Can brands be their own stars?

If signing on a celebrity brand ambassador is a foolproof way to grab the limelight, with ROI, recall and recognition shooting up instantly, why do some brands take the route that's not star-studded?

e4m by Henna Achhpal
Updated: Nov 18, 2014 9:03 AM
Can brands be their own stars?

We live in a country where Sachin Tendulkar is considered God; where people wait outside their favourite star’s residence for hours to catch a glimpse; where a celebrity takes home a fat cheque for spreading social awareness. Of course, it’s not a phenomenon specific to India. Globally, Beyonce Knowles tops the 2014 Forbes list of World’s Most Powerful Celebrities. Last year, she was paid $50 million to be the face of Pepsi in a multi-year deal. Back home, in 2013 Shah Rukh Khan topped Forbes India’s Celebrity 100 list in terms of earnings while Sachin Tendulkar topped the list based on his fame rank. Clearly, we love our celebrities – be it from cinema, sports or music. It is no surprise then that brands would want to cash in on this handy approval. Yet, there are those brands that choose not to associate with a celebrity. In 2004, Unilever launched its worldwide marketing initiative, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which stars regular and ordinary women.

When Bisleri Urzza launched in September this year, Ramesh Chauhan, Chairman, Bisleri International, said, “We have planned heavy marketing, but I am clear that we will spend money sensibly. We won’t, for example, hire a celebrity to endorse our brand.” For a product that is not only a new launch, but also aims to develop the untapped market for functional drinks, to begin without latching on to a celebrity’s popularity was quite a daring move. “Launching Urzza without a celebrity association was a strategic decision. Since Urzza is a new brand, we wanted the product to be the hero of the campaign and not be overshadowed by a celebrity,” explains Chauhan.

“Some of the biggest celebrities in this country have launched many brands and that is obviously a shortcut to visibility,” says Karthi Marshan, EVP & Head – Group Marketing, Kotak Mahindra Bank.


Amul, founded in 1946, is one of India’s most iconic brands and one that rarely sticks to the marketing rulebook. It has traversed all these years without a single celebrity association. Talking to IMPACT, RS Sodhi, MD, Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Limited, said, “Of course, we have a celebrity brand ambassador. The Amul Girl is better than any other celebrity out there. Nobody remembers who the brand ambassador for so and so brand was at a given time, but she is the most well recognized and remembered brand ambassador there ever was. Celebrities come and go, but the Amul Girl remains ever green.” A report on states: The Amul Girl was created as a response to Amul’s rival brand Polson’s butter-girl in 1966. While there’s no refuting Sodhi’s statement, Pidilite’s Fevicol is another iconic Indian brand that didn’t find the need to associate itself with a celebrity, not even an animated one. Says Anil Jayaraj, CMO, Pidilite Industries, “Consumers are drawn to an appealing proposition and we have been consistent in our proposition to consumers right since our first campaign, ‘Dum Lagaa ke Haishaa’, which had distinct humour clubbed with functionality of the brand. With breakthrough advertising, we have established ourselves as synonymous with the category.”

Mahindra & Mahindra’s Scorpio, which was recently re-launched in its new avatar, was originally launched in 2002 and has come this far without a macho celebrity performing stunts with the compact SUV. Vivek Nayer, CMO – Auto Division, Mahindra & Mahindra comments, “We’ve never felt the need for a brand ambassador. It’s a homemade brand and one of the most iconic in the country. For a brand that has been built over the last 10-12 years and is doing extremely well, our fans are our greatest brand ambassadors. Incidentally, we have over three million fans on Facebook for Scorpio. There are some cases when you need a brand ambassador but in this particular case, the brand itself has become so big that we don’t need a brand ambassador.”

