Umesh Shrikhande
Guest Article

Wasted stardust

It’s a pity that 90% of the celeb-based ads are bland and uncreative, to say the least. When this happens, nobody wins.

Off and on there’s an uneasy discussion around the indiscriminate use of celebrities for brand advertising. David Ogilvy had famously said, “When you have nothing to say, sing it.” It now appears that when brands have little to say, or aren’t confident, they hide behind celebrities. Needless to add, there have been good exceptions. But in the main, the usage has been seriously suboptimal and hence ineffective.

A lot of celebrities are currently being used to drive saliency and cut through. Their usage seems to stem almost entirely from a media perspective as an impact multiplier. This article endeavours to make a case for celebrities being used as brand endorsers and equity builders too in the good classical sense.

Years ago, a Journal of Advertising Research article had laid down three criteria to decide on a brand-celebrity fit. First and foremost the celebrity ought to have some proven competence in the context of the category. Secondly, he or she must have a trustworthy reputation. Finally, the celeb must enjoy significant popularity.

As we can see this order has now been completely turned on its head. The celeb ought to be hugely popular first. Trustworthy? Well, possibly. As for category competence, what’s that?

With the kind of money being paid to celebrities and the media money that gets spent thereafter, this is no longer funny. It seems that the same bunch of people who are otherwise very hard-nosed about expenses, begin to lose it when a celebrity is involved. Everyone’s hypnotized. They see visions of glorious success, now that they’ve consumed the proverbial magic pill.

Meanwhile, all the popular celebrities sign up so many ad contracts, that the brand stands to lose big time. Do this simple test. Ask a random consumer, “when I say brand X, which celebrity are you reminded of?” You’ll get the correct answer. Instead, flip the question and ask them, “when I say celebrity Y, which brand are you reminded of?” Typically, they will draw a blank. And that’s why I say that the brand loses out in the bargain.

In my personal view, celebrity contract clauses typically tend to be one-sided. Pay me a huge sum. I shall give you two, max three days in the whole year. I will be available when I can. I may not be able to travel to the location you want me to. If my current feature film project expects me to sport a beard, then sorry, but I will keep my beard on even if it’s not what the brand ideally needs. By the way, I will need to approve the script. I may even insist on a director of my choice. While I will not work with a set of pre-specified competitive conflicting brands, I am not willing to agree to only use your brand during the contract period. (If I believe in a brand whether a car or a shampoo, what’s the problem in using that brand exclusively during the contractual period? Why is it so cool and ok that I get paid more than handsomely for advertising (say) a basic Indian car and then drive an expensive luxury car in my daily life?). Where’s the brand in all of this? What great storytelling can you do with your hands tied behind your back, with no liberty to use the celebrity in the most unusual and innovative manner?

On the other hand, in my limited experience dealing with a couple of big celebrities, I must say that I found them to be professional, civil, co-operative, attentive and helpful. So, it’s not as if they are the sole problem. If the buyer just isn’t keen to sign a contract that gives the brand some serious advantage, why should the already-busy-as-hell celebrity bother? All sellers’ markets with weak and unclear buyers operate like that. Nothing surprising there.

If brands are serious and keen to make a dent using celebrities as ammunition, it is time we all went back to first principles. After all it’s serious business. When you use a big celeb, your total expense on account of that can be anywhere from 40-50-100 crore! So why should money be wasted with your eyes wide open?

Utopian as it may sound, here’s my list of pointers that ought to be acted upon and negotiated for. Maybe not for one-off shallow and tactical assignments. But surely when big brands and big bucks are involved. Making sure that the contract is balanced and not one-sided. The idea is to ensure that the brand shines and the celebrity shines with it too. It’s not about who gets the upper hand. It’s about how can we do justice to the brand as we endeavour to build and nourish it with the added magic of the celebrity’s power.

1. Decide on the celeb-brand fit based on competence, trustworthiness and popularity.

2. Induct the celeb into the brand. Get him or her to ‘buy’ into the brand’s belief and power. Devote a day or two for that.

3. Get the celeb to meet for a coffee with the head of the company and not just with the marketing team. Let the company head highlight the importance of mutual respect, mutual responsibility and the need to follow the contract both in letter and spirit. Meeting the CEO or the Founder will set the tone differently and add to the gravitas of the association. Provided of course the CEO isn’t a star-struck person!

4. During the contractual period, get the celeb to agree to use the brand he or she has signed up for. Exclusively. Certainly, in public if not in private.

5. Get reasonable time from the celeb. 20 odd hours over a year is not happening. It does not leave any space on the table for innovative thinking or building on ideas or brainstorming. By the way good celebs are intelligent people who understand fame like nobody else and could help you with some great ideas provided there’s breathing space.

6. Make sure that the company reserves the right to finally approve the script. Surely if a particular point is making the celeb uneasy for a good reason, it must be looked into. However, that cannot lead to “I don’t like the script” without a basis. Location preferences if any, need to be spoken about upfront. Not after the script has been approved.

7. Ensure that the celeb gives a plug to the brand at key select fora, boosting the PR cause.

8. Finally, do a more rigorous post-test with the stunning ad you would have thus created to understand how exactly the celeb is working for the brand. Lest we remain guilty of a confirmation bias. And an expensive one at that.

I know as I write that this list will get scoffed at by some for being ‘unreal’. But truth be told, most of these things haven’t even been attempted by most brands. So, let’s make a beginning. Try it. Even if you agree on a few of these areas, both the brand and the celeb will be in a better place.

Using a celeb with clarity, verve and imagination is a golden opportunity for a brand to get creative, entertaining and memorable. It’s a pity that 90 per cent of the celeb-based ads are bland and un-creative to say the least. When this happens, nobody wins. After all, when the brand and the celeb are both chasing fame, why not do everything we can to get it right?

(The author is former CEO, Taproot Dentsu.)