Aamir, Amitabh, Incredible India & Borrowing Success

  • ‘Amitabh Bachchan perfect choice for ‘Incredible India’ campaign: B-town (The Indian Express).
  • ‘Amitabh Bachchan is new ambassador of Incredible India campaign’ (India Today)
  • ‘Amitabh, Priyanka are new Incredible India brand ambassadors ‘(The Hindustan Times)

The above are some of the headlines that reported the change of brand ambassador for the ‘Incredible India’ campaign.  The Tourism Ministry has ended its contract with Aamir Khan who was the face and the voice of the campaign. Khan has had a long association with the campaign who was suddenly removed as spokesperson for ‘Incredible India’ for allegedly making intolerance remarks.

Brands get celebrities or other type of endorsers to speak for them. It is a common strategy and change of spokesperson is also common. For instance, SRK currently speaks for Big Basket, D’ Decor, Dish TV, Nerolac and Mahagun. Ranbir Kapoor featured in ads of Panasonic, Pepsi, Tag Heuer and Ask Me. Even ‘common man’ is also used by brands to influence consumers. One of the most iconic endorsements of this type has been that of ‘Lalita ji’ of Surf and Airtel’s current television ads employs ‘common girl’ to promote its services. It is also not uncommon for brands to change their endorsers. This change could be promoted by a variety of reasons including brand intending to adopt new positioning or endorser may get involved in some controversy like Tiger Woods  ( cheating scandal) and  Azharuddin (match fixing).

There are several reasons for brands to employ spokespersons. One of the straight gains for a brand is to ride on the popularity/awareness/recognition/popularity of the endorser (if celebrity).  Imagine Amitabh standing next to hair oil brand Navratana (‘thanda thanda cool..’). Besides celebrities can elicit good feelings/likeability because of their performance in their performance area (Sania Mirza, Sania Nehwal, Pierce Bronson, Ranbir Singh). Sometimes, endorsers are used to appeal to reason by appealing to thinking and reasoning. Consider figures like doctors (Sansodyne, Paradontex), hair expert (Sunsilk) and Nutritionist (Bournvita).  Endorsers often serve as role models and subtly inspire people to emulate them (slender image of Katrina and muscled up body of Salman).

Who is correct choice for ‘Incredible India’: Amitabh or Aamir. Important to the selection of spokesperson is ‘brand-endorser’ fit. The question is what is sought to be achieved by ‘Incredible India’ the campaign and who is target audience.  Is the idea to promote India within India or outside?  What contribution endorser is expected to make (recall, good feeling, appeal to reason or inspiration).  The purpose of the campaign is to attract foreign tourist on the promise of something ‘incredible’ that India offers. The synonyms of ‘Incredible’ include magnificent, wonderful, marvelous, and sublime.

To promote India on the promise of ‘incredibleness’ the core of the campaign has to be what magnificent India has to offer like monuments (The Taj, Charminar), festivals (Diwali, Holi), spirituality (Rishikesh, Himalayas), religious places (temples &churches), jungles and mountains. In this scheme of things what role do celebrity endorsers play? What incredibleness actors like Amitabh or Aamir would bring to an international audience? They are known to Indians therefore would contribute to influencing them by way of recall, inspiration and likeability but what contribution would they make to move audience from  affluent nations which contribute to world  tourism?

Celebrity endorsement is not a perfect substitute of creative ingenuity and thinking. Many however believe that the success of a star/sportsperson can be borrowed to fuel your own success. But that is not the case. The important question is to ask is what the brand seeks to achieve in its customer’s life and how does an endorser figure in this equation.



Brands, Time, Dissociative group, Core Customers and ‘It’s not for me’

Branding is an exercise in perpetuity.A good brand achieves timelessness by a transformational process by which a product is converted into a ‘construct’ of an eternal appeal.  Anything that exists in physical form or in imagination cannot afford to be a constant, for change is the only constant.  A product is pushed into obsolescence with the arrival of new products which embody superior functionality. Consumers switch to a new product for it offers better solution to their problem. Consider how long playing records gave way to cassettes which later were overtaken by compact discs. The new storage devices like pen drives are making CDs obsolete. This is due to progression of technology by which the old one is rendered inferior in solving a consumer problem (consider progression from manual typewriters to electric to electronic to computers).

