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BW Businessworld

Celebrity Quotient

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Does it make sense to have a celebrity advertise your product? That was the question that dominated the minds of the select audience at the launch of the Businessworld Marketing Whitebook 2011-2012 in Delhi, on 25 February 2011. Needless to say, such a topic led to a charged panel discussion and provided the perfect backdrop to the book launch. It was this aspect of engagement that D.D. Purkayastha, managing director and CEO of the ABP group, highlighted in his welcome address. "Businessworld offers a platform for topical debates for marketers," he said, stressing the need for greater customer engagement in today's digitised scenario.

Then came the panel discussion. The theme was ‘Celebrity Endorsements: Is it Smart or Lazy Marketing?' The panellists were Wasim Basir, director, integrated marketing communications, Coca-Cola India; Latika Khaneja, CEO, Collage Sports Management; Josy Paul, chairman and national creative director, BBDO; and L.K. Gupta, chief marketing officer of LG Electronics India. Suhel Seth, managing partner of Counselage India, moderated the discussion.

Seth opened the discussion with cricket. He asked Khaneja, who represents cricket celebrities, how it feels to capitalise on someone else's success and, more importantly, what happens when these cricketers stop scoring? And whether celebrity advertising was nothing more than lazy marketing. Khaneja's response was equally witty. "How lazy marketers operate has nothing to do with me being lazy," she said. "We tell them (the companies) the pros and cons of using a particular celebrity. The companies choose and if they feel a celebrity fits their brand, they go for it. We can only hope that the cricketers keep on scoring. And the commission I get is as much as I can negotiate — there is no rocket science here!" Her grouse: the business of celebrity management in India is very limited to Bollywood and cricket. "People from other sports wonder what wrong they did that they are unable to get the kind of acclaim or exposure that cricket gets," she said.

Talking about suitability of celebrities, Seth asked if Sachin Tendulkar will be able to sell an LED. LG Electronics' Gupta replied that "I think Airtel's use of celebrities like Madhavan and Vidya Balan and even Shreyas Talpade actually make a good statement about the brand." He said celebrity use in India is over-valued. In television advertising, celebrity is a tool to attract attention and to convey something about the imagery of the product. "I really don't understand what the brouhaha is all about. There are only a handful of celebrities who command Rs 5 crore or Rs 10 crore. I agree with Latika that there will be many others who wonder why they are sought after and many among them have personality. And personality is what a product needs."

BBDO's Paul was clear on why he used celebrities. For advertisers, celebrities are like a fluorescent marker that highlights your idea, highlights the aura of your product. They create a terrific opportunity to produce a multiplier effect. Their usage turns our idea into news and then this news gets talked about. And the trick is to turn your idea into a talking point. "Like, for instance, P&G saying in a campaign that women are against the lazy stubble of men. Now that turns the spotlight on our ideas and become news. So, we use celebrities selfishly, I think. We use them to start conversations."

Of course, there are products such as iPhone that don't need celebrities, Paul pointed out. "They themselves are news. But if you don't have such a product, use celebrities to trade in conversation and news."

Coca-Cola's Basir focused on the right match between product and celebrity. If you watch cricket on television, he said, you can actually see which brand is just using a celebrity and which one is promoting its brand. "At one stage, we had taken a script to a well-known Bollywood celebrity. He said ‘But this script is just about selling Coke'. And that's the last conversation that we had with him," Basir revealed. "Yes, we are advertising Coke, but we are looking to hook the stature of the celebrity to our product. We are looking to create aspirational value.
"You see that when we went with Aamir Khan who has done our campaign for over five years now. And when there is any controversy, he stands up and talks and people listen — because people believe in him. I would, however, agree with Josy (Paul) that most of the celebrity use is just like using a fluorescent highlighter."

Basir came down sharply on ‘seamless' use of celebrities. "There is a fish market out there — there are celebrities endorsing light bulb to switches — that is completely unnecessary." Marketers, he warned, should guard against one person endorsing 20 products. "At least with Aamir we know that he will do only five a year, and thus retain his exclusivity and make him believable," said Basir.
Perhaps, it is the paucity of celebrities that leads to over-use. Said Gupta: "Let's face it. There is only one Sachin in a century. The other celebrities who are looking at their 15 minutes of fame are not going to be too choosy about the brands they endorse. They know their brand value will last two to five years, and they are going to try and make the most of it." 

But the advertiser too has to bear some part of the responsibility. "The brand itself has to understand why and at what point should one use a celebrity. I would use a celebrity in a highly cluttered category and want the product to shine through and grab the consumers' attention," said Gupta.

Khaneja agreed: "Marketers seem to be unable to grasp the brand fit properly. For example, the case of Shah Rukh Khan endorsing Hyundai is, in my opinion, a brand misfit because how many people will believe that he drives a Hyundai?" She liked Aamir Khan's association with Coke "simply because he is a talented actor and it is a good way of Indianising an international product".

Another brand fit she liked is the Koffee With Karan. "It is upmarket and aspirational, and then it is translated into being all about coffee, and then coffee being about Nescafe. It all blends quite well together." Next she chose an international example: Lancome and Julia Roberts. "Women like cosmetics and everyone likes Julia. She is pretty and people want to look like her. So Lancome and Julia Roberts are a great fit," she said. And bad examples? Irrelevant usage of celebrities in real estate ads. "They just use the cricketers standing next to their property. It is obvious that the cricketing celebrity does not live there. So it is a bad use of celebrities."

Are there any risks involved in using a celebrity for advertising your product? Yes. The risk lies both to the product and to the celebrity, Khaneja said. The obvious risk is that if celebrities don't deliver or they don't behave appropriately, it can reflect on your brand. On the other hand, if the brand does not use the celebrity in a relevant sense, he will lose ground on the image that he is trying to project. Seth summed up saying that while celebrity usage seems inevitable, one must be wary of too much familiarity breeding contempt.

The panel discussion among the leading stars of the advertising world was followed by the launch of the Businessworld Marketing Whitebook 2011-2012 by D.D. Purkayastha. 

In his closing remarks, Pavan Varshnei, president, English magazines, ABP Group, said the Whitebook has been the Holy Grail for marketers and this year, too, "we hope the book will be widely used by marketing professionals".

The presenting sponsor of the event was Seagram's Blenders Pride. The principal associate sponsor was Tata Photon. Bloomberg UTV was the television partner and was the online partner.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-03-2011)