Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Points of View

Will Chulbul's 'swag' override memories of Thunder?

Pepsi's new face and Dabangg star Salman Khan a.k.a Chulbul Pandey has been a face for rival cola brand Thums Up. We speak to experts Rohit Ohri, KV Sridhar, Darshana Bhalla and Manish Bhatt for their take on this interesting development.

There was a ruffle in the advertising and marketing fraternity around a recent piece of news concerning Pepsi. The flagship beverage brand from PepsiCo has just announced its association with Bollywood superstar and former Thums Up face Salman Khan. Brand faces change over time depending on objectives, but Pepsi's partnership with the Dabangg star flags two key points – the endorser's former association with rival cola brand Thums Up and Pepsi's recent positioning as a youth facing brand, placing itself alongside college students and within campuses.

Why did Thums Up choose Salman Khan back in the day? This high octane cola brand from Coca Cola has always worn macho faces, including the likes of Suniel Shetty, Akshay Kumar, Chiranjeevi, Mahesh Babu and more recently Ranveer Singh. All the film stars have had action packed roles in their parallel presence on the silver screen and this was extended to the ad communications. After all, it had to be about the 'Thunder'.

Coca-Cola India signed Salman Khan for Thums Up in 2012. The company had then tied up with Khan's movie Dabangg 2 which released on December 21 the same year. The action movie features Khan as Chulbul Pandey, a witty but strong-handed police officer. Coke's association lasted till 2016.

Like Coke, Pepsi also launched its association with Salman Khan by on-boarding as the 'swag partner' for Dabangg 3 which is set for release on December 20 this year. The partnership is a sneak peek into Pepsi's 360 degree brand campaign set to unveil next year. Pepsi has already released a Dabangg flavoured video with the tag 'Dabangg Ka Swag, Dabangg Ki Pepsi'.

Over the decades of its presence in India (since 1989), Pepsi has been seen alongside faces like Amrish Puri, Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan, MS Dhoni, Saif Ali Khan, Fardeen Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor, Virat Kohli and more recently, Prit Kamani.

Also, none of the former Thums Up faces other than Salman Khan have endorsed Pepsi in India.

So, did Pepsi tick the right boxes by bringing Sallu Bhai on board?

Rohit Ohri, group chairman and chief executive officer, FCB India

Pepsi has always been about the 'young at heart' rather than about young in terms of age. When I used to handle Pepsi (while at JWT), we had Amitabh Bachchan endorsing the brand and it was also Amrish Puri at some point of time. It is not so much about the stars and how they fit with the brand identity. The big brand idea that Pepsi has at the moment is 'Har Ghoont Me Swag'. And, Salman Khan truly is a 'swag' star.

Rohit Ohri
Rohit Ohri

Ultimately, it is a fun category. It all depends on how well the celebrity is used and integrated into the communication. It's true that Salman was associated with Thums Up but people move on very quickly and they know this. It happens in many other categories. Historically, Aamir Khan was first with Pepsi and then he became a Coke face. Both brands have used Aamir in different ways, this created 'unique memorability'.

Celebrities are used so much these days that the recall and memorability is really about how you use the celebrity. What you do with them is very important. Just wrapping the celeb around the product won't work. If Pepsi creates a good connect between swag and Dabangg in a nice, fun and irreverent manner, they may actually have something fantastic.

KV Sridhar, founder and CCO, Hyper Collective

Pepsi is sounding a bit desperate. Salman Khan is not the issue and he has a huge fan following. But for a celebrity to work, the brand and the celebrity values have to match. All the endorsers for Thums Up over the years, be it Suniel Shetty, Chiranjeevi, Mahesh Babu, Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan worked because of their 'alpha male' personality. Thums Up as a brand carries a similar image. It was about machoism and it stems from a stronger offering, the stronger taste of the beverage. The connection was seamless and it worked like magic. Thums Up's current face, Ranveer Singh might not be as macho as his predecessors.

'Pops' KV Sridhar
'Pops' KV Sridhar

Pepsi is supposed to be for the new generation and young audiences, and Salman isn't exactly for that sort of an audience. Thums Up is the market leader and a power brand. Awareness around health is anyway hurting the colas. It seems as if Pepsi is looking for some secret sauce that might have been left in Thums Up. Prima facie it's in no way a perfect match. I hope that they do something spectacular and prove us wrong. There is hardly any spectacle in today's cola advertising. It's all living off past glory.

Darshana Bhalla, chief executive officer and founder, Do IT Talent Ventures

Today, the market scenario is really complex and to be able to anchor on the perfect brand ambassador is a challenge. There are so many layers that have added to the scenario that we don't know how the ambassador or the influencers are performing. At a certain point in time, we could say that Shah Rukh (Khan) was the reason behind the brand escalation of Hyundai. It was really easy to interpret and correlate. The brand and the celebrity grew parallelly. Now, the growth of celebs is not as sharp as it used to be. Today, it is more difficult for Ranveer (Singh) to become a superstar as compared to the growth of Shah Rukh (Khan). That's because he has to try so much more, to be recent and to engage with fans daily with a new story. The liability of maintaining recency has increased both on celebrities and brands, and the question is, 'How do I keep this going?'

Darshana Bhalla
Darshana Bhalla

One thing Salman (Khan) does is that he connects with the masses instantly. He (Khan) at times, gets away with what others might not be able to pull off. Pepsi being a challenger brand, connecting with Salman makes sense. Also, the beverage category has been a bit off-and-on in the last few years and we don't see the kind of spends from colas like we used to. Also, today there is diverse media. And the media that you need to plan for today to connect vis-a-vis earlier is huge. I think it is a decent combination of mass connect and diverse media.

As for his history with Thums Up, consumer memories are getting shorter. His previous association is not such a concern. If the communication is made relevant, people will consume it. I think Pepsi is ticking the correct boxes.

Manish Bhatt, founder director, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi

The cola's former avatar as the cool drink to flaunt about has changed with today's higher levels of awareness around health. This lifestyle change has already taken off, especially in the urban areas. What used to be cool is not anymore and there is a reverse trend. And lifestyle changes first take place in the cities. In that scheme of things, cola went a bit out of the orbit. Now, to convince the urbanite and the millennials, especially in the upper portion of the pyramid would be a tough task. Hence, the call for a massy approach. To go into tier 2/3 cities and to target the masses, it is natural that you go to a star who has an extremely high fan following.

Manish Bhatt
Manish Bhatt

Given Salman's history with Thums Up, there might be some trolling and adverse conversation on social media. But chances are, these might not happen at all since there is a lot to consume and keep people busy on social media. If it transitions smoothly from one to another brand, it would be alright.

Pepsi's ads and endorsers over the years: