IndustrySpeak: Why advertising is unable to create icons like Lalitaji any more

They don’t seem to create ad icons out of a nobody anymore; instead, what we have is a celebrity-led ad circus. Gone are the days when campaigns created enduring icons like Lalitaji (Surf) or Karen Lunel Hishey (the original Liril Girl). It’s been ages since one saw such enduring brand icons (the Hutch/Vodafone pug being an exception). finds out from some of the biggest names in Indian advertising why there has been a dearth of such enduring icons in recent times.

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Updated: Sep 1, 2008 12:00 AM  | 7 min read
IndustrySpeak: Why advertising is unable to create icons like Lalitaji any more

When an unknown girl stepped under a waterfall more than three decades ago, Indian consumers sat up and took notice. Nobody knew her but the freshness she exuded made the brand she was endorsing a household name. She cavorted in the water in a bright green swimsuit – yes, we even remember what she wore after all these years! – and when she lovingly ran the cake of soap on her hands, we let out a collective sigh. It was almost as if we were under the waterfall ourselves.

The brand: Liril soap; the model: Karen Lunel. Right down the years, several models and filmstars have endorsed Liril – among them Preity Zinta, whom the world loves to love for her ‘bubbly’ appeal, but no one has been able to take Karen’s place. So strong has been her appeal that when a couple of years ago tabloids announced that she had ‘died’ in a car accident, the celebrity world went into grief. Thankfully that was only a rumour.

Like Karen and Liril, Lalitaji has been associated with Surf. The no-nonsense housewife, who was determined to ensure that she got value for money, believed in buying Surf detergent powder for her family. Dressed in a stark-white sari with a blue border and hair tied neatly into a bun, Lalitaji, played by model Kavita Chaudhury, typified the Indian housewife. “Surf ki kharidari mein hi samajhdari hai” she said and everyone believed her. Perhaps it was her confidence or just the way she spoke, but she managed to strike an instant rapport with the decision-maker – the housewife – who was willing to spend a little more for Surf than for other brands in the market, if it meant that Lalitaji – not the company – was saying so. Interestingly Kavita was soon signed up for ‘Udaan’, a serial on the trials and tribulations of a lady IPS officer – around the same time. Needless to say, the Surf magic has continued.

They don’t seem create ad icons out of a nobody anymore; instead, what we have is a celebrity-led ad circus. A rather strong statement to make? Not really. Which brand does Amitabh Bachchan remind you of? Nothing specific? Amid a plethora of celebrity brand endorsements, the brand somewhere gets overshadowed by the personality, hence often there in no strong brand recall.

A walk down advertising lane throws up enduring brand icons that have strong recall even today. Besides Lalitaji and Karen Lunel Hishey, we also have the Utterly Butterly Delicious Amul Girl, Asian Paints’ Gattu, Hamara Bajaj, and Dabur Lal Daant Manjan, among others.

Of course, in recent times there have been the cute little pug in the Hutch/Vodafone ads, the much-awarded Happy Dent ad, and ‘Sunil Babu’ of Asian Paints. But one rarely finds a brand icon that will be recalled even 20 years hence. Why this dearth of enduring brand icons? Do advertisers find it more convenient to take the easy way out by piggy-backing on the celebrity flavour of the moment? Or is there a lack of creative will to create such an icon?

exchange4media finds out from some of the biggest names in Indian advertising.

We approached the creator of the Liril as well as the Lalitaji campaigns, legendary ad guru Alyque Padamsee, former long-time boss of Lintas and currently Chairman of London Institute of Corporate Training. He said, “I think the pressure of multinational ownership of most Indian agencies has curbed their creativity and they are being forced to use celebrities instead of creating their own advertising icons like Lalitaji, Cherry Charlie and the MRF ‘Muscle Man’. I feel sad that creativity now consists of amusing ads, which are more entertainment than salesmanship.”

Defending the use of celebrities in ads, Santosh Desai, MD and CEO, Future Brands, said, “We are using ‘quality’ celebrities like Aamir Khan, who raise the quality of advertising. It is true that a brand rides on a celebrity’s popularity. When we look at brand icons, these are assets that have been created for a long period of time, whereas in the case of celebrities, there is greater short-term orientation. We aren’t investing in brand-building like we used to.”

Agnello Dias, Chief Creative Officer, JWT India, provides a somewhat different take. He said, “All the icons you refer to are from the single channel days. It is an unfair comparison as the early days of TV literally meant a ‘teacher’ called DD came home every evening to put some images and words in your head. When this happens day in and day out, icons are created not out of choice but by default. In these days of media clutter, only two things can create icons – media money muscle and consistency over time. And not everyone has the luxury of either.”

Josy Paul, Chairman & NCD, BBDO India, made a strong point on behalf of conventional creativity and brand essence when he said, “Firstly, Lalitaji and Karen Lunel were not celebrities from Bollywood or cricket. They became famous and iconic because of advertising. They were models who became advertising celebrities. They were not brand ambassadors for 15-30 brands. So, they were remembered only for Surf and Liril, respectively. Today, movie and cricket stars model for so many products that there is some confusion as to who they represent. This is why the brand idea should be more powerful than the celebrity. Otherwise your brand will get overshadowed and you will only be pushing the celebrity’s brand image.”

Paul further said, “I think the Cadbury’s ad is doing well with Amitabh Bachchan, or for that matter, Titan with Aamir Khan. Even in today’s celebrity-soaked advertising, we still see new icons emerging. For example, in the last three years the most famous celebrity that advertising has created is a dog -- the Hutch/Vodafone pug! This adorable pug is as well connected to Hutch/Vodafone as is Karen to Liril or Lalitaji to Surf.”

According to Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, Brand-Comm, agencies today were taking short-cuts. He argued, “It is called a continuing character, which is featured in all ads. For example, Lalitaji stood for what the brand was – a discerning customer who will not comprise on quality. When Surf was competing with Nirma, ‘Lalitaji’ represented the brand and she represented it in such a way that you couldn’t comprise on quality. The advantage is Lalitaji is within your control. But these days, the disadvantage is that it takes a lot of time and effort to build the brand. A celebrity is a quick fix and agencies are taking the easy way out.”

For Piyush Pandey, Executive Chairman & NCD, O&M, it is all about changing dynamics. He remarked, “There have been greater and bigger ads. They may not be a Laltaji, but these are different icons that have come out in advertising, for example the ‘Pug’. But life goes on and there have been superior advertising in recent times. This is not to put the Liril and Surf ads down. We need to change with the changing advertising times.”

According to KV ‘Pops’ Sridhar, NCD, Leo Burnett India, “The ad icons are only recallable where the brand icons are consistent. We need bikinis and waterfalls, only then is she recognisable, whereas Lalitaji has to be shown with big ‘bindi’ doing big ‘kharidari’. They endorse only iconic brands, hence they are only associated with that brand. If you see a pug and a little boy, you associate it with Vodafone.”

Icon or not, what matters most is whether the brand is easily recallable. If the icon overshadows the brand, then no matter how enduring the icon is, the purpose of having that icon fails. One needs to have the icon gel with the brand, and only then perhaps we could have a ‘Marlboro Man’ riding his horse into the horizon of advertising history and not obscurity.

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