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Case Study: Can I Speak Without My Face?

Anila Ishwar circled the quote in the brand equity, again and again, lost in one thought: Why did Madhav Walia say this?

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Anila Ishwar circled the quote in the brand equity, again and again, lost in one thought: Why did Madhav Walia say this?

Madhav Walia was her senior in college who was currently heading marketing at Penn, a premium watch company. Madhav, who had created waves with a brand strategy two years ago, was now rejecting that same strategy for Penn!

Before Penn, Madhav was the marketing head with a premium mobile phone brand, Inca. Inca had always been known as Param Dewan’s phone, for a star like Param endorsed it, spoke about it, was seen explicitly using it in press conferences... and Inca developed the modernity, suaveness and charm of Param Dewan. And Inca gained tremendously from that association.

But now, uniquely at Penn, he was not going the endorsement way. He had been quoted in Brand Equity as saying, “It has some good to it, no doubt, but Penn’s needs are not in brand endorsement. That’s passé!” Why was Madhav, the endorsement king, now denouncing it?

Anila was the brand head of Nix, a great startup mobile and tablet brand that had positioned itself as a young, creative, and refreshing brand. Other than Apple, all brands had similar offerings on hardware (touch screen, camera, etc.) and software (Android or another version). Nix’s offerings were differentiated by its apps, the colourful, youth(y) look whether expressed by the phone covers or the ad backgrounds. Even the accessories they sold showcased their cool positioning — headphones, hands free devices, covers, travel chargers, customisable covers and so on.

Nix had sporadically made attempts to associate with “young” events like pub nights, evening parties after sports events and movie premieres, but its shine lacked the glow of desirability. Anila decided to move from this sporadic and “planned-accidental” association with celebrity events. Also, young events meant young anchors and questionable humour that could tarnish the brand. Anila wanted a formal sign up of the right celebrity to endorse Nix — but who was the right celebrity? Only Madhav could be trusted with this insight, for he had a way of pairing the right brand and celebrity — something that came to him naturally.

But Anila was clear about taking the celebrity route — that would increase Nix’s  visibility at a reasonable cost and break clutter, while also building for it a strong connect with its target. She had been planning a  good pow-wow with Madhav to seal her strategy, but now, Madhav’s ‘off endorsements’ posture bothered her.

When they met at Di Ghent, in Gurgaon, Madhav suggested upfront she should move away from the star endorsement approach for her brand. “Ok, there was merit in that sometime ago, hence you wanted stars to be the leaders and the rest of us to be followers. But today Anila, the category is well established. What you need is more people using it, new users... Phablet, tablet sab abhi common hai.”

I still feel we need that halo of desirability. As a brand to possess. Once we get that spot, then we can leap into new users market, no? And on this upward path a star can be an accelerator!
Madhav: You will be wasting money. Look at Idea. They did not do the ‘actress leaning against a tree texting’ ads. That was for Airtel when it first launched its service variants. Airtel set the pace and Idea took off from there. It did not repeat what Airtel did. Idea spoke to the common man and said, ‘Here are so many ways your life can get better and better if only you have the right Idea’. Can you imagine Idea being done by Amitabh Bacchhan?
Anila: But that is because he is not a mass product. He is a premium star! And Abhishek’s role was cleverly scripted as the sutradhar, hence his star quality helped the brand without affecting its mass appeal.
Madhav: Correct. So, now tell me: Are you positioning Nix as a star brand for special people or a star brand for all people or a mass brand for all people?
Anila: Madhav, right now, I am pitching for the Inca effect, ha ha ha. You swung a winner with your Param Dewan endorsement. I feel once Nix is seen in premium hands, it will gain desirability.... Oops, you look like you don’t agree!
Madhav: See, when I signed Param Dewan six years ago, we were playing in a nascent category. Smartphones had just entered the market and we wanted to show that they were not only for the tech geeks or the corporate types. Param was the superstar who helped bring in great clutter-breaking visibility and projected the easy usability of smartphones at a time when people were inhibited. So, it worked brilliantly for us for the first few years.
Anila: That’s exactly what I felt. And today, that Nix is in the youth focus mode; we want to build it as a very clear and exciting offering. So, we want to sign on Zara Patel — she engages brilliantly with youth — they follow her tweets, she has huge digital appeal across platforms, is smart, talented, she sings, blogs, hosts shows... she is intelligent, not just good looks!
Madhav: And all that is exactly what’s going to come in your way. Zara is trying to be an opinion leader. But today’s youths do not want to be led. Of course, they do want to know what is happening around them. They are open to your idea, like to know what you think. They will follow her tweets, stay connected with her digitally. But the days of ‘you do, I’ll follow’ are gone. They will watch her but also reserve their judgement about her, they will share opinions about her — including criticise, mock and rubbish her. This is a very different generation, Anila, even though it is not even 10 years since Param did Inca.
Anila: But that risk is there with any celeb. But our research indicates that our brand personality is most in sync with Zara’s.
Madhav: Ok, but do you also realise that a celebrity like Zara will likely overshadow your brand? She endorses over 15 products across categories. I find that worrisome. Do people even remember which international brand of handbags she signed up in August last year? She is doing one designer clothes ad, one jewellery ad, one property ad, one cement brand for her uncle... Not just Zara, every star is doing a gaggle of brands, from social messages to health drinks to God knows what. You must remember that usually the celeb overshadows the brand so the recall remains with the celeb and not the brand.
Anila: True, but that’s usually in case the brand is very, very young and nascent. Nix has been around for a couple of years.
Madhav: Exactly my point. Zara would have been great if you were wanting to reduce the awareness building stage for a new brand. Nix has all the awareness; what it needs is Alertness! Can Zara cause alertness about the brand? I think not. If anything there will be clutter. Because she stands for too many things.

