Star Struck!

Star Struck!

Stars, who are known to shape destinies, cast an enormous influence. No, we’re not talking about astrology here. We’re referring to the powerful effect of celebrities on the destinies of brands. One approving nod from a famous face can translate into millions in brand sales. Perhaps that’s why the world over, companies have been using stars to endorse everything, from food to food chains, from soft and hard drinks to health drinks, from clothes and accessories to cars (and the tyres on which they run). Even political parties are awestruck by the charisma of stars. Such is the magnetism of celebrities in this country that during the recent general elections, major political parties fielded a record number of film stars and cricketers to contest from important constituencies around the country. So what about celebrities drives companies to spend in millions on obtaining their stamp of approval on their brands?

Celebrity Endorsements as a strategy
Signing up stars for endorsement is a time-tested strategy and has been effectively used by some of the top brands in the world including Nike and Pepsi. In India too, HLL has used Hindi film stars to endorse their beauty soap Lux since the fifties. Vimal, Thums Up, Gwalior and Dinesh are some of the other brands that used star-appeal in the early days of mass advertising. And who can forget Kapil ‘Palmolive’ Dev?

The ultimate objective of using a celebrity in an ad is the impact on the bottom line. Star endorsements have several benefits, key among them being building credibility, fostering trust and drawing attention… any or all of which can translate into higher brand sales. So how does one decide whether to put a celebrity in an ad? Ideally, this should be dictated by the communication idea. MG Parmeswaran, Executive Director of FCB Ulka says, "As advertising professionals, we recommend celebrity endorsements when the case is justified. There are many cases where you need to use the celebrity to break out of a category clutter. At times celebrity endorsement is used to build credibility to the brand offer."

Most experts concur that, when used judiciously, celebrity endorsements can be an effective strategy. According to Mohammed Khan, Chairman of Enterprise Nexus, "Using a celebrity by itself is not a bad idea provided it is done intelligently."   And there are many examples of good use of celebrity status. Amitabh Bachchan has been used remarkably well by Parker Pens and ICICI Home Loans. And Shah Rukh Khan’s endorsement of Hyundai Santro too seems to have worked well. Parmeswaran adds, "We used cricketers like Rahul Dravid for Castrol in an attempt to break out of the clutter, as well as have an image rub off of ‘dependability’ on to the brand."

Six uses of Celebrity Endorsements
Establishes Credibility:
Approval of a brand by star fosters a sense of trust for that brand, among the target audience – this is especially true in case of new products
Attracts Attention: Celebrities ensure attention of the target group by breaking the clutter of advertisements and making the ad and the brand more noticeable

Associative benefit: A celebrity’s preference for a brand gives out a persuasive message: because the celebrity is benefiting from the brand, the consumer will also benefit

Psychographic Connect: Stars are loved and adored by their fans and advertisers use stars to capitalise on these feelings to sway the fans towards their brand

Demographic Connect: Different stars appeals differently to various demographic segments (age, gender, class, geography etc.)

Mass Appeal: Some stars have a universal appeal and therefore prove to be a good bet to generate interest among the masses.

Idea First
Celebrity endorsements are very expensive therefore their use in an ad should be justified. The message strategy should warrant celebrity endorsements – there should be a strong need to consider use of a known face in an idea. Sadly, very often, the celebrity is hired first and an idea is then weaved around his or her presence. Khan stresses, "The important thing to remember is that putting a celebrity in an ad is not an idea in itself. Unfortunately, this is how most celebrities are being used in Indian advertising where they just become a prop. Ideally, there should be an idea that makes the celebrity relevant to the product and the consumer."

Celebrity’s presence in the ad should be contextual. When Sachin Tendulkar says declares, "Boost is the secret of my energy," it doesn’t seem out of context. Internationally, Nike’s association with Michael Jordan is legendary and also logical.

Apple Computer introduced its anodized Aluminum range of Powerbooks, the 12-inch and the 17-inch models, with actor Verne Troyer (from movie "Austin Powers" as "Mini Me") and Houston Rockets centre player Yao Ming. If you think that Apple has simply engaged two celebrities to brand their laptops, you are wrong. They have engaged a very tall person (Yao Ming) and a very short person (Verne Troyer), to contrast the size of their small and large Powerbooks, by having Verne Troyer use the 17-inch PowerBook, while Yao Ming uses the miniscule 12-inch model.  [1]

When it doesn’t work
In the last decade or so, there’s been a spurt in the use of celebrity endorsements. And with it, there’s been an increase in the number of instances of brands failing to take off in spite of the biggest and brightest stars endorsing it and consequently leading to speculation about the soundness of celebrity endorsements as a communication strategy.

