Rajinikanth has never endorsed a brand. And although the southern superstar joined Twitter in 2014, he remains elusive outside of his movies and has not done a commercial other than a regional cola ad some 40 years ago. If he were to feature in a TVC today, wouldn't that be endorsement gold?
Earlier, brand endorsements were the only window to movie stars (appearing as themselves), outside of their films. At a recent event, PepsiCo's ex-chairman, D Shivakumar, suggested that with celebrities being more exposed now in the public eye, more than they were earlier at least, there was a possible impact on their equity as brand ambassadors.
So, have factors like active social media engagement eroded a star endorser's value and reduced the enigma factor? And can a brief exposure create the wave it could a decade ago?
"There is some amount of commoditisation of celebrities that has happened because of their exposure over a period of time. But that doesn't mean celebrities are not making a dent anymore. The usage has only gone up," asserts Manish Porwal, managing director, Alchemist Marketing and Talent Solutions.
Data from Adex India (a division of TAM Media Research) does show a steady increase in the usage of celebrities in the last few years. This is also echoed in a new report on entertainment and marketing by Group M's ESP Properties which says that there's been a year-on-year growth in the usage of celebrities in India in the last decade - proportionate to the growth in the advertising market. And currently, 25 per cent of the total ad spend involves communication that has film actors and sports icons as messengers. Interestingly, it has found that 47 per cent millennials are influenced by celebrity messaging (across mediums).
So what's changed in endorsements today?
"Because millennials like celebrities too, we are seeing a huge shift from endorser to influencer. Endorsement contracts are being rewritten, deliverables are changing and social is being added as a big layer to the commitment that the celeb makes to the brand," says Vinit Karnik, business head at ESP Properties.
Karnik goes on, "Earlier, when a star would give two days for a certain amount, eight hours of that would probably be used to shoot a TVC or a print campaign or at best, a dealer meet or a ribbon cutting. Today, one sees the addition of 'social engagement' that's much more powerful than those eight hours. When Twitter and Instagram grew, many celebs got attention in the way they engaged with their audiences." Now, brands want to leverage that efficiently, he says. The fact that actor Katrina Kaif who, until recently, shied away from taking to social media, joined both Facebook and Instagram (this year); it lends fodder to this thought.
"Today, many film stars use social messaging smartly to remain relevant. While the platforms are great communication tools, they're also tricky, as responses are in real time, and things can backfire. So tracking mechanisms and command centres play a crucial role," says Karnik.
Beyond the A-lister - Different faces for different mediums
On the other shift in this space, Porwal says that an increase in digital has naturally led to the proliferation of content. "The content piece varies for different media now. Digital, a more up close and personal kind of media, uses more of the 'known-for-their work' celebs who aren't typical top-end." He reasons that this is cost-effective because one may not be able to use an A-lister for multiple videos.
"Overall, there's a place for the 'big' celebrity who'll adorn the TVC and the larger mediums, but when it comes to specifics, there will be the author (like Chetan Bhagat), chefs or second-rung actors," says Porwal, further adding that where content becomes the focus, one may use such personalities as a hook, in which case, credibility trumps popularity. He also reminds us that paid tweets and posts play a role too.
"In the earlier days, 'influencers' were used for events, so if a cosmetics brand has an event they may not use the main face but a smaller one. You can draw the same parallel with digital." he explains further stating that it's a co-existence model these days.
Experts also feel that geography matters. "A Vivek Oberoi may still be front page news in Allahabad or Ajmer," says Porwal, admitting, however, that there are lower chances of a single exposure TVC becoming a wave. But he stresses that just as the basket of brands has increased, the pool of celebs has become bigger and diverse. "In the early days, only Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Azharuddin bagged ads, but not a Bishan Singh Bedi. Today you have Harbhajan Singh and Ajinkya Rahane too, alongside a Virat Kohli," he notes.
There are also instances when the main celebrity is used as an influencer. For instance, in Nike's Da Da Ding campaign, actor Deepika Padukone's sports background ties in neatly with the communication where she was part of a larger group of athletes.
Yet another key development is that of celebrities owning IP, partnering with brands as well as online marketplaces or department stores for the same. Actors like Hrithik Roshan (HRX), Sonam Kapoor (Rheason), Anushka Sharma (Nush) and Kriti Sanon (Ms Taken) are some examples of this phenomenon.
Arun Iyer, chairman and chief creative officer at Lowe Lintas, says, "Celebrities still have massive following and influence culture and thinking - look at the interest Virat and Anushka's wedding generated. Also, things like government campaigns, which need mass impact, are taken more seriously when a celebrity is used. What's changed today is that earlier it was a shortcut to use a celeb, but not anymore. Today, a lot of it is about how well the celebrity has been cast, how well they have been used and there has to be a proper brand fit."
Iyer refers to his team's campaign for Tanishq where he says Deepika Padukone was shown as 'Deepika' and not a star. "That's a glimpse that people are really vibing with; there has to be a reason why they do what they do in the ad. The brand needs to be crafted around the celebrity and not the celebrity around the brand," he says.
Questions Iyer thinks need to be asked are: Do you need acceptance? Is it a mass product?
"In Surf Excel," he reminds, "we have mothers, children and fathers because we don't need to push the basic thought of 'Daag Achche Hain' further."
Ad world veteran MG (Ambi) Parameswaran, founder at Brand-Building.com says, "There is a new dimension to celebrity endorsements today which is that the celebrities themselves are media. And often, brands miss out on this potential, of the millions of followers celebrities have on social media. Smarter celebs, on the other hand, want brands to enhance their social media profile and following. Brands will have to learn new tricks on how to leverage celeb endorsements and it may not just be a TVC in the future."
Parameswaran, along with SPJIMR's Ashita Aggarwal (as reported in a Business Standard article), recently conducted an endorsement-related study which, among other things, interestingly suggests that 'celebrities are mostly used by low-involvement product categories, but in India, durables, mainly smartphones, have broken that rule'. It suggests that there is an aspirational value attached to ownership in this still-evolving segment and that Indian consumers probably view smartphones as low-involvement as the replacement time is just a few months.
Prabhakar Mundkur, chief mentor at HGS interactive, feels the celebrity endorsement space has changed over the last three years. "For one, the Consumer Protection Act has made celebrities more accountable for the products they endorse. ASCI (the self-regulatory body of the advertising industry) have also issued celebrity guidelines for advertisers. This has resulted in stars being more careful about the products they endorse and the way they endorse them. Also, while clients don't seem to care, celebrities have become choosier about their personal brand and what products might or might not go with their own image," he says.
Agreeing that social media has changed access to stars and celebrities, Mundkur adds, "The recent Forbes Celebrity 100 in the Middle East, used social media as a key measure for their rankings which I thought was a better measure of their popularity. Whereas in India, the same study was still based on the earnings and a fame rank. Earnings I think, is a less sophisticated predictor of a star's success or following. A part of the market is, of course, moving to those described as 'YouTube stars' who command their own following. Having said that, India's obsession with celebrities and Bollywood is both unique and culturally intrusive compared to the rest of the world."
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