Anila pondered. Ok, so Zara maybe a bad idea. But Virat Kohli? Arjun Kapoor? Kangana Ranaut? She realised how they were all eventually glamorous and yeah, Nix could do with that glamour touch!

Anila: Yaar... glamour is needed yet it is a handicap, no?
Madhav: Bataaoon? It’s not the glamour that is the handicap. It is the star who is the handicap.
Anila: How do you mean?
Madhav: See, they are a star for you, you are captivated, you are excited, you feel they will add the tinsel to your
brand, but it does not work vice-versa.
Anila: What? No!
Madhav: Yes. That is the truth. Do what you want, you cannot hold their attention. You think Star A cares about some bank he is endorsing? Or some building project? Or some watch? No matter what brand it is, the star is always a better brand. Isn’t that why you took him? And they move, and walk and talk and feel and smile and wink. They make your heart go beat-beat-beat. And they are irreplaceable. A Tag Heur or a Penn, or a something else may be breathtaking, but once you have turned the page, what stays with you is the star whose face you saw on that page.
Anila: So, that is why we also seek them to associate with the brand na?
Madhav: But they don’t. They don’t! They don’t associate! They will pose with your brand, they will smile into your brand, they will swear to the world they use only your brand... but they are not ‘into’ your brand and that is why they don’t work for your brand.

Anila was staring at Madhav through squinted eyes that grew more and more intense. “Kya matlab? You guys used Param Dewan for four years. And now you are saying... He did not use Inca?

Madhav: I, the marketer, feel and have seen, that they do not enter my brand, they do not make my brand their own, and as a result there is a credibility issue. And I felt this sharply when my bank, LGD, was being heavily endorsed by Ambi Narain! Ambika was the epitome of purity, honesty, dependability, smart, likeable.... She endorsed LGD Bank. She even went on to say the bank stood for all the values that she stood for.
Anila: And she was not even banking with LGD?
Madhav: Also. Then LGD was found defrauding on interest credits. It was all over the press. It was petty, it was cheap. I expected Ambi to withdraw or make a statement at least about what she felt. The bank was releasing one corporate ad after another in a damage control bid. But Ambika did not ‘speak’! There was no Ambi!
Anila: Maybe the client wanted to keep her out of a controversy?
Madhav: No, sorry, that does not wash. Remember, she is honest, smart, straight forward. She used those attributes... er, that was why she was chosen as the face of LGD. When you choose to be my brand ambassador you become the face of my brand. My brand cannot choose to speak without you. Can I speak without my face? If I, the brand manager ,choose to do that, it means either I am covering up a lie or I am an idiot.
Now this is my point, Anila. You need an ambassador who is smart and aware of her rights and duties; as much as the brand gains from associating with her as much she brings to the brand. But in the case of Ambika, she did not even know about the defrauding, she had no idea that small accounts were being deprived. I, the consumer, believe the brand is as good as she is. But if the endorser is into the brand, then she will ask to be noticed. She will call the bank brand and say ‘Your bank is not in sync with my values’. Either you go public and change your position or take me off.

Yet, a brand will drop you for breaching the contract — Raymond Weil sued Charlize Theron for wearing watches by Christian Dior and Montblanc while representing the luxury watch brand.

Anila: Did you actually expect Ambika to do that? Was she even banking with LGD?
Madhav: As a brand manager, I expect her to be serious about my brand. Why am I paying Rs 10 million to have Param Dewan be the face behind my mobile phone if he is never going to be found using it? We would visit him for a shoot and he would ask about the latest model and our boys would be beside themselves with eagerness running to his home to give him the new models. But he never used it in his personal time. Yes, he posed with it for the ad agency cameras. Yaar... be honest to your real user..!

What Madhav had said made sense. But the integrity bit? The bit about stars really using your brand as their own? How much did it matter? Damn it, she reasoned, it is a dishonest world after all. People sell for profit, people model for profit, people advertise for profit... life is finally air brushed. Somewhere in between one must find percentage for the brand. Is Madhav getting too intense?

Did people really believe that Ambika, pretty, ethereal Ambika, had ever entered a branch of LGD bank? Wasn’t that part of the well understood reality, that the star was there just for star power? Did people believe that Zara used Himalaya Cement or Jai Kapoor ate that pan masala? Didn’t they see how good his teeth were, for God’s sake!

On the other hand (Anila mused), cement and pan masala were one thing, but would there be a disconnect there if Zara was seen using, say, an iPhone, even after endorsing Nix? Could that harm Nix? She recalled what Madhav had said about disproportionate emotional investment in Inca.

Madhav: We tried to seed Inca phones into various movies. We actually gave away phones worth lakhs to Param Dewan’s friends and even movie directors who had often asked us for phones on the sets when we were shooting our films with him. The tacit request was obviously that they would feature these in their films in a natural way. The idea was that if they began using these phones in their daily life, they would tend to feature them in the film. But that never happened!
Anila (curiously): Why? What do you think was going on?
Madhav: What I saw was that no one seemed to care. They took the phones, but never acknowledged them... See, for them, Inca was like a fan whose book they were autographing. I am not pinning this on Param, he is a decent guy. You mostly end up dealing with the star’s team. End of day, what is the brand getting? A star endorser who does not use your brand? Then, why spend good money on that?  

Meera Seth

Read Analysis By Chandan Dang
Read Analysis By Anshul Sushil

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 06-04-2015)

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