In the past, when celebrity endorsement followed the Kotler dictum, famous faces were a way to break the clutter and build credibility in areas where the celebrity had expertise. Today celebrities are the clutter.
As per a GroupM-ESP report, over the past decade celebrity-led endorsements have increased from 650 in 2007 to 1,660 in 2017, representing a steady CAGR of 10%. The number would have increased manifold since then. “In any ad-break, count the number of non-celebrity pieces of work that run, and you would be surprised,” says Krishnan.
But the bigger problem nowadays is not just that Indian marketers are too reliant on celebrities. In today’s reality, what used to be safe bet has become, in an increasingly social world with fewer controls and more pressures to voice opinions, a ticking bomb.
Bollywood actor Aamir Khan was caught in the first big case of this modern marketing challenge. Khan’s statements about rising “intolerance” in the country led to a storm of protest and one of the major brands that he was endorsing at that time, Snapdeal, decided to not renew the contract with Khan. The company’s official line though was “Snapdeal is neither connected nor plays a role in comments made by Aamir Khan in his personal capacity.” That wasn’t the only brand-lash Khan faced. Around the same time, in 2016, he was also reportedly dropped as the ambassador of the country’s flagship tourism programme ‘Incredible India campaign’. The minister’s office, had made known that, “the ministry henceforth wanted to have a lot of non-celebrity people as part of the campaign so that it doesn’t become person centric.”
More recently, Deepika Padukone, who is arguably the country’s top movie star at the moment, attended a protest at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, where she stood in solidarity with the students. It didn’t take long before Padukone became the top trending topic in the country, receiving both praise and hate in equal measure. There were reports about her endorsements deals being “re-evaluated” and some brands delaying ads featuring her till after the controversy dies down.
Several similar instances in the recent past have re-opened the discussion on the need to recalibrate the codes of celebrity engagements. Since these eruptions marketers have been working on a new rule-book to help them navigate this new minefield and offset the risks of hiring an Indian celebrity with a mind of her own.
Shubha George, chief client officer, WPP India admits that it is a bit of a messy and grey area that brands and celebrities will have to painstakingly navigate through, which would include marketers having to be more upfront with their brand ambassadors on what are the go/no-go areas for them in terms of comments and views.
According to Arvind Bhandari, executive vice president and director, Nestle South Asia, “In future, celebrities’ personal convictions should be understood and brought in sync with that of the brands” which, he admits, is easier said than done because most brands don’t have a view. A brand’s views on environment, cultural diversity, freedom of expression, as an example, have to be pre-aligned with the personal views of the celebrity, and only then can the power of social media be leveraged, feels Bhandari. “Without these guards, expect a disaster waiting to happen.” Contracts are already being made more “social controversy-proof”.
What recent controversies have also done is made marketers question the need of celebrities in the game. And whether an Indian mass brand can be built without a Bachchan, Khan, Kapoor, Kohli, Dhoni or Padukone. There are, in fact, examples of mass brands that have stayed memorable and relevant for decades without star-power. Think Fevicol and Amul and more recently brands like Amazon, Benetton, KFC etc. Amazon has, for many of its high-decibel campaigns in India like ‘Aur Dikhao’, ‘Apni Dukaan’, ‘Chaunkpur Cheetahs’, opted to put the everyday Indian customer at the heart of the story. Says Manish Tiwary, vice president – category management, Amazon India, “We believe (and our results are proof) that our insight-led creative ideas have been the real celebrities so far.” That said, we always keep evaluating for all options including whether there may be situations where the familiarity of a known face may facilitate customer adoption, adds Tiwary. In contrast, Flipkart, had engaged multiple celebrities for promoting its annual Big Billion Days sale in 2018 making it “one of the biggest ensemble of celebrities for any one single brand in one single campaign” according to Duff & Phelps Celebrity Brand Valuation Report 2018. The A-list: Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan, Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sunil Chhetri, Saurav Ganguly, Saina Nehwal and Diljit Dosanjh, and many more regional stars.
The global fashion brand Benetton which has been in India for more than 25 years has opted to deploy “our own brand ideologies and cause-marketing campaigns to build our identity,” says Sundeep Chugh, MD & CEO, United Colors of Benetton, India. “We have never had an ambassador for the brand”; adds Chugh, though the brand does engage with celebrities for store visits, collection launch events “to help it strengthen the fashion connect with the millennials”.
KFC, while does not use a celebrity endorser, has purposefully leveraged its most distinct asset, Colonel Sanders, to build distinctiveness for the brand as well as bring alive the brand story. Says Moksh Chopra, chief marketing officer, KFC, “Marketers need to delve more on what are the key brand messages and how best it can be communicated, with or without a celebrity.”
The critical – and the obvious – question for brands to ask, as Puneet Das, VP Marketing – India, Tata Global Beverages, puts it, “is not necessarily whether ‘to use a celebrity or not’ but to ask, ‘who will be the right fit and why’. One can ask what quality of cricketer Virat Kohli is being leveraged when he endorses a cab hailing app vs. say Virat Kohli, (known for his passion about fitness), endorsing a ‘healthy snack’. Adds Nestle’s Bhandari, celebrities, often, fill in for shoddy marketing work but that doesn’t make them indispensable.
BBH’s Krishnan frames the new challenge in the celebrity endorsements game succinctly when he says, “In today’s environment brands have to be cognisant that they’re buying the whole person. Not just a part of them, namely their fame or on-screen persona. You’re buying their next rant. You’re buying their next scandal. You’re buying their silence on issues. And their voice on the issues as well. And the challenge of navigating if the voice happens to be against the prevailing narrative.
The evolution of the celebrity-brand legal relationship
Indranil Banerjee, business lawyer and co-founder and managing partner – Legal, Azendor Consulting says of the new laws and their impact on brand-celebrity partnerships: “Till recently, there were no guidelines or laws that made celebrity endorsers personally liable for false and misleading advertisements. However, with the introduction of new guidelines and laws, the endorsement agreements executed between brands and celebrities are increasingly becoming more stringent and exposing the celebrities to severe monetary and professional risks.”
Many brands now insist on a ‘moral clause’ which entitles the brands to terminate endorsement agreement, if, in the opinion of the brand, the celebrity has committed any act or does anything which might tend to bring him into public disrepute, scandal or ridicule, or which might tend to reflect unfavourably on the brand. These clauses are broad and discretionary.
Besides this, Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) published the ‘Guidelines for Celebrities in Advertising’ to ensure that claims made by celebrities in advertisements are not misleading, false and unsubstantiated.
The Consumer Protection Act, 2019, puts the onus on celebrities to verify the veracity of the claims made in the advertisement regarding the products or services. Further, the Act empowers the Central Consumer Protection Authority (established under the such Act) (i) to impose penalty on endorsing celebrity and (ii) to prohibit such endorsing celebrity from making future endorsement, if after investigation, the authority is satisfied that any advertisement in which such celebrity is featured is false and misleading and is prejudicial to the interest of any consumer or is in contravention of consumer rights.