In the BFSI category, while ICICI Bank leverages Amitabh Bachchan’s voice of assurance, Axis Bank and IndusInd Bank make the most of the youth appeal of Deepika Padukone and Farhan Akhtar respectively, but the likes of Kotak Mahindra Bank continue to thrive without a celebrity brand ambassador. Listing the reasons why Kotak Mahindra doesn’t feel the need to leverage a celebrity’s appeal, Marshan says, “One of the most common reasons to associate with a celebrity is when a brand is launching or is less known. Then you try to get a leg up on your awareness by leaning on a celebrity’s wider appeal. We never had that need. Another reason brands sometimes use celebrities is for credibility. When a sports celebrity launches a pair of sports shoes, the brand gets testimonial credit. Unfortunately for all of us, all our lives depend on money in some way, so for my category there is no such exclusive relevant person that could have been used. The agendas are either credibility or attention, both of which are not requisites for us.” But Marshan does joke about not holding him at gunpoint if the brand decides to associate with a celebrity in future, “There’s nothing like never, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” he points out.

A relatively younger brand, Cleartrip, also chooses to ditch the celebrity route while immediate competition, Yatra, has Salman Khan vouching for it. “We’ve steered clear of celebrity endorsements for our brand by choice as we don’t think they’d work for us. The success of any brand-celebrity pairing depends on the credibility of the connection and somehow, we haven’t seen this as a workable proposition for us. We’d much rather let our products do the talking,” says Samyukth Sridharan, President & Chief Operating Officer, Cleartrip. In another brand category, there is Sahil Gilani, Director - Sales & Marketing, GITS who agrees with Sridharan, saying, “Currently, our marketing strategy is to gain maximum product awareness and brand recall; hence we use our budgets to get maximum media airtime rather than spending on celebrity endorsements.”

One can draw out an interesting chronology from the several celebrities associated with brands such as Lux, Pepsi, Lay’s and L’Oreal Paris over time. One of the longest standing celeb-brand associations in India is that of Shah Rukh Khan and Hyundai, which spans 16 years. Then there are those brands that associated with a celebrity only for a short while. In March 2013, right in time for IPL, Aamir Khan was roped in to endorse the Godrej Group’s brands, from FMCG products to appliances. “When there is a large basket of products that a brand is offering, a celebrity becomes the common thread across categories and helps to bring alive that proposition. It becomes easier for customers to recognize Godrej communication,” explains Ramesh Chembath, AVP, Marketing, Godrej Appliances. On why the association didn’t continue, Chembath says, “There was a specific purpose for bringing a brand ambassador on board. There were certain changes we wanted to announce in a strategic manner. Once the purpose is solved, there are other products that need to be talked about which are beyond just one personality trait that we want to express for the brand. Then you look at the product to become the ambassador for you.”

Whether it was his dance moves or sex appeal while baking mouth-watering chocolate cookies, Hrithik Roshan did a good job of endorsing Hide & Seek’s range of biscuits. Mayank Shah, Deputy Marketing Manager, Parle Products says, “The rationale behind having a celebrity brand ambassador is encashing on the synergies you have with him. You decide how you want to steer your brand, what attributes you would like people to associate with your brand, the values you would like your brand to own and if the celebrity is known for those attributes and values, you sign them on. But endorsers have their own life span.One can’t be known for the same value or attribute always, same goes for the brand. You move on with changing times and that’s when you decide whether you would prefer to look at someone else or completely do without a brand endorser.”

While Boost has had several sports personalities claiming it’s the secret of their energy, Horlicks, from the same parent company, has not seen as many high profile endorsers. Jayant Singh, EVP – Marketing, GSK Consumer Healthcare explains, “Our decision to have an ambassador or not entirely depends on the proposition we have in mind for the brand, and whether an ambassador can add value to it. Horlicks associated with Darsheel Safary at the time of Taare Zameen Par when a new wave of looking at the capability and well-rounded development of children erupted. We don’t look at celebrities simply from the point of view of adding recall or glamour. We firmly believe that the brand story must make sense even without the celebrity, that’s one filter that we use. So for us, a celebrity ambassador only adds to that story. Even in the case of Boost, we use strong clinical science with the brand ambassador. The presence of sports stars in Boost’s propositions enables us to bring the stamina messaging alive more powerfully to our consumers.” In conclusion, Marshan says, “Consumers do respond better to advertising with celebrities. Whether they believe the celebrity or not is a different question altogether.”

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