According to leading management thinker Dr Seamus Phan: "Many celebrity endorsements fail because they identify a celebrity they like in an emotive and un-researched manner, and then try to create advertising to force-fit the celebrity into the creative concept. Often, the finished advertising is at best contrived, and often, simply laughable. At the end, the brand suffers from a mismatched concept and celebrity, and millions of dollars are flushed away. If this company is publicly listed, imagine the disservice the company has done for its shareholders." [2]

There are several reasons why celebrity endorsements fail to produce the desired effect, and each of them has to more with the core communication strategy and less with the celebrity’s pull. "Celebrities cannot really be blamed if their endorsements fail to push up the brand sales," says Adrian Mendonza, Executive VP and Creative Director of Rediffusion DY&R. Indeed, for it is important to recognise that celebrities can create interest – whether that interest converts into sales depends on various factors such as brand-celebrity disconnect, improper positioning, clutter of celebrities, or even product life-cycle.

Five causes of letdown
It’s worth going over some of the reasons why celebrity endorsements may not work:

Improper positioning
Associating with a star, however big he or she may be, in itself does not guarantee sales. The most it can do is generate interest in the product or create a buzz around it. Take the case of Maruti Versa, which was launched amidst a lot of fanfare about three years ago. In spite of Maruti signing up superstar Amitabh Bachchan and his son Abhishek Bachchan as brand ambassadors for Versa, the brands sales remained sluggish. To be fair, the Big B magic did work and the ads created significant interest, drawing people into the showroom. But perhaps the positioning itself was faulty as people were expecting a larger than life car, just like the brand’s ambassador. Last year, we saw Versa being re-positioned as a family car, with the core proposition being, "the joy of travelling together." In the words of Ravi Bhati
a, General Manager of Marketing at Maruti, Versa has started doing well and has witnessed an upswing since the new positioning. Last year, the average sales were 80-100 vehicles a month. Now they are selling 450 vehicles a month. [3]

Brand-celebrity disconnect
If the celebrity used represents values that conflict with the brand’s positioning and the values it stands for, the advertising will create a conflict in the minds of the target audience who may reject the proposition. Take for instance Toyota, one of world’s leading auto companies. Toyota chose teeny-pop singer Britney Spears to for its brand Soluna Vios, which is a family sedan which is preferred by married men and women with children. According to Phan, a youth icon like Britney would’ve been better used by Toyota for a sleek sports vehicle and for Soluna Vios, Toyota should choose someone like a mature man, Harrison Ford for example. [4]

Clutter Flutter
In recent times, there’s been such a deluge of celebrity endorsements that it has led to the very clutter that it aimed to break. For instance, Amitabh Bachchan endorses or has endorsed Pepsi, ICICI, BPL, Parker pens, Nerolac, Dabur, Reid & Taylor, Maruti Versa, Cadbury and a few social messages too. Bollywood badshah Shah Rukh Khan with Omega, Tag Heur, Pepsi, Hyundai, Clinic All Clear and Airtel has to his credit more television commercials than feature films since 1992. This over-exposure can be bad for the brand. Khan adds, "We seem to have just 2 ½ celebrities in a country of 1 billion people which is a terrible tragedy. Consequently, each celebrity is called upon to push maybe a dozen brands or so. Which is great for the celebrity but I think it is pretty daft for the brand because the impact of the celebrity reduces as the number of brands he endorses increases." Parmeswaran agrees, "Unfortunately in India, we have too many brands chasing too few celebrities. And the recall value drops by a huge margin when you move from an A Class celebrity to a B Class."

Bad idea/product
Using a celebrity is not an excuse for not having a brand idea. You cannot sell an ordinary product just by making a celebrity endorse it. Parmeswaran says, "Unfortunately using a celebrity seems to be the easy way out of a parity product situation." In fact, if anything, the product will fail faster because the presence of the celebrity will create a buzz and more people will know about the "ordinariness" of the product.

The use of celebrities can be confusing. Some viewers quickly forget what product a celebrity is giving his or her stamp of approval. Others are so spellbound by the personality of the celebrity that they completely fail to notice the product/brand being advertised. The brand is overshadowed in the overwhelming presence of the star. In some cases, a celebrity can give rise to scepticism because it might be a bit too much for the masses to believe that the celebrities who are rich and can afford the best in the world are actually using a mass product, being advertised on television. On the contrary, people might speculate about such things as "how much did the brand pay to rope him/her in as the brand ambassador?"

A study done by Cogito Consulting of FCB-Ulka Group has tried to fathom the truths behind why some celebrity endorsements work and some don’t. They have developed two indices, Trait Fit Index and Compatibility Index. TFI is derived based on the top five Brand Personality Traits and the top five Celebrity Personality Traits. CI is derived based on the respondents’ perceived suitability between the celebrity and the brand. The study shows the CI is more important than TFI. The implications from the study were:
1.  an aura cannot overcome a complete conflict of the celebrity with the brand’s personality
2.  when it comes to finance, a young icon is not convincing enough
3.  in the case of youth brands, it is especially important to get the latest heartthrob
4.  use of celebrity helps break the clutter

So using a celebrity just helps you break through the clutter. And if there is low CI and low TFI, that is all that will be achieved.

