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BW Businessworld

Cashing In On Misfortune

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In 2011, when Yuvraj Singh became the man of the series and helped India lift the Cricket World Cup, marketing experts were sure that sponsors would make a beeline for Yuvraj and his list of brand endorsements would grow exponentially.

But a few months down the line, with media reports mentioning that Yuvraj was suffering from a tumour, it was no secret that even those who had previously enlisted Yuvraj as their ambassador, for instance, Revital, a health supplement brand, would go slow on their promotion plans with the star cricketer.

In that light, when insurer Birla Sun Life ran a fresh-edit of a previously run campaign featuring the cricketer it became cannon fodder for the marketing fraternity. While the ads featuring Yuvraj Singh reappeared on television screens on 30 January this year, a week later newspapers reported that the sportsman was undergoing cancer treatment in the US.

"When someone is going through an unfortunate phase, I am not sure if fellow human beings or brands are best placed to ride on it," says Partha Sinha, managing partner at ad agency BBH India. Off the record, there are many others in the ad industry who agree. "It just goes to prove that we are an industry of convenience when a brand milks one man's misery as its credo of honesty," says one creative director who does not wish to be identified.

The ad has its share of support, too. A marketing head from a rival insurance firm feels the commercial is a well-executed brand story. "Often, the knee-jerk reaction of marketers is to put a Stop Press notice on a campaign if a situation like this comes to light. Given that context Birla Sun Life has taken a brave call," says Deepali Naair, head of marketing, L&T Insurance. "We do not see our ‘Jab tak balla' message as a mere advertisement," says Ajay Kakar, chief marketing officer (financial services), Aditya Birla Group, that runs the Birla Sun Life business. "It is a reality of life. And we do not see Yuvraj Singh as just a brand ambassador, but far more — as our philosophy ambassador."

"The ad was shot much earlier. It is running at this point of time because this is the peak season for the insurance business," adds Colvyn Harris, president, JWT India, the agency behind the campaign. Another executive who has worked on the campaign says: "Bouncing back is a big idea in the insurance business. Yuvraj captures that thought and it's well integrated with the product and its proposition."

For all the debate this campaign has stirred, it has two dimensions: its impact on the Birla Sun Life brand and whether this campaign will be the reference point for celebrity endorsements in India in the times to come.

Certainly, the India we know is getting more comfortable in discussing, or intruding into, the private lives of celebrities through news, television shows and the Internet. One recent example pertains to Lisa Ray. There was a huge audience interest in her health after the model-actor admitted to having been diagnosed for cancer on her blog. Ray, who is now cured, had more than a million hits on her blog.

Internationally, celebrities are known to make a fortune out of events in their lives, be it selling the exclusive photographs of their newborns or even giving publicists a chance to make hay in their dying moments. One example is that of British reality television star Jade Goody. In mid-2008, a couple of days after she entered the Indian reality show Bigg Boss, Goody flew back home to England as she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. But Goody did not disappear into a shell away from the glance of the world.

A new autobiography, her second, Jade: Catch A Falling Star was released in October 2008, six months before her death. Goody, who was a trained beautician followed that by opening her second beauty salon named Homme Fatel that catered exclusively to men. A couple of months later, she played the role of the Wicked Queen in a pantomime version of Snow White at the Theatre Royal. A reality television documentary, Living With Jade Goody, was shown in September as a one-off special. Another film on Jade's cancer battle was aired in December. Goody, who made no secret about her concerns for the future of her two children, was the most mourned celebrity in the UK, according to The Independent, getting more tributes than even Michael Jackson, the legendary pop star who passed away the same year as she.

BOUNCING BACK: Model-actor Lisa Ray won the battle against cancer (ABP)

Also, there are cases when sports celebrities have inspired millions after conquering disease. The most famous case in the sporting world is that of Lance Armstrong, the cycling champ who won a battle against cancer. Apart from establishing Livestrong, a foundation to support cancer patients, the Tour de France legend reportedly once mentioned that he had stopped doing endorsements that were not meant to help society or to help fight cancer.

While it would be premature to comment on the direction that Yuvraj's publicity managers might advise him to take, at this point of time the star cricketer has been using Twitter to stay in touch with his fans. One of his Twitter feeds is about taking inspiration from Armstrong. Another one, put up a day after the Birla Sun Life campaign broke, gently pushes the brand he endorses. "My new TV ad for Birla Sun Life Insurance. Jab tak balla chalta hai, thaat hai. Eager to hold my #balla again!," said the tweet.

While the results of the campaign are still a few weeks away, one cannot deny the fact that this ad has got people, at least the intelligentsia, talking about insurance advertising.

In terms of category penetration, insurance still has a long way to go. As Aditya Birla Group's Kakar says, "The industry has not even managed to scratch the surface of the opportunity that awaits us. Today, life insurance only enjoys a penetration of approximately 15 per cent of retail household savings." According to an insurance industry newsletter, the industry has been witnessing a fall in premium collections from individual policy holders for a better part of 2011. Possibly one of Yuvraj's latest tweets unintentionally sums up the industry situation. It says, "Life is unpredictable. Highs and lows are part of it, and one needs to deal with them. That is why the Birla ad is close to my heart."


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 12-03-2012)