Brands developed on functional identity appeal to consumers primarily for their ‘problem solution’ capability. This is particularly true in a business to business and technology centric scenario (Intel marketing its processors to different computer makers or a firm specializing in demolition of old skyscrapers).  The challenge for the brands in this category is to keep climbing up the technology ladder and updating the functionality of the brand. The latest ad of Colgate Sensitive toothpaste is built on the appeal of ‘two times faster’ relief. Apple has been moving up on the functionality dimension with its different generation of iPhones (thinner, lighter and faster). This has been true for top German cars like BMW (improvement that they introduced to make it the ‘ultimate driving machine’) and Mercedes.

There are brands which operate on emotional and expressiveness plane. This is especially true for conspicuous products which help a person express what the kind of person he or she is. In this sense brands act as conveyors of meaning. The boots of Woodland express the ‘outdoorsy and adventurous’ streak of the wearer and Nike (based on the goddess of victory in Greek Mythology) reveals a winning attitude (grit and determination).  Brands that derive their success from their expressive symbolism operate in the realm of imagination with very little connection with functionality.

Even for brands with emotional and self expressive propositions staying in sync with the socio-psychological realities is a great challenge. The ‘hip and happening’ (values in vogue) keep changing with each generation. The values that define consumers and drive their buying evolve with time. Accordingly the brands which succeed by ‘value appropriation’ need to evolve their proposition subtly. For instance Bata’s durability may not go down well with new consumers’ desire for style. HMT (‘Time keepers to the Nation’) reigned supreme for middle class for their ‘accuracy and reliability’ but Titan stole the show with ‘design’ appeal (watch became a means of expression) in eighties.

Some values appear timeless like rebellion, liberty, honor, beauty, peace and happiness. Values become timeless when people subscribe to them generation after generation. There are two challenges for managing value centric brands. First, the icon (person) used by the brand to represent its value must be changed with time. This has been very successfully done by Lux which is built on the value of ‘beauty (we have seen its endorsers changing from  actresses like Leela Chitnis to Wahida Rehman to Babita to Hema Malini to Aishwarya Rai to Kareena Kapoor). The icon representing the core value of Lux has been changing with time.

Second, social brands succeed by conspicuousness. People use them for their ability to express a given value meant to construct a social identity.   Brand’s core consumers who fuel its success can also become reasons for its failure. This happens when brand’s core consumers graduate on to a different class (non- core) but continue to use the brand or peripheral segments use the brand. This way the brand develops association with a dissociative group breeding seeds of disconnection with its core customers. Consider the following ‘the brand is not for me’ situations:

  • Fiat and Ambassador cars got inextricably linked to a group that new car buyers do not relate well with
  • Louis Vuitton’s bags with conspicuous branding encourages some customers but also discourages many
  • The aggressive marketing of a sports shoe brand like Reebok to non-sportsperson can diminish its appeal with hardcore sportsmen
  • Hawkings and Prestige pressure cookers which girls have grown seeing their mothers cooking with
  • Even a brand like Nirma is perceived to be undesirable by new generation because of its ‘Hema, Jaya, Sushma’ connotations

The latest reported disconnection like this is the case of Levis and Wrangler. Both  the brands are struggling to cut ice with Indian youth who perceive these brands to belong to ‘ fathers’ generation’ (which is obviously old and not so stylish according to their standards- dissociative group).

Symbolic brands are intended to negotiate meaning either for self construction or social signification. Two way interactions characterize this consumption:  meaning transfer from brand to consumer which is followed by a reverse transfer from consumer to brand. This renders meaning in a constant state of fluidity. The reverse transfer or pollination can alter brand meaning subtly rendering it inappropriate for the core consumer. This calls for a tight control of meaning by enforcing a stricter regime of endorsement and reach.

