Celebrities and the Vampire Effect

Historically, celebrities were used by a handful of brands – Lux is a name that springs to mind. In the last few years, with growing incomes and the opening up of India, many new product categories have emerged which are more lifestyle related. For these and basic everyday use products, celebrities are increasingly being used to promote and advertise brands. They are intended to act as brand ambassadors and spokespersons lending their own fame, recognition and personality. Switch on the television and you will see Shahrukh selling shampoos and cars-Amitabh anchoring and promoting TV shows, TV sets, banks, soft drinks and more recently pens-Hrithik endorsing soft drinks, garments, toothpaste-and so on and so forth with Govinda and Shekhar Suman, in their inimitable style, advertising underwear!

This overdose of celebrities in advertising raises some questions. Does a celebrity really help to build a brand? Are celebrities promoting the brand or themselves?
Before going into the merits and demerits of these issues it would be useful to understand the current ethos and the marketing compulsions driving this.

Competition has increased exponentially in all categories with several new entrants- local and international- and existing players trying to defend their markets. New categories have emerged and are being advertised-travel, entertainment, financial investments, insurance et al. All these are competing for a space in the consumers mind. Adding to the marketeers woes is the slow down in the economy. It is, therefore, becoming increasingly challenging to get brands to break through and be known. Not surprisingly, advertising agencies and marketing men alike are relying on the Bollywood led appeal of the stars among the masses.

How does advertising work? First, advertising must be noticeable, and an attention grabber. Next it must involve the consumer in the storyline whether it is a product benefit or just imagery that is being communicated. Research has shown that the intention to purahase a brand goes up in proportion to the ‘likeability’of the ad. However, if the ad has been successful on all these counts but fails to ensure the right brand association and message retained by the consumer, then that piece of advertising has failed to deliver. More importantly, these associations must be consistent over time. Celebrity advertising with its standout value certainly gets attention. It is possibly even strongly liked. But does it really leave behind the key brand message?

This is not to run down celebrity advertising-especially as it has been succesfully leveraged in product categories where you would least expect it to do so- in low unit value, daily use products. Lux has consistently used film stars for several decades to endorse it. Its core benefit of complexion care is of prime relevance to a star-thus Lux has indelibly appropriated this benefit and seen off many a challenger including some who followed an imitative strategy. Taj Mahal tea is another successful example of using Zakir Hussains Maestro status to position the brand as the very best tea in India-one that is part of a true connosieurs lifestyle. However the successes are few. There are many more examples where celebrities are being used almost indiscriminately for sheer noticeability-everyone enjoys watching Shahrukh dancing, but does this position the brand as the best dandruff shampoo? Or Ajay Jadeja endorsing a toothpaste-does this really build brands? Cricket stars are used often for energy drinks or sports goods but their endorsing engine oil makes one wonder.

Celebrity endorsements are most effective in lifestyle product categories such as watches, cars, airlines, beverages, and garments, where this kind of advertising works by association. Unfortunately, even here, the manner in which the celebrities are used is less than optimal. Coke and Pepsi have successfully leveraged star power amongst their core target and made the brands youthful, contemporary and very aspirational. To begin with Pepsi concentrated on movie and sport icons while Coke used other means to connect with the consumer. However, with both using the same icons now, they are beginning to look alike. Use of celebrities by every brand in a category can lead to enormous confusion.. Aishwarya Rai, Shahrukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and several others are all endorsing different foreign brands of watches. Try matching the celebrity with the brand of watch. Here, stars are not providing any brand discrimination-in fact watch companies may get more standout value by not using celebrities and finding other ways to market their brands.

Are celebrities appropriate for all brands? A case in point is Kaun Banega Crorepati. This programme format was a clear winner in every country it was aired in(over 50 in number) around the world. Its success is because it taps into a universal emotion of greed. While India is unique in many respects, the consumer is not as different as we would like to believe. Nowhere did the programme need the support of a megastar as believed here. Some more examples of inappropriate use; would you buy a particular brand of television set because Amitabh Bacchhan or Sachin Tendulkar said so or would you consider the product features and technology, country of origin etc? Did BPL and Phillips, having used both these superstars, become stronger brands? Research on banking suggests that people choose their bank based on their proximity to place of residence or place of work and the quality of service. Even Mr. Bacchhan’s charisma may not help ICICI bank.
Celebrity endorsements work only when the celebrity in question has the credentials for endorsing that product.

Another danger-a celebrity may well reposition a brand in an unintended direction. In recent years Cadbury made history by bringing in adults into their fold-they did this with advertising that was both likable and had high emotional appeal. Will the current use of Cyrus Broacha build on this? Cyrus is, perhaps, more appropriate for the Kitkat personality where the advertising is ‘whacky’. Will Cyrus take Cadbury towards another direction leading the brand to abandon its carefully built equity and persona and in the process leaving behind a large constituency of Cadburys current users?

In all these cases where celebrity endorsement has worked or otherwise- one thing is common-the star presence and charisma is all pervasive. This is where the vampire effect of the celebrity comes in. The brand becomes a runner up while the celebrity hogs the limelight. Marketeers would do well to be cautious in following the herd in their quest to break through the clutter with a star. If the celebrity is not central to the brand message, then a moment of the consumers attention will cost you dearly; a hole in your pocket now and erosion of brand equity later.

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