Ashwini Gangal
Advertising

Models, ambassadors, endorsers, influencers...

Same job, different titles...

In the 1980s, when Kapil Dev stroked his clean shaven cheek and said “Palmolive ka jawab nahi”, a Doordarshan patron probably remarked to his wife 'Hey look, Kapil's modeling for Palmolive!'

Old ad for Palmolive
Old ad for Palmolive

Today, do celebrities and athletes model for brands? No, today, models model for brands. Like a tall, attractive model named Deepika did for Close Up many years ago; today, Deepika Padukone either endorses brands or is the ambassador for brands. Saying she models for Axis Bank and Tanishq is like stealing the glow from her hard earned halo and reducing her to the struggler the casting team on the Close Up advert selected, catapulting her straight into Himesh Reshammiya's music video and subsequently onto the sets of her first feature film.

Deepika Padukone is part owner of Epigamia
Deepika Padukone is part owner of Epigamia

One could say she influences our decision to buy certain products over others, but that would make her an influencer, a term reserved for celebrities on a, let's say, different rung of success – or with reach primarily within the digital universe. Above the line, we only have ambassadors, who, by definition, are representatives of products. If Mithila Palkar were to enter A-list movie stardom tomorrow, would we still call her an influencer? In some other context, YouTuber Bhuvan Bam – who 'models for' brands like Tissot, Beardo, Mivi and Arctic Fox, among others – told Forbes (July, 2019), quite categorically, he does not like the term influencer. (He has no problem with lines like 'Apni ajeeb beard se mat lago weirdo, use karo Beardo!', though!)

A screenshot of Bhuvan Bam posing with a bottle of Beardo on Instagram
A screenshot of Bhuvan Bam posing with a bottle of Beardo on Instagram

Of course, the scope of all this lexical analysis exists only insofar as nomenclature is concerned. Because call it what one may... the job remains the same. To get people to buy something. I could've said 'to influence purchase decisions', but since we're on the subject of words, I thought I'd go with the simplest kind.

Every lustrum brings new terminology without really changing the meaning of the words replaced. It's interesting to note the evolution of the title for the job of holding a pack of chips and smiling – model, ambassador, endorser, influencer. Does the duration of the association have anything to do with the choice of word? I wonder.

There's another hue in this palette of change – that of ownership. And this bit, I concede, is more than just nomenclature. Today, the ultimate form of product endorsement seems to be product ownership. The celebrity who is financially invested in a brand, then becomes its face by default. This, as a colleague puts it, is when a celeb really gets into bed with a brand.

Kapil Dev has come a long way from marveling at a razor for a fee; he has invested in Mumbai based cab aggregator VAOO, that has him promising free rides to those who watch ads on the app (yes, that's right - the more ads you watch, the higher your chances of getting free rides). Deepika Padukone is partner and shareholder at Drum Foods International, marketer of yogurt brand Epigamia. Priyanka Chopra is part owner of Bumble, an American dating app she brought to India. It's not a new practice, sure. Salman Khan picked up minority stake in Yatra.com in 2012 and there are headlines out there about Amitabh Bachchan's lakhs having turned to crores thanks to his 0.1 per cent stake in JustDial (figure sourced from NDTV.com). I found a 2015 ET story online with this headline, quoting Bachchan: "Just Dial was an endorsement deal; someone said invest in the stock, so I did."

Kapil Dev has invested in VAOO
Kapil Dev has invested in VAOO

This is a trend in other markets too; Ashton Kutcher has invested in brands like Airbnb, Spotify and Uber, among many more.

This is different from celebs owning brands entirely, though. While seeing Katrina Kaif in an ad for L'Oréal shampoo has a different persuasive quality to it than her face in an ad for her own cosmetics line Kay Beauty does, it's the in-between, the 'bit ownership' space, that interests me more.

If I get caught up in ensuring these lists are exhaustive, I'll digress from the main point. Which is – does being part owner of a brand make a celebrity's endorsement of it more convincing? Shah Rukh for KidZania as a mere face-for-a-fee versus as stakeholder – does it matter to the end consumer... and is it important they know about the ownership? That's not a big ask because today people know an awful lot about the way celebrities live. Ranveer Singh modeled for Maruti Ciaz but people know he drives a Jaguar in 'real life'. Did knowledge of what's in his garage undermine his professional association with Ciaz? It's worth pondering.

Few days ago I saw a print ad by Blue Star with confusing copy - 'Owned by Virat, Loved by Virat'. Does that mean he has installed a Blue Star AC at home or does it mean he owns stake... never mind.

Screenshot of Blue Star's website
Screenshot of Blue Star's website

From the star's point of view it's a financial investment, but from an aam consumer's perspective, the knowledge of their ownership may make the association - and in turn, the brand - appear more credible, perhaps? Or, more convincing, at least. We've all rolled our eyes at ads in which stars like Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi peddle products like dishwashing soap (Xpert) and detergent (Vanish); the 'obviously they don't use these items themselves' sentiment is commonplace and old. Would it help if they had stake in the companies that marketed these products? Would that make the brand association and advertisement more believable?

My favourite endorsement related anecdote, which has nothing to with ownership, is one about Boroline signing Raima Sen (around 2009) on after the brand head read an interview in which she spoke about being addicted to the product, or something along those lines. Today, we'd call that 'organic' praise. I've looked at that green tube differently since... hope the story is more than lore.