Symbolic brands therefore are faced with twin challenge of building acceptance and at the same time erecting barriers to consumption.

Consumption, reference groups and celebrity endorsement

Last week a news item reported that many firms have dropped celebrities from their brand communication campaigns. These include Pepsi Mountain Dew ( Salman Khan), Big Bazaar’s FBB (MS Dhoni and Asin), Fastrack (Genelia D’ Souza), Thums Up ( Akshay Kumar), Netrogena ( Deepika), and Taj Mahal tea ( Chirangda Singh). Yet there are brand which continue to use celebrities in their brand building like Aamir Khan (Hero series Samusng), SRK (Dulux), Aishwarya Rai ( L’oreal), Anushka Sharma ( canon), Nikon ( Priyanka Chopra), Amrish Puri ( JK cements) and Saif Ali Khan ( Royale).
The modern man belongs to the subspecies Homo sapiens. The individual is closely tied to the collective. Accordingly a person belongs (member) to groups such as family, friends or aspire to belong or identify (non member) with like cricketers or film stars. These groups become important for the marketers because of the influence they exert in consumer by shaping their beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors. It is this influence which makes them hot property for the marketers.
Groups derive their importance from the functions that these perform for consumers: informational, utilitarian and self expressive. In some buying situations deficient consumer knowledge and expertise necessitates search for information from others (a doctor is a good advisor for specialized toothpaste (Sensodyne) or infant products (J&J). In certain cases consumer seek or enjoy group membership by conforming to the approved norms to avoid punishment or disapproval (Leather jacket for HOG membership or certain brand e.g. Ecco shoes for golf playing). People want to express their identities as to who they are and who they are like. People aspire to be like some groups/ individuals which help them enhance their self concept. It is psychological association which makes many consumers to like a brand ( Reid and Taylor- Amitabh Bachchan or Katrina Kaif- Lux).
The basis of reference group influence is the power (as against authority) or capacity to exert control over consumption. The power types include: referent power (based on identification based on admiration- we admire Sachin’s achievements or beauty of Kareena Kapoor); information and expert power (one wonders what Amrish Puri has got to do with JK cement; he is neither knowledgeable nor expert of construction/ Dr Devi Shetty is certainly a good endorser for a heart valve and Hafeez Contractor can certainly influence behavior for a housing or office complex); the human desire for appreciation (reward) and avoid threat or risk leads to certain groups acquiring reward power (‘hey you’re looking gorgeous’- Ponds or a women becoming ravishingly ‘attractive’ in Parachute Body Lotion). Consumer buying is also driven by the motivation to conform to group norms in order to avoid something negative for instance stopping at traffic signal (fines) or wearing formals to a club dinner (admission denied).  
Reference group’s capacity to influence consumer behavior is determined by credibility or trustworthiness because of knowledge and expertise (What is Amitabh Bachchan doing in Nano Clean surface cleaner? Or Sachin Tendulkar in JP Cement?). Attractiveness or identification is another consideration. George Clooney or Pierce Brosnan influences Omega’s target audience based on attraction and identification so is the case with Shah Rukh Khan for Santro. Slice seduces its target customers by calling its drink as ‘aam sutra’ borrowing from the attractiveness of Katrina Kaif.
Brands borrow influence from reference groups to move consumer. Once successful does not mean always successful. The dynamism in the marketing environment at both ends sometimes can upset the brand and endorser fit. This necessitates course correction which can take many forms including discontinuance of endorsement. Remember how Accenture dropped Tiger Wood scandal rocked match mixing involving skipper Azaruddin who endorsed Tissot brand. May be the youth brands like Mountain Dew and Thums Up do not find their endorsers not young enough or match psychographic profile. The long relationship between Nakshtara and Aishwarya Rai broke after her marriage and the brand signed Katrina Kaif as endorser.