Brand Endorsement, Influence, Amrapali, Dhoni and Misrepresentation

The Amrapali Sapphire and Indian cricket team captain MS Dhoni’s role as its brand ambassador has brought to the fore the issue of brand endorser and consumer attitude manipulation. In India use of celebrities is very common.  All kinds of celebrities are used by brands. If there  Alok Nath  who endorses Link locks on the one hand there is SRK who promotes Fair and Handsome.  For instance, Aamir Khan stood for brands including Titan, Coke, Snapdeal and Tata Sky, Amitabh’s kitty included brands such as Cadbury, Pepsi, Parker, Reid and Taylor, Dabur Honey and Navratana Oil; Katrina Kaif’s portfolio includes Slice, Veet, Pentene, Panasonic and L’Oreal.  One of the current high profile campaigns is that of Tata Motors in which football icon Lionel Messy is employed as global brand ambassador.

Technically, celebrities are only one of the various types of people who could be present in ads like created characters which may be humanized like Amul girl/ ZooZoos Vodafone or real people representative of a particular group like Surf’s Lalitaji and Nirma’s Jaya and Shushma (commoner)   or outdoorsy in Woodland or fashion inclined in Mango or shape conscious in K Special or expert in Lux shampoo ad or doctor in Colgate.

On theoretical note celebrities and brand ambassadors are different in terms of their expected role and contribution to the brand. The celebrity contributes to a brand by simply appearing in its ads (physical presence). For instance, Thums up used different celebrities including Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan and same was done by Pepsi which included SRK, Saif, Amitabh, Ranbir , Virat Kohli and Dhoni. The brand ambassador on the other hand plays a much serious role by becoming animated face of the brand in all its communication. Brand ambassador tangibilizes the invisible values and culture. He or she is expected to make deeper transformation in the way brand is perceived and felt by the audience. The value congruence between what an endorser epitomizes and company / brand values are essential.  For instance, Tag Heuer’s core value ‘don’t crack under pressure’ went well with SRK. The current intent of Tata Motors to portray itself as makers of great cars is done by Lionel Messy.

The question arises why companies pay hefty fees to get these celebrities or presenters to be present in their brand communications. Their value stems from the contribution that they make. Imagine the consumer effects that an ad would have with or without a presenter. To put simply, a known presenter can contribute to a brand’s success by lending awareness at the base level (imagine awareness of Navratna oil shot through the roof due to presence of Amitabh Bachchan in its ads).  Much deeper impact is made when the attitude toward the endorser is transferred to the advertised brand. The presenters in ads can predispose or prompt audience to view, think and feel a brand in a particular way. They may create a bias by influencing the consumer attitude, especially by creating a subtle jump over critical thinking to feelings. Presence of a liked source in ads may have retarding effect on thinking. So ads that make use of liked and loved characters activate emotional side of brain and thereby hasten judgments.

Attention effect:  the customers these days are bombarded with messages causing them to experience information overload. One common strategy for them is to screen out a large number of incoming messages. In this regard, celebrities provide an easy route to brands to capture customer attention. It is based on the understanding that consumers pay attention to what they like or interested in.

Awareness effect: typically celebrities enjoy high recognition and recall because of their popularity in their domain of work.  An ad typically ties together to independent stimuli (brand and celebrity like Pavlov’s bone and bell) and with repetition ceases their independence. As a result the awareness is transferred to the brand. It is an easy way to make an initial cut into an otherwise resistant mind.

Amplification effect: consider an ad which simply announces ‘Amrapali Sapphire 2/3/4 BHK flats Sector -45 Noida’ and its effect on consumer and when the same information is provided along with the presence of MS Doni. The two stimuli would not separately get processed in different hemispheres independently in isolation. Rather both will amalgamate into message which may have multiplicative or exponential effect. Now the address is not simply is an address rather it is multiplied with everything MS Dhoni stands for.  The cricket captain brings his traits like achievement, sincerity, dedication, leadership, endurance, success and commitment gets them to multiply with simple matter of fact ‘address’. This may have predisposing effect on attitude of even high involvement customers (due to risk associated).  In similar way when an ad proclaims ‘pure honey’ in the presence of Amitabh Bachchan, a huge difference is accomplished between what is said and what is actually received by customers. Here combining one with one creates eleven not two.

