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.

Market, value, boundary spanners and power shift

Marketing is described in many ways including as a boundary spanning function. Marketing operates at a point where the boundary of a firm ends and market boundary begins. There is not guarantee that these two boundaries would automatically intersect with each other. It is the supreme job of marketing to make business and market meet and intersect.  Without an intersection there is unlikely to be any exchange and hence value creation.

In the old times of regulated economies and restricted supply the marketing equation was tilted in favor of suppliers. Back then consumers chased goods. Consider when brands like Bajaj, Hindustan Motors, DCM and Lifebuoy enjoyed unbridled power over their consumers. The markets/ consumer pushed themselves towards marketers. Marketing was an effortless game. Later with the adoption of pro-competition ideology industries were liberalized. This began to spoil the game for incumbent players. In competitive regime consumers don’t seek goods, rather marketers seek them. Consumers need to be pulled and attracted. Too much supply chases too few consumers. Competition strips marketers of their power. Market players win by reducing consumer’s choice set. But competition does the opposite, it expands it. The perceived similarity between Samsung, LF, Toshiba and Sony renders these companies powerless. Now the power to give sustenance stands shifted to consumers. The challenge is how to recapture it and achieve dominance of consumer.

The question arises, what are the sources of power? Power literally means ability to influence or direct behavior of others. In a marketing situation, every firm dreams of wielding power over its consumers so that they buy, buy more, buy regularly, and pay premium for its products. Alvin Toffler in his book Power Shift discusses three sources of power: violence (physical muscle based power), wealth (money-stored time and action) and knowledge (with this both other types of powers can be obtained). What source of power should a firm plug into to gain market power?

All the three sources of powers exist in a business system but it all depends upon the top management which source of power a firm plugs into. The source of muscle or violence power is likely to be production because it controls maximum number of people and physical resources. The wealth power rests with finance (money is power culture or money is most important resource and goal). It is because of their power these two departments often enjoy major sway in decision process. Firms differ in their orientations depending upon which department dominates or drives decision dynamics. Finance and production heads were once considered to be the most influential positions for their assumed significance. They derived their strength from their control over traditional sources of power that stemmed from muscle/violence/ wealth. This was in sync with the realities of agrarian and industrial economy. However environment over time has undergone subtle but profound change. The issue is can business survive by remaining plugged into same source of power in future?   

The businesses and products/ value prima facie appear same as before. But observe minutely, they are in reality not. Both supply and demand side of marketing equation have changed. The mass markets have transformed into smaller segments, niches and micro segments. Mass production with big factories, assembly lines and larger production runs are replaced by flexible and customized production. The concept of big large corporation with one production location have taken shape of hollow organization or networked systems. Unlike the past, the value is now co-created with consumer’s active involvement in product design and production processes. Have these developments altered the hierarchy of power sources in business or their effectiveness stands changed?

These changes on the demand and supply side have made the boundary spanning (information gathering and dissemination) the most important function. The stability of the environment has vanished. Present is usually not a linear extension of past. Things happen sudden and fast. Accordingly, businesses need to be as flexible and fast. This demands discovering and developing the core and shedding the non-core. Organizations therefore are now becoming ‘plug in-plug out systems’. They are coalitions of creators with one in lead role. Information is core to such system. Consider sports shoe companies like Nike and Reebok. Both of these names lead networks. They focus on the most critical value adding activity- design- and the rest is outsourced. Explore how much of a car is actually produced by the company whose badge it displays. A computer on your desktop is a fruit of collaboration.  

What value to create depends entirely upon knowledge & insights of consumer trends and micro movements in tastes and preferences? It is here the role of boundary spanners-marketing department- becomes critical. Marketing is the source of knowledge and if knowledge is the ultimate form of power then it must be brought to the centre of value creation edifice. Marketing (voice of consumer) in other words should dictate what business a business enterprise should be in. But this is not easy to achieve. It is not easy for a department which neither controls material/men nor wealth (traditional source of powers) to assume organization driving role.

