The good and bad of celebrity endorsements

On my way to the airport yesterday morning, I saw a massive hoarding of Deepika Padukone endorsing a mobile handset brand, then just a few hundred meters ahead I saw another massive hoarding. This time it was Ranveer Singh, again endorsing a mobile handset brand. On a completely different note, I admired how both of them look picture perfect. No wonder they make a smashing couple .

But on a more serious note, I could hardly recall, the respective brands that they were endorsing. That’s precisely my problem with celebrity endorsements. Sometimes the celebrity overpowers the narrative to an extent that the brand comes across as an afterthought.

I am not saying that the brands should not use celebrity endorses, but there needs to be a clear reason as to why a brand needs an endorsement by a celebrity and how does the celebrity in question fit into the overall communication strategy of the brand.

There are many cases where brands have used a celebrity for maximum impact and there are as many cases where brands have used a celebrity just for the effect.

If you look at how brands have used celebrities over a period of time, there are some clear themes that emerge as to how brands can use or misuse a celebrity. So, here’s my list-

Using celebrity for credibility- the most often use of celebrity endorsement, this requires the celebrity to be of a certain stature. The ‘self-made’ celebrities who have been at the top of their game for long enough yet they don’t take the success for granted. They stand apart from the rest because of the virtues of hard work, perseverance, humility or sometimes even an air of self-confidence. Amitabh, Shahrukh, Sachin, Dhoni are classic examples of this. Brands have used them to convey trust and stature (Like ICICI does with Amitabh) or even restore some of the lost credibility (Amitabh as used by Cadbury after the worms incident). While Hyundai used Shahrukh to launch Santro in india- a clever move to gain acceptability for an unusual looking car (first tall boy model) using the charm of an unusual superstar like SRK (outsider who made it on his own terms), Tag Heuer uses him to reinforce its Avant Grade credentials.

The challenge with this model is that there are many brands that want to take this route, or rather shortcut. As a result, these handful of celebrities are wooed and engaged by multiple brands. Hence, a brand needs to have the stature as well as deep pockets to fully leverage and benefit from such association.

Using celebrity as an icon- This one is a no-brainer, brands like Pepsi and Lux fall into this category. These brands put all their effort to own the youthful attributes of cool (Pepsi), beauty (Lux), etc. The logic is pretty simple- to own the given attribute and stay relevant to the young TG, just sign up the most popular celebrity at any given point in time. That’s why, you have seen SRK to Ranbir and Sachin to Virat endorsing Pepsi and you have seen Madhuri Dikshit, to Deepika Padukone and recently Alia bhatt endorsing Lux. Interesting thing here is that these brands signing up a celebrity is as much an endorsement of the popularity of the celebrity, as it is about the brand endorsement. Even the sportswear brands follow the same suit. Virat for Puma is the latest addition to this genre.

Using celebrity as everyday characters- This is an interesting twist on how some brands use the celebrities- enacting as everyday characters. Make My Trip is doing it with campaign featuring Alia and Ranveer playing various relatable characters complete with quirks and all (She playing the receptionist with a lisp, and he playing the wannabe cool guy). Both Coke (Thanda matlab Coca Cola) and Tata Sky did it brilliantly with Aamir in various interesting characters and situations that reinforced the brand message. Many of us still remember Paresh rawal playing the demanding Domino’s customer dancing to the jingle ‘Ta na na na na Re, Pizza Aaya free’. Celebrities often paying these over the top, yet relatable characters – deliver the brand message with an added dose of entertainment and who doesn’t like a good laugh. The success of these ads largely depends on the power of script as well as the actor’s ability to get the character right.  

Celebrity as an interesting use case- This is a very interesting way to use a celebrity and the creative possibilities are plenty. Whether it is Nawazuddin narrating his journey from being a watchman to an actor in a clever Trucaller ad, Deepika gifting jewellery to her (real) mother in an emotional Tanishq ad, Akshay risking his life to taste that Thums Up, Aamir asking you to “be more” in that memorable Titan ad, or Irrfan Khan talking about the ‘chota recharge’ of Hutch. These ads work because they pick an interesting aspect of the celebrity’s life or personality and try to weave a story around it. You buy into Nawaz’s struggle, Deepika’s vulnerability, Akshay’s streak of adventure, Aamir’s strive for perfection or Irrfan’s straight up advice. More than the stature of the celebrity, their story matters in this case and that’s why a Nawazuddin or Irrfan work equally well as Deepika or Aamir.

There is also a slightly different version of above, where brands potray celebrities as their regular users. It is a kind of testimony route and the celebrity serves as a best-case scenario. Salman Khan in Revital, Deepika in Parachute oil, Sanjeev Kapur for Sugar Free and countless other ads of stars endorsing hair oils, soaps, skin care creams, etc fall under this. Some of them work and some don’t. It depends on the power of celebrity, his / her desired traits being promoted (fitness, long shiny hair, wrinkle free skin, etc) and brand’s legacy as well as efficacy. Actually, Ranveer Singh for Durex is a campaign where all of these (his star power, raw sexuality and the brand trust) perfectly come together.

Using celebrity to stand out / cut clutter- We haven’t forgotten the infamous ‘Pierce Brosnan- Paan Bahar’ saga. Have we? Jokes apart, there are many brands that use the celebrity formula to stand out from the clutter. Hugh Jackman for Micromax, Shahrukh for Navratan oil, Saif for Amul Macho, Akshay for Dollar are few examples. Apart from standing out from the clutter, using celebrity by a brand otherwise perceived to be slightly lower rung (like all of the above) sends a strong message out- a message that the brand is bigger (both in stature and ambition) than you thought. A celebrity also brings legitimacy and builds aspiration for these non A-lister brands. Having said that, all the examples that I have mentioned here work because the creative plot is imaginative and even outlandish to some extent. In this case, the brands have to unashamedly play on the larger than life image of the celebrity to make the creative work and stick.

Using celebrity because we have the money- There is a long list of brands that want to use a celebrity, but are not quite clear why? The only logical reason then- because they have lot of money or because their creative agency is plain lazy. The list of such brands is very long, but in recent times some of the mobile handset brands seem to be in a race to outdo each other in this segment. Hrithik, Sonam , Farhan, Ranveer, Deepika... I can’t remember who all have endorsed these Chinese sounding mobile brands. What is even more irritating is that all these ads seem to more or less focus on just one aspect of these handsets- the camera. So, how do they compensate for the lack of their creativity? By throwing more money on the media. These brands just want to be seen more to sell more. Story can wait.

If I were to ask you to close your eyes and remember some of the best ads you have seen so far. How many of them do you think will have a celebrity starring in them? None of my favorites have a celebrity in it. If you have one, then do let me know.

Author: Gurudev Prasad

April 19, 2017