The message amplification also is achieved when a brand uses real or lookalike experts. For instance Castrol ads use a mechanic lookalike to promote lube superiority. Colgate for long used man in doctor’s uniform to amplify the brand’s superiority.

Differentiation effect: commodities suffer from lack of differentiation due product similarity. For instance, salt and battery cells may be identical in their construction. In such cases, the presenter or celebrity used in brand’s communication may become the only differentiating attribute. For instance, in honey market, both Dabur and Patanjali claim their honey to be pure and natural. In such a situation, the differentiating attribute between two brands is Amitabh and Baba Ramdev.

Why do endorsers command high prices? What sits at the core of their price is their ability to influence awareness, attitude and behavior. Their power relies on a complex and subtle process by which inference is drawn by consumers themselves. Advertisers ensure that facts are not misrepresented by knowing or unknowingly. It is this behavior of drawing conclusions (we didn’t say that you concluded yourself) insulates brands from being legally charged. Consider, all the surrogate ads like Carlsberg (glasses) or Bacardi (music) technically do not promote liquor but liquor gets promoted, glamorized and desired. In this context, the communication industry cannot be regulated by law entirely. The only option is conscience. But conscience often gets defeated by wealth.


Brand name, generic name and ‘you can’t get papers xeroxed’

Consider the following statements:

‘Please have these papers xeroxed’
‘Give me good quality thermos’
‘Which brand of sunmica you intend putting on your furniture?’
‘My carpenter has asked me to get good quality fevicol.’
‘This is a new brand of tinopal’
‘Ask the pharmacy for a good quality band aid’
‘Get a bottle of non-burning dettol’
‘One type of vicks is available only at chemist shops’
‘It’s very dark here, you don’t have eveready’

All of the above statements appear perfectly correct. People do get their documents xeroxed, store liquids in thermos to maintain their temperature, carpenters do ask for fevicol to join pieces of wood, there is nothing wrong to ask for good quality band-aid and kid do ask for non-burning dettol and people in mountains always keep eveready when they go out.

Recently a new brand of laminates has begun to be promoted on television called sunmica and the question is how can a brand be sunmica because it is what people use on furniture surfaces. Can one have ‘Watch’ as a brand name for a time keeping device, ‘Egg’ for eggs, ‘Laptop’ for compact computers, ‘Pen’ for a writing instrument and ‘Nailpolish’ for nail enamel? In reality yes, why not? Managers enjoy liberty christen their products any which why they like. But naming a product is not an act in exercise of free will. Rather it is an act which can profoundly affect brand success at the point of sale.

Sunmica brand has come to AICA Group as a result of business transfer agreement between The Bombay Burmah Trading Corpn and Aica Laminates India. There is nothing wrong with the brand name except for the fact that pride which a marketer takes in claiming that its brand has become synonymous with a commodity actually may be a cause of serious concern. When a name ceases to stand for a brand rather begins to represent a commodity category, the entire purpose of branding is lost. The purpose of branding to get customers to ask for a company’s product by name. Core to achieving this involves creation of ‘valued differentiation’.

When a brand name begins to stand for a commodity, it is unlikely to be demanded by consumers. It becomes descriptor of a category. Its identity collapses into commodity identity. This phenomenon is common with pioneer brands which create categories. Imagine how tough it must have been for Colgate to establish toothpaste category when nothing existed like a paste for oral hygiene. Once established, the brand enjoys the category creator or ‘first mover perceptual advantage’. But the hidden danger for all pioneer brands comes in the form of dissolution of brand identity with the commodity identity. So who loses when people go on to buy Century, Duro or Greenlam sunmica?

The answer is Sunmica. The challenge for category creating brands is to somehow always maintain their brand identity different from commodity identity. One such easy approach is to keep brand name separate from the commodity in their identity signaling system. For instance ‘Colgate’ kept separate from ‘toothpaste’ in communication through intelligent orchestration of brand elements. In our case of ‘Sunmica’, ‘Sun’ should be separated from ‘mica’ which represents the commodity. In consumers’ minds ‘Sun’ should stand for a distinct brand name in the mica product category.

You can’t get papers xeroxed, you get them photocopied.