Ananya Pathak
Points of View

Ayushmann Khurrana: Hottest brand ambassador for ‘middle class’ India?

Brands are making a beeline for this young actor. Is it his charm, his choices, or something else, perhaps, that gives him ‘middle class’ appeal? Is there a downside to this?

Over the past couple of months, over a dozen brands have either signed Ayushmann Khurrana as their celebrity endorser, or have released ads that feature him. Recent examples include Bajaj Allianz Life, Sprite, KitKat, The Man Company, Club Mahindra, and Peter England.

Currently, Ayushmann promotes over 25 brands, besides the aforementioned names. The brands he’s been associated with include Balaji Wafers, Titan Eye Plus eyewear, Realme phones, Godrej Security Solutions, Magicbricks, Urban Clap, Nexus Malls, and others.

As we at afaqs! discussed this internally, some interesting theories came up. “Ayushmann has ‘aam aadmi’ appeal, making him the right choice for brands targeting middle class India,” said someone, highlighting the 35-year-old actor’s ‘struggler who made it’ aura. Another theory went: “Ayushmann Khurrana is like the Amol Palekar of his generation…” We’ll let puzzled Gen Z work that one out on their own. A third analysis was – he’s like the proverbial average between a Rajkummar Rao (who represents one end of the cinema spectrum) and Ranveer Singh (who arguably represents the other end).

We also noted that ever since the pandemic broke out, other celebrity endorsers, including Salman Khan, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Shahid Kapoor, are seemingly lesser visible on the screen promoting branded content.

Starting his career as a radio jockey (RJ), Ayushmann made his Bollywood debut in 2012 with the romantic comedy ‘Vicky Donor’. Ever since then, in the 17 movies that he featured in, Ayushmann has been seen in roles of an ordinary man, not a ‘hero’ per se. Popular titles include ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’ (2015, based in Haridwar), ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’ (2017, based in Gurgaon), ‘Badhaai Ho’ (2018, based in Meerut), ‘Dream Girl’ (2019), ‘Bala’ (2019, based in Kanpur), and most recently ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ (2020, based in Lucknow).

What’s it about Ayushmann that makes him appealing for brands? Is there a pattern to the type of products and categories that see him as a viable choice? How much of this has to do with the towns his movie characters inhabit, i.e, are they potential target markets for the brands he is associated it? Also, is there a downside to this sort of popularity - does this make him badly suited to endorse premium or luxury brands?

Interestingly, he’s not the only self-made, guy-next-door name in his generation; what stops brands from chasing, say, a Kartik Aaryan or a Vicky Kaushal, like they do Ayushmann? Here is what a few industry experts have to say.

Edited excerpts:

Hitesh Dhingra, MD and founder, The Man Company

Khurrana talks the language of new India through his films and beliefs, and sparks important social conversations.

Hitesh Dhingra
Hitesh Dhingra

We, at The Man Company, believe that one has to strive and evolve continuously to be referred to as a gentleman, and the lineage doesn’t have any meaning. It’s a constant self-introspective journey, rather than a destination. The brand believes that to become a gentleman, the looks, caste, religion, lifestyle, profession, and even sexuality are irrelevant. What matters are the inherent qualities one possesses and the mindset of constant evolution.

Very much like this leading man himself, who is known for his keen sense of choosing path-breaking and best scripts of Bollywood. A self-made man who has been pushing the boundaries, and questioning the very definition of what masculinity means by championing characters that celebrate the extraordinary heroism of a common man, Khurrana has shown various shades of a gentleman through his cinematic choices. He has shown that a man with conviction and talent can dream for the skies. He has, in his own way, normalised the issues and brought it to mainstream.

Sagar Kapoor, chief creative officer, Lowe Lintas

While I must admit, I have yet to work with Khurrana on any of my brands, he has become the face and the voice of many brands. To me, it is beyond just his face, it is his personality as a whole. The choices he makes, the risks he takes, and the confidence he reflects in whatever he does.

He comes across as someone who loves whatever he is doing. Whether it is his acting, singing, hosting or even a casual conversation in an interview. One can see it in his eyes. No wonder, brands across various categories see him as their protagonist. He cuts across various segments of target groups. He can be as earnest and simple as one can be, and as chic and fashionable as one would want him to be. Again, I don’t mean just in terms of looks, but in a holistic way.

Sagar Kapoor
Sagar Kapoor

What that does for brands is that not only can a brand gain from his persona, but some brands can present him in a unique manner, one that comes from the brand rather than the conventional other way round.

Chaitanya Joshi, creative director, Dentsu Webchutney

For the middle class that still binges on 1980s and ’90s Bollywood, Khurrana tells stories that could happen in your living room. He is not the Raju, or Munna, of the ’basti’, who is rebellious. Nor is he the aspirational Rahul, who has to inherit the Malhotra name. Khurrana is the relatable Vicky, or Mudit. And for many brands, this relatability can be a game changer.

Chaitanya Joshi
Chaitanya Joshi

Also, Khurrana connects to the Indian middle class on a deeper level. He is a Chandigarh boy who made it big in Mumbai. His Bollywood aspirations did not stop him from marrying his childhood sweetheart and having kids. And like the Indian middle class, he stays away from controversy.

For a brand that operates in one of the biggest middle class markets, he is a safe bet. Some of his films might not impress you, but none will disappoint. His charm that spills over to upper class with his choice of scripts, is an added bonus.

Manish Porwal, MD, Alchemist Marketing and Talent Solutions, a Mumbai-based marketing and talent management firm

The reason Khurrana is the preferred choice of brands is his appeal, which is hugely relatable over aspirational.

Manish Porwal
Manish Porwal

A celeb has two kinds of appeals: 1) relatable, 2) aspirational. The Boman Irani’s of the world fall in the relatable category, where the audience not only looks up to them, but also thinks they aren’t out of reach. Khurrana represents this class – he is more relatable than aspirational. Having said that, it does not mean that Khurrana isn’t aspirational at all.

Second, along with being a celebrity, Khurrana is also an influencer. Third, it’s the kind of roles that he does – the middle class man. It’s exactly what brands targeting non-metro cities are looking for. All these things put together make him a great choice for endorsement.

The only kind of brands, I think, he won’t be associated with are the Rado’s of the world, because they require a different kind of aura. These are more for Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan kinds. However, I won’t be surprised if even that happens. But when it comes to everyday, or household stuff, the likes of Khurrana and (Rajkummar) Rao work pretty well.