Courtesy: M G Parmeswaran, Executive Director, FCB Ulka

Risks associated with Celebrity Endorsements
It is important to consider risks associated with celebrity endorsement. Fame is fickle and fleeting companion and can ditch the famous at the slightest provocation. Celebrities, being human, make mistakes. But their mistakes get as much attention as their celebrity status and this can adversely affect the brands that they are endorsing. There are number of examples, both Indian and International, where scandals and scams involving celebrity endorsers have caused embarrassment to the brands they endorse. Companies have to make quick decisions when one of their endorsers comes under fire or their own image could be tarnished. Guilty by association in a consumer’s eyes describes it best.

Magic Johnson lost his endorsement deals when he announced in 1991 that he’s HIV-positive. It wasn’t until July 2003 that he landed his first endorsement deal since the announcement. [5]

It’s a tricky situation for marketers. If a brand continues with the celebrity, it may adversely affect the image of the brand and consequently, brand sales. If the brand chooses to distance itself with the tainted celebrity, the huge costs spent on roping in the celebrity and making of the ads may go down the drain and even then the association of the brand with the celebrity might by then be so ingrained that the damage is already done. "It’s a two-way street. One way it shows the strength of the brand promotion. But it is also fraught with risk if your brand ambassador fails to perform in the related field," says Reliance India Mobile (RIM) marketing head Kaushik Roy. RIM uses Cricket star Virendra Sehwag as its brand ambassador. Roy added, "We want to try and avoid the celebrity endorsements as much as possible. Over-dependence on them will create problems in future so we should stand on our own legs." [6]

Hedging the risk
The first thing to ensure, when zeroing in on a celebrity, is to try and choose someone whose record is impeccable. Having said that, it’s best not to depend on one celebrity, for that can backfire. Instead, it’s better to use many celebrities who represent the same values. Pepsi does this quite well. Capitalising on the popularity of cricket and films in Indian, Pepsi uses several cricketers and film stars in their ads. So when Azzaruddin and Jadeja got embroiled in the match-mixing controversy, Pepsi’s severed its association only with these stars, but its relationship with cricket continued.

So what’s the big deal?
Star endorsement deals are big in every way. They are big on expenses and can have big implications on the brand’s fortunes. Celebrities have enormous potential to shape the destinies of the brands they endorse, albeit sometimes negatively. Therefore, marketers who use celebrities must do so prudently, thinking through the concept of such endorsements carefully before adapting it into the message strategy. Experts concur that you must consider a celebrity endorsement if, and only if, the message strategy warrants it, not because the celebrity’s pull value. And last but not the least, one should seriously consider the risks of associating with a well-known personality, and hedge against a future scandal by not relying on just one celebrity and instead linking the brand’s association with a broad theme represented by several celebrities. If you can’t afford many celebrities, then get your thinking caps on, and come up with a better, safer idea.

[1, 2, 4] Does celebrity branding always work? By Dr. Seamus Phan,
[5] Companies Ditch Celebrity Endorsements,
[6] The brand ambassador gamble, April 08, Online Edition, The Tribune

5 Replies to “Star Struck!”

  1. Another aspect of endorsements is the damage that can be done to a star’s public appeal. I’m sure SRK has lost a lot of fans (and maybe gained a few gay fans) due to his Lux advertisement. Although HLL may be laughing its way to the bank due to the enormous publicity generated.

  2. You’re right Amit. SRK’s latest ads – Lux (bathtub) and Pepsi (snake charmer) – feature him in a manner that does not go with his image and, consequently, may not only adversely affect the image of these two brands, but may also negatively impact other brands that he is endorsing.

    Although this article discusses celebrity endorsement as a strategy and its effect on popularity of brands, the reverse effect of brand endorsements affecting a celebrity’s popularity is also a topic that warrants discussion.

  3. Wow Manoj,
    This was a great article – well researched and written, detailed and with many examples. I look forward to reading some of your fiction in the future!

    DC Green

  4. I agree with you, Amit. SRK’s Lux ad emanates rather effeminate vibes. Not that he’ s ever had a truly macho image, but even the so-called ‘cute lover boy’ (errr..straight?!) image that he’s painstakingly built up over the years with those trademark naughty smiles, and a perpetual cock of the head, as though he’s a permanent crick in his neck, is bound to take a hit.

    While the brand may or may not have gained from the experiment, based on the premise that women would love ogling at his perfectly shaved chest, SRK evidently has risked a lot.

    P.S. Pardon the merciless diss’ing.

  5. Yes Nidhi, SRK has risked a lot – for himself, and, as Manoj pointed out, for his other endorsements like Airtel.

    Another topic that warrants discussion is whether stars have a responsibility towards society, or whether they have the right to encash their popularity by endorsing any unreliable company, like they did when they endorsed Home Trade.

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