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The evergreen celebrity

K. Suresh

Celeb endorsers may come and go but Amitabh stays. Finding another facet to his many-sided persona is a challenging task for marketers.

MARKETERS have been leveraging celebrity appeal for a long time. Across categories, whether in products or services, more and more brands are banking on the mass appeal of celebrities. As soon as a new face ascends the popularity charts, advertisers queue up to have it splashed all over. Witness the spectacular rise of Sania Mirza and Irfan Pathan in endorsements in a matter of a few months. Such is the frenzy that multiple celebrities are endorsing one brand and super celebrities are promoting several products. The latter run the risk of diluting their persona and delivering diminishing returns for advertisers.

A unique phenomenon

Usually, celebrities are super achievers at the peak of their professions. For example, sportspersons get flooded with offers from marketers to endorse various products when they are at the height of their popularity. This fame is proportional to the sporting achievements. So is the case with the top film stars. Eminent examples are Sachin Tendulkar and Shah Rukh Khan.

Similarly, the popularity of TV programmes makes the actors in them quite popular and some of them do endorse products. Once the sportsperson retires or the actors loses their charm at the box-office or the TRPs of the TV programmes come down, the endorsements also dwindle.

Amitabh Bachchan is an exception to this normal life cycle of a celebrity in terms of endorsements. An actor by profession, his best days at the box-office are well behind. Yet, his endorsements do not seem to stop. An immensely successful actor of more than three-and-a-half decades in the Hindi film industry, a failed politician, a stumbling businessman and anchor of just one TV programme - his is a unique combination. It is noteworthy that during the first two-and-a-half decades of his acting career in more than a 100 films, he never endorsed any product. This, at a time when for nearly two decades he reigned over Bollywood and was called the one-man Hindi film industry.

His seemingly risky foray into anchoring Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) in the year 2000 added several notches to his already phenomenal popularity and catapulted him into the league of the most expensive endorsers. The way Zanjeer transformed his acting career, KBC opened the floodgates of endorsements. Marketers found their single-point attention-grabber in Amitabh Bachchan who could not only command attention but also lend credibility to their brands.

What set him apart from others and drew a host of marketers to leverage his personality was his popularity across the length and breadth of India, cutting across the barriers of age, income, region and language. Long after he gave up shouldering the box-office appeal of films single-handedly and four years after the last episode of the first round of KBC was telecast, he still lords it over the popularity charts and endorses a wide array of products.

Amitabh the Endorser

Across product categories, Amitabh's persona began to be leveraged by marketers. Within a span of four years, he has endorsed brands in product categories as diverse as banking, soft drinks, batteries, paints, chocolates, automobiles, writing instruments, apparel, diet supplements, personal care and real estate. Contrast this with his earlier endorsement history - just one in the mid-'90s, a corporate branding exercise for BPL. Through a campaign developed by Dhar & Hoon, BPL managed to position itself as an aspirational Indian brand.

The basic premise in getting a celebrity to endorse a product is that the instant recognition provided by the celebrity cuts through the clutter. Amidst an overload of advertising, this feature guarantees an advertisement's ability to stand out and generate awareness. If there is a fit between the personality of the celebrity and the brand characteristics, top-of-the-mind recall is also ensured. If the endorser enjoys wide popularity among different geographic and demographic segments, so much the better.

One of his strengths was his unblemished personality. As an endorser stakes his reputation and credibility in endorsing products, the cleaner the track record the greater the trustworthiness. This aspect was exploited by Cadbury's well. When it was enveloped in the controversy regarding worm-infested packs of its Dairy Milk chocolate brand, one of its responses to regain public confidence was to show him visiting its plants and vouching for the safety of its chocolates in its commercials. Nerolac Paints was another brand that leveraged his credibility by having him assure the audience, `Hum keh rahe hain' in its commercials.

When Eveready's storyboard for its torchlight Jeevan Sathi revolved around the product as a dowry item, Amitabh put his foot down and refused to endorse it. Respecting his feelings and recognising the advertisement's limitations, Eveready shelved it. Instances such as this reinforce his credibility and strengthen his brand value.

As a person with a social conscience, he has also lent his star appeal to public and social causes such as the polio eradication programme, emancipation of children and preventing cruelty to animals. The campaigns for Pulse Polio, Unicef and People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) featured him prominently to have a big impact on the audience.

The critical issues

Getting Amitabh, who enjoys a larger-than-life image, to endorse a product is a costly proposition. His endorsements cost between Rs 5 crore and Rs 12 crore. With such exorbitantly high endorsement fees, questions are being raised about the returns on having him as a celebrity. For multinationals with deep pockets such as Pepsi, having Amitabh as a brand ambassador and renewing the contract may be affordable. But for others, the temptation to use him as a one-off exercise is strong. For example, ICICI did not renew its deal with Amitabh after it expired in 2002. Maruti, which signed both Amitabh and his actor son Abhishek for its Versa, is conspicuously low-key in its ads for the vehicle of late. Unlike sales promotions, advertisements take a longer time to have an impact on sales. Top-of-the-mind brand recall and awareness generation are easier to track, but unless these increase sales, establishing the ROI on investments in celebrity endorsements may be difficult.

Overexposure, however, is the major issue, with Amitabh endorsing too many products. His face has promoted a slew of products in categories as diverse as beverages, paints, financial services, garments, automobiles, stationery, food supplements, personal care, real estate, batteries, televisions, chocolates and jewellery. Moreover, he has a `guest appearance' in P&G's commercial for its detergent brand Tide (shot while filming Baghban). Nevertheless, marketers claim to be happy having him endorse their brands. "Using Amitabh Bachchan as our brand ambassador has helped in strengthening our brand image and recall within the target audience," said D. K. Jain, Chairman and President, Luxor Writing Instruments Pvt. Ltd, the marketer of the Parker brand, in an interview to Brand Speak on exchange4media.com.

However, the enigma of his personality faces the risk of being unraveled. Exclusivity can no longer be associated with him. The audience gets confused when the same celebrity plugs many brands. The endorsement value gets eroded and the brands end up as just another product among the many endorsed and do not stand apart. As brand domain expert Harish Bijoor said in a previous issue of Catalyst, "Brands that use the promiscuous brand endorser who will endorse a car just now, carburettor oil next and stockings in yet another instalment of advertising blitz do not contribute much to the brand-building process. At best, these endorsements yank up the brand awareness for the duration of the use of endorser-at-large! Few brand-folks realise this!" The question is, how many product categories can his personality traits traverse?

Marketers at crossroads

Marketers now face a dilemma in exploiting Amitabh's persona further. A wide range of emotions such as humour and anger have been exploited from his acting repertoire. He has been a patronising, avuncular person; an action hero; an energising personality; a jovial character; an advisor; a spokesperson; and a passionate endorser. The challenge for marketers is - how to stretch such a widely leveraged personality? How does one ensure that the enormous amounts invested in this expensive brand ambassador are well-utilised?

As for Amitabh, he soldiers on in his pursuit of creative satisfaction in roles written specifically for him in Bollywood and attempts to resuscitate his corporate dream in the avatar of AB Corp. There's no stopping his endorsements, however. He is expected to sign deals worth Rs 30 crore to Rs 50 crore over the next couple of years. Can KBC's proposed second innings herald a follow-on for Amitabh's endorsement deals? Or will it find few takers with marketers feeling his persona cannot be extended further for fresh endorsements in advertising?

(The author is faculty member, Books Division, ICFAI University.)

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