous situations with earthy Indian characters and situations. But the foreigner gentleman still comes at the end of an otherwise ‘very Indian advertising’ reiterating in his foreign accent ‘Sasta nahin, sabse acha’.

Why? Perhaps because the brand still finds merit in conveying ‘technological expertise and superiority’ in the shortest possible way through the use of a foreigner face in its advertising. And it is working for the brand.

Almost a decade ago, a woollen garments player, from the north Indian capital of hosiery, built a very successful brand using a foreign name (French Riviera) and advertising often showing foreigners in foreign locales. Was it wrong? NO. Nor did anyone complain. It was just cueing sophistication and premiumness, even lifestyle, through the symbols most easily understood by Indian consumers. So, brands do use foreigners to cue luxury, premiumness and aspiration; sometimes hint at foreign source of origin or simply emphasise the product superiority. Or, at an emotional level, to make the consumer feel superior and premium through suggestion that he is good for these brands.

And why not? Today’s marketplace is so crowded and noisy, how will a brand be heard? Marketers have an unenviable task of being accountable for returns on the huge sums of marketing monies that they spend to drive consumer acceptance and sales. These are not small sums. The ad budgets of even pan masala brands runs into several crores of rupees, then why talk of others. And therefore, they have to cut through the high noise to get heard and be noticed. For instance, say, your moisturiser brand is identically formulated to mine. Yet by using an appealing foreigner-looking model with the sheen and elegance that is mysteriously non-Indian, I pack in the romance of your dreams in my advertising… and sure enough you veer towards my moisturiser!

Brands need to get their message to the consumer’s mind in the shortest possible way and often, that shortest possible way is through codes and symbols. For example, just as a person in a white apron cues medical expertise, herbs cue nature and good for you, ‘foreigners’ cue aspiration or premiumness or expertise or just foreign origin or, in some cases, one’s dream. So ‘foreigners’ is just a short-code used by marketers to cut through the clutter to appeal to that part of the consumer’s mind where brand preference happens.

Now the question arises, is the use of foreigners in advertising only right for global brands? And Indian brands should not use foreigners in their advertising until they have a foreign connect via collaboration or imported technology / patent or foreign markets?

It is a marketer’s decision to use or not use foreigners in advertising their brands and they are responsible for the consequent results — including the confusion of a consumer who may wonder about foreign faces with an Indian brand name; or credibility issues about the brand’s origin and/or superiority. Mostly, one should not view it from a nationalistic or emotional angle.

A key question, despite this marketing freedom, remains: Why and how is the use of foreigners in Indian advertising working, beyond conveying in short codes and symbols? It must be working at some deeper level otherwise practical, hard-nosed marketers would not keep on using foreigners for their brands.

To answer this, we need a quick glance at who is this Indian that are we talking to today, in terms of thoughts and beliefs. Who is this Indian today that accepts more use of foreigners in advertising and yet often rejects blatant pasting of foreign symbols on brands?

Today, that Indian is more exposed to the contemporary world via foreign travel, Hollywood (high reach of language dubbed Hollywood movies), foreign TV shows, foreign fashion trends and foreign foods, foreign girls acting in Bollywood — all available to him democratically via the tap of the Internet. He accepts foreign beauties dancing in Bollywood songs as much as pizza and doughnuts. Just as the TV took aspiration to small towns in 1990s, the Internet and mobile devices have taken aspiration higher to every nook and corner of India. The expectation of this consumer is only the best at global standards and nothing intimidates him anymore — neither foreign sounding brand names nor foreign faces. He consumes high-
pitched stories of our national success of GDP, fast-growing economy, cricket, tennis and badminton exploits as much as global reach of Bollywood. A Sania+Martina win is as Indian as it is international. It is a mixed bag these days! Let us not miss the point — in accepting the gora in the ad, the Indian consumer now believes in India’s success! He likes that India is being wooed by foreign businesses and countries. The Indian consumer now likes being chased by the world.

While the Indian consumer is now increasingly comfortable with foreign influences, how does he decode the foreign symbols in marketing and advertising? Earlier, foreign faces in advertising used to represent symbols of success and the associated physical trappings of foreigners were aspirational to Indian consumer. But now, the Indian consumer has moved from aspiring only the physical symbols/trappings of foreigners to wanting to be like them, live like them and sometimes, look like them. In their demeanour, he sees what he would rather be. He not only sees in foreign faces the physical superiority but the way of life that they live — hygienic, comfortable, beautiful homes and surroundings. That’s why, increasingly, we not only see foreign faces but foreign locales and homes in Indian advertising. He seeks foreign / global brands supposedly for their superiority but also for the aspirational environment that they cue. And that is key. This reflects the collective dream of India to live in better social milieu, hygienic, beautiful, efficient and without corruption — like the foreigners in the ads.

So, if we can have foreign dress styles, foreign locales and foreign movies and actors, why not foreign people?

Now comes the prickly issue of misleading consumers by showing foreign faces — as demonstrated in the case (school advertisement using foreign faces). The fact, evident from the list of misleading advertisements upheld by ASCI (Advertising Council of India), is that consumers can be equally misled by Indian brands, global brands with Indian faces and with foreign faces. So, why single out the ads with foreign faces as misleading in particular? One can argue that it is easier to mislead about foreign origin and quality delivery with foreign faces but this argument is specious.

At the end of the day, the Indian consumer today is confident, discerning and has become more inclusive of foreign influences in all spheres of life. This is another representation of the journey that our nation has traversed since 1990s. He is able to digest ‘Foreign’ tadka with ease. And if he likes western/white/foreign, why fight it?

The author is Chief Marketing Officer, Pidilite Industries. The views expressed are his own

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2015)

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