Production and wealth is free floating resources. China has become the factory of the world and investment bankers chase good idea. Knowledge is the ultimate source of power-business power. So if a business is not performing well find out whether you are still plugged into old source of power. Instead of drawing more power from the old ineffective source, get plugged into new effective source of power. ‘Right’ is better than ‘more’.

Brand Equity, brand power and trust deficit

Brands are about mediation. Most exchanges, whether personal or commercial, are power games. In business there is nothing like authority to command buyer behavior. The two ends of the marketing continuum- the seller on the one hand and the buyer on the other- struggle to gain control over each other. Pursuit of self interest is not a bad idea. The competition strips the marketer of his power and favours customers. Marketing seeks to reverse this. Power is acquired, authority is formally given.

The Brand Equity survey of the Most Trusted Brands lists the top ten this year as: Colgate, Lux, Airtel, Lifebuoy, Nokia, Dettol, Britannia, Vodafone, Maggi, and Closeup. What does it mean to have a trusted brand? Probably there is connection between trust, power and performance. Trust allows a brand to gain power over customers which ultimately translates into superior financial performance. By building trust marketers can easily knock off rivals from customer consideration and thereby create monopoly in the competitive setup of the markets. Branding in this sense is about monopoly creation. Monopoly is detested for its suboptimal economic outcomes . That is the reason why most free economies have anti monopoly and pro competition legal framework.

From the customer perspective brands are important. There is pervasive trust deficit in almost all walks of life. The institutions are not able to keep up with the emergent changes. Take the political upheavals in Egypt and Libya, the financial crises enveloping the global economy, September 11, Mumbai attacks and terrorism, scams and corruption in political system and neighbour relations. How is one to live in this environment of suspicion, doubt and distrust? This impacts both physical and psychological well being. It causes tremendous strain and fear. A sense of loss of control pervades one’s existence.

Set against this background, at least in consumption situations, brands symbolize consistency and certainty. Brands are tension reducing mechanisms. Amidst uncertainty brands are assuring and comforting. Imagine existence in a world without brands. The luxury to short cut buying would not exist. You would not have reached out for your tried and tested brands. Brands simplify life by providing opportunities to develop short cuts. The mental eloquence so saved is used to resolve other conflicts.

The branding agenda has evolved over time. Branding began for the purpose of ‘identification’ (a mark on cattle helped identify the ranch). As production and consumption roles got divorced and markets came into existence, this function assumed significance. For many, branding is about creating ‘trust marks’. This is about delivery of reliable products or services. German and Japanese companies ushered in this era. But now certainty of performance is not a differentiator in many product categories. It is a common denominator. Accordingly marketers in their bid to control buyer behaviour and gain power, approach branding with an aim to create ‘love marks’. Branding in this sense is about transcendence beyond what is embedded in the goods or service element of the brand. The idea is to liberate the brand from its ‘productness’ and put it on space of ‘non contest’ by embedding it with a ‘transformational’ capability. A brand, from this perspective, becomes a very personal and intimate experience.


A brand is a perceived reality. It stands for ‘meaning extracted’ from the symbols disseminated by the sender. Critical to the success of a brand is the clarity and relevance. Brand is a symbol created out of exercise of symbols and symbolism. At the heart of brand building lays ‘meaning transference’. Typically brand strategists employ a variety of messages and media to build a brand but what is crucial to successful brand building is convergence. All signals create a clear brand engram (associative network in the mind). Divergence of associations in the mind is brand killer. Brand name is a sign the meaning of which is created in prospects’ minds. Symbols are instruments in the creation of this sign.
Confusion fails a brand. Anna brand has managed to evoke a phenomenal response. It is a case in the use of symbols. Express verbal communication plays a part in brand building but the dialogue at the subliminal level is more powerful (‘Aankhon Hi Aankhon Mein Ishara ho gaya’;’ Isharon Isharon Mein Dil Lene Wale’). Words convey meaning but symbols do those more powerfully and the beauty is that here communication escapes the scrutiny of cognition. Consider the following symbols and their symbolism which went into building Anna Brand:

