Marketing folklore has created many famous icons. Consider …
The Zodiac Man
The Complete Man
The Liril Girl
Lalitaji of Surf
The MRF Muscle Man
Now contrast this with:
Celebrity A endorses X cement brand
Celebrity A endorses X paint brand
Celebrity A endorses X fabric brand
Celebrity A endorses X face cream brand
Celebrity A endorses X cellular service
Enough! One can see the contrast.
Curiously, though, the former is a list from the advertising of the 1970s and 1980s, while the latter is a list of the 2000s. Do the changing generations have something to do with this?
One facile argument could be that in the 1970s and ’80s, for whatever reason, film stars did not see modelling as an attractive revenue stream. This having changed in the 2000s has led to a greater role for celebrity endorsements in promoting brands.
The point though, is, are celebrities really promoting brands?
As the two lists show, in the first case, the brand was an integral part of the identity. In the second list, the brand is conspicuous by its absence. One is an example of how the personality was intricately linked with the brand story and the other is a story of how the brand is peripheral to the personality. One is a story of lasting brand success, the other a story of ephemeral ego success.
The Seventies and Eighties forced marketers to think and they came up with consumer propositions which were rooted in the brand and not in those who were its spokespersons.
Thus, the hedonism of Liril exuberantly portrayed led to the model being labelled the Liril girl. The need for a universally recognisable symbol led Asian Paints to commission R. K. Laxman to create Gattu. In fact, each of the campaigns has a business story behind the advertising that was created for the brand.
The ‘story’ typically had a sound business reason and a compelling strategic rationale which formed the basis of the marketing strategy and its advertising. This process inevitably threw up strong communication ideas, sometimes, centred on icons (for example, Amul, Asian Paints), imaginary spokespersons (The Air India Maharaja, Lalitaji) or the protagonists (Zodiac, Liril). Such unforced personalisation of brands, even if not the norm, was quite prevalent then. Quite obviously, this also worked well for the brands.
Though not ‘brand ambassadorship’, this begs the comparison with the current trend of using celebrity endorsers for building brands.
A casual survey of the advertising centred on celebrity endorsers seems to suggest two broad kinds of advertising.
One, where the story seeks to link the brand with the characteristics of the celebrity. Sometimes, such a fit works. The most notable example of this has been the long-running campaign of Lux with leading stars of different eras. In many other cases, however, the fit is forced and the results awkward.
Second is the case where the celebrity is merely a prop.
In either situation, the brand is not at the centre of the story and hence is at the losing end. Moreover, since the celebrity is the fulcrum of the brand story, it is the celebrity who assumes greater importance than the brand. In the event it is the brand that loses and such a loss is detrimental to the brand in many ways. The brand does not get the desired rub-off of having the celebrity endorse the brand; the large sums of money expended in promoting the endorsement has an immediate impact on the bottom line; and, as if that’s not enough, it is the celebrity who is remembered and not the brand.
Another area of impact is that the value of the endorsement is lost considering that some of the more popular celebrities endorse a wide range of products, whether or not there is any fit between the endorser and the brand. Sometimes, it almost seems as if bagging a celebrity to endorse a brand is a sign of corporate one-upmanship.
As things stand this also seems to have atrophied the grey matter of marketers. More often than not the endorsement itself seems to be the object of the marketing, not the brand. Thus, for example, the brief from a major marketer who snared a celebrity endorsement said that the advertising objective was to “create awareness of the association of brand X with Celebrity Y”.
The priceless response to why Brand X needs to create an awareness of the association for Celebrity Y was, “positive association with Celebrity Y is a great youth connect. The sales/loyalty get linked in due time and we need to own the space.”
Contrast this with the Lux strategy of likening beauty to film stars. The brand promise is inextricably, and, almost naturally, linked to the celebrity. Moreover, the promise is not linked to any one celebrity but to a whole line of them across generations and seasons. Thus the celebrity does not overpower the brand.
What this points to is the need to have a well-defined brand strategy and a celebrity who is congruent to the strategy. And, not write a strategy around the fact that the company has deep pockets to fund a celebrity.