Brands and celebs, how about sticking up for each other for a change?

Brands dropping their celeb endorsers and vice versa in the face of a controversy show an abject lack of long term strategic thinking, say experts

e4m by Mansi Sharma
Published: Oct 19, 2021 8:48 AM  | 8 min read

A few days ago, on his 79th birthday, one of the biggest celebrities in India, Amitabh Bachchan, walked away from a brand deal with a pan masala company. In his defence, he said he wasn't aware that it was a case of surrogate advertising. It was after a month of him defending his association with the brand social media, continuously. 

On the other hand, reports of BYJU'S halting its campaigns with Shah Rukh Khan, in the wake of a drug case against his son Aryan Khan, also dominated the headlines. 

On the face of it, both the incidents don't seem to have much in common, but at the core of it lies a uniform problem -- the lack of partnership between the brand and its celebrity ambassador. 

It is important to note that these are not standalone cases. In the past too, there have been instances where either brands have dropped celebrities in case of a controversy or a celebrity has moved out of an association. Sometimes, these celebrities also become faces of rival brands after some time. But how does this all impact the image of the brand, the celebrity, and the whole business of using celebrities as ambassadors. exchange4media discusses with the industry! 

Is loyalty between celebrities & brands missing?

For every Snapdeal that cut ties with Aamir Khan after his remarks on religious intolerance in the country, there has been a Nike that supported Colin Kaepernick when he “took a knee” during the national anthem at a NFL game to protest against racism. 

For every Kellogg's that distanced itself from Micheael Phelps after photos of him smoking illicit drugs surfaced, there was a Thums Up that continued its association with Salman Khan even when he was mired in controversies, the industry opines. 

However, what keeps these relationships strong despite tremors of negativity is a sync between the morals and values of both the parties involved. 

FoxyMoron National Head Partnerships and Business Head North Prachi Bali elaborates, “There’s no black and white answer to the question if brands and ambassadors like loyalty towards one another because it is predominantly a high value commercial transaction. There have been instances where brands and ambassadors have been able to establish positive long term relationships. In such instances, it has been where the criteria for endorsement is monetarily beneficial and in sync with the values or interests of both the celebrity and the brand.” 

dentsuMB India EVP & Head- Planning & Strategy Vishal Nicholas says, “Loyalty is a consequence of trust between two parties. Trust as we all know is never built overnight. It takes years to build trust even between brands and ambassadors. Usually, wherever brands and celebrities have been in long-term associations, it has been about more than money and fame. Take SRK and Hyundai’s association, Nike stood by some of its stars like the late Kobe Bryant and Colin Kaepernick when they were under fire – again long-term associations. So, time is the best route to trust and therefore, loyalty.” 

Grapes Digital National Business Head Rajeesh Rajagopalan further notes that celebrity-brand partnerships go beyond just being transactional. “A good fitment is when there is a match of values and personality. I believe these two cases in point are an aberration to the rule. The SRK case has an external impact that couldn’t have been predicted by either party.  In the last five years, I haven’t heard of more than 2-3 brands or celebrities who have dropped their brand deals which signifies a lack of brand partnership. A brand endorsement deal is a long term impact deal for both parties involved.  In most cases, there is well-defined research that goes into understanding if the brand fitment is right or not.” 

However, Havas Creative India President Manas Lahiri feels that the relationships between brands and ambassadors are quite unstable these days, “I have worked with some celebrities who were extremely proud and informed about the brands they were endorsing. However, it is also true that in recent times the loyalty parameter has shifted; more opportunities, shorter association period and extremely active netizens have made these relationships more unstable.” 

How do changing ambassador-brand relationships impact consumer loyalty?

The industry feels that in most cases consumers' perception towards the brand or the celebrity do not get impacted because of such incidents. Moreover, consumers prefer brands that take decisive actions while carefully analysing the situation and reading the sentiments of their core TG. 

Nicholas explains, “People want action and not terse, vague statements that try to obfuscate real intent. Decisive action is priceless in these cases whether you decide to continue the association or discontinue it – it is a chance to take a stand and your consumers will be watching you for it. When Nike stood by Kaepernick, it was a stand they took. Some would argue a costly stand but also gave their consumers a reason to buy into Nike’s beliefs further.” 

However, it is always wise to not give up to trolls as a knee-jerk reaction and brands should do adequate research to not only choose the ambassadors in the first place but also weighing situations when something negative happens. 

Rajagopalan states, “I personally think dropping an ambassador on trolling is a knee jerk reaction, and that shows a lack of long term strategic thinking from the brand custodians.” 

Bali elaborates, “Any brand operating in today’s digital economy needs to be conscious of the kind of celebrities they are working with. Even when a backlash happens, brands need to be conscious of when they should or should not take a stand for the face of their brand. 

"For instance, Nike decided to support quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he 'took a knee' during the national anthem at the NFL game in 2016, to protest against racism. The brand faced immense backlash which affected their stocks momentarily. But Nike not only recovered but their stocks reportedly reached an all time high because of the campaign and what it stood for.” 

How’s the future looking like?

Lahiri makes a strong point as he elaborates on consumer sentiments, “Consumers are far more informed. The role of a brand ambassador is valid and potent, but the product RTB and relevance must be stronger for the consumer to buy in and have a long-term association. This is unlike earlier years, where a credible voice was enough to ensure brand loyalty. Therefore, choosing a face is way more scientific, with multiple disciplines working towards a brand/celeb fit. There is no one way of looking at it. 

"Agencies on both sides have a robust mechanism of ensuring both parties benefit from this association rather than just being all about financial transactions. We do this with all of our clients, and we follow a well-researched and well-documented procedure route of brand/celeb fit after analysing the same through multiple tools and then taking the client on board with our thought process.” 

Bali sees data as the only right base for brands to pick their faces, “Data should be treated as gospel while determining which ambassador a brand should ideally work with. Today, brands have several tools, which will help them make an informed decision. Right from forecasting to understanding keywords public figures are associated with, to sentiment around the individual or brand. Brands can even choose to conduct a social listening study to understand the perception of the public figure and the audiences they resonate with.” 

However, Leo Burnett CEO & Chief Strategy Officer – South Asia Dheeraj Sinha feels that the brands should adopt a new approach to use celebrities in their campaigns and do away with the ambassador status. 

He says, “Like everything else, the dynamic between brands and endorsements is undergoing change. Increasingly, there’s risk for brands in tying up with any endorser - whether a celebrity or an influencer. Having said that, brands need vehicles of visibility- which is what these endorsements bring. A new emerging approach for brands is to not use celebrities as brand ambassadors. Rather use them for campaigns for greater visibility and better acting - in case of Bollywood celebrities. Many brands are increasingly doing so. You hire a celebrity for a particular campaign and then you move on. 

“With growing risks and uncertainties, we will see a lesser number of brands locking themselves with brand ambassadors. However brands will continue to use celebrities and influencers for visibility.” 

Nicholas concludes, “Consumers are increasingly looking for authenticity and both brands and endorsers would do well to remember this. The need of the hour is for evangelists more than ambassadors. Evangelists speak from a position of passion and deep conviction rather than just the lure of lucre. So brands should try to look for evangelists and celebs should try to look for brands where they can be evangelists of a product or service or even a purpose.”

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