  • Anna as person: his frail body, cap, simplicity, earthiness, spectacles and his presence against the backdrop of a huge Gandhi banner draws ‘conditioned’ response.
  • Anna’s dress: he sports ‘white’ (spotless) as against ‘black’ (blemished). It is ‘clean’ against ‘unclean’. It is ‘day’ against ‘night’.
  • Fasting: the term ‘fast’ is positioned against ‘feasting’; ‘self harm’ against ‘harming others’; ‘sacrifice’ against ‘self aggrandizement’; eating is ‘common’ fasting is ‘uncommon’; clearly it positions the powerful in a different lowly light. Fast is the common thread that creates a subtle mental link between Gandhi and Anna.
  • Ramlila Ground: ‘ground’ is against ‘high rise’. ‘earthy’ against ‘heavenly’, ‘discomfort’ against ‘comfort’; ‘humble’ against ‘arrogance’.
  • Anna Bands: these are tied to biceps indicative of ‘power’, ‘muscle’, ‘courage’ against the aggressor
  • Waist Bands: ‘fasten seat belts’ it is difficult time ahead, symbolizes ‘readiness’ ‘preparedness’.
  • Tricolor: In Mahabharata the discourse is about under which flag ‘you want to stand’: the right or the wrong. People assembled for the ‘nation’ not for ‘any party or group’, signals ‘unity’ against ‘division’; ‘transcending boundaries’ against ‘created boundaries’; ‘one identity’ against ‘multiple identities’. The flag: ‘higher ideal’ ‘ambition and aspiration’. Flag  held by hands in protests indicates importance and closeness and importance of the ‘goal and ambition’ as against ‘not holding’ or ‘giving up’ or ‘detachment’ (flag erected on ground).
  • Anna Cap: cap is headgear; head is house of mind. It symbolizes ‘particular philosophy or thinking’. The cap signifies subscription to ‘Anna thinking’ as against ‘Non Anna thinking’. Why wear cap: because now is the time to clearly show whether one is ‘with Anna’ because government is ‘not with Anna’.
  • Candle March: is ‘light’ as against ‘darkness’; ‘day’ versus ‘night’; light is used to ‘scare the creatures of the night’; creatures of night in mythology are demons and evil. Why march- to scare these off. March is movement; it is ‘progression’ as against ‘stagnation’; ‘it is movement towards the goal’.
  • Voluntary contribution: to contribute means ‘to be a part of’; ‘efforts made’ ‘share’ as against ‘not be a part of’, ‘no efforts made’. Contribution is required when the task ahead is ‘difficult’ or the opponent is ‘strong and mighty’. It is symbolic of a fight between two unequal: ‘government or establishment’ powerful and mighty. It is an opportunity to be a part of something not within the realm of ‘individual achievement’.
  • Raised hands and closed fists: fist symbolizes ‘grit’ ‘determination’ ‘strength’ ‘readiness to fight’ against ‘hands down’, ‘lose’ and ‘open palms’. When the hands are raised in unison upon a chant ‘it is willingness to rise up to a challenge’; ‘team spirit and togetherness’. This raises adrenalin. Fist is to ‘muscle up’ , ‘to collect’. It is ‘to scare birds or crow’ from the field.
  • Songs: the music connects to ‘heart’ as against ‘mind’. You don’t ‘think’ music you ‘feel’ music’. Songs and slogans trigger emotions and create bonding. Emotions elicit better commitment than cognitions. Rhythm and rhyme is ‘flow’ ‘movement’.

Collectively these symbols negotiate meaning at a deeper level and create a brand engram to which people seem to be connecting.