In early February, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan dazzled Australians by appearing in a black fishtail-style gown with a perfectly fitting lace bodice embellished with gemstones. The former beauty queen was attending the launch of a Longines boutique in Sydney in her capacity as the Ambassador of Elegance for the Swiss premium watch brand. Rai has been the face of Longines since 1999 and more recently, the endorser of French cosmetics brand L’Oreal since 2003. Likewise, her Bollywood counterpart Shah Rukh Khan can boast of South Korean automobile giant Hyundai retaining him as their ambassador for two decades (and more).
Brands are often seen changing their celeb ambassadors as the seasons change, bringing in currently reigning icons and younger faces to portray the brand’s evolving qualities. Why then do certain brands prefer continuing their association with a particular celeb for years together?
Brands are all about the long-term, about consistency; and if the celebrity too can be ‘long-term’, it’s a rare phenomenon, says advertising and branding veteran Ramanujam Sridhar. He says Hyundai (for example) have acknowledged the value of Shah Rukh to the brand’s launch, success and growth. “Shah Rukh has been involved with the launch of the company, when it was not so well-known here and SRK was the big brand. His ads ‘Should I or Shouldn’t I’ certainly made waves. His charisma and appeal to women helped the brand as he did commercials with Preity Zinta. It’s a tribute to the resilience of the star and the consistency of the brand owners that the association has endured,” says Sridhar.
Just like in any partnership, long-term associations, especially when they continue to stay relevant, are always good for a brand, says Jiggy George, founder & CEO of brand management and licensing company Dream Theatre. According to George, the brand and the celeb must continue to evolve and echo the same DNA. “The celeb’s performance equity must continue to grow in such associations and if that is not the case, the association can run the risk of being out-of-touch,” says George.
Moreover, having the same ambassador enhances brand recognition and recall, say experts, as the celeb becomes the signature of the brand, helping the message to get delivered faster to the consumer.
However, the drawbacks of the same face for a brand are too many to be ignored. Long-term associations with a celeb can do more harm than good, says Kaustav Das, CEO of creative agency Ralph & Das.
Firstly, says Das, the brand’s fortunes get inexorably linked to the celeb’s fortunes. If the celeb faces a controversy or his or her performance sinks, it impacts the brand. “Secondly, celebs age and their personality matures over time. But brands have to evolve and stay fresh all the time. Celebs cannot necessarily evolve to comply with a brand’s re-set vision,” says Das, who feels that hiring celebs ‘’is the conventional wisdom of lazy marketers.”
Having different ambassadors helps maintain freshness in a brand’s communication, say experts, “As new celeb endorsers address changes in consumer preferences. It also helps to send out a new message or advocate a novel product or service with a new celeb.”
Do mascots like the Amul baby or Air India maharaja stand a better chance over celebs then?
“Perhaps”, feel experts. Das says the mascot can evolve. “A fine example is the V-Guard kangaroo evolving after 40 years. Or the Qantas Airlines kangaroo that has undergone changes over the years.”
Mascots can never get into controversies, says Sridhar. “But the challenge is that they have no appeal of their own and it has to be entirely created. But brands like Amul have managed to do it over the years.’’
Mascots can also be used to convey topical messages (like the Amul baby) “without having to resort to long-term planning, co-ordination, shoots, etc. But mascots have to be created and invested in over decades to turn legendary,” says George.
India has provoked Google, which is not a big advertiser, to look at traditional mediums of advertising
I have always been enchanted by the subtle and not-so-subtle manner in which brands try to become an indispensable part of our lives. As someone who grew up in Madras, I was intrigued by the average Tamilian’s dependence on The Hindu newspaper and a cup of piping hot coffee to start his day. If this did not happen for whatever reason, you would witness chaos!
Today, I observe an even greater dependence on another brand — Google. When we were children, we were taught ‘Mata, Pita, Guru, Daivam’. It means your father, mother and teacher are God. Today, most people would cheerfully say ‘Mata, Pita, Google, Daivam’ — so complete is the domination of the technology major in our lives!
While Google continues to be one of the most valuable brands in the world, it has historically not been a large advertiser. Yet India, the land of infinite possibilities and enormous challenges, has provoked Google to look at other mediums to advertise for the vast Indian middle class. Despite the digital medium being the fastest-growing in India, print and TV tend to be extremely important for this vast population.
India may soon become the country that has the largest smartphone population in the world, but no advertiser can afford to ignore the traditional media. Do you remember the high profile launch of the Google phone with full-page newspaper ads?
Indians and directions
India can be a misleading country in more ways than one. Directions and signs are rarely found. People tend to ask others for directions and people are always willing to help — even when they haven’t the faintest clue of where that place is!
This does not seem to deter people from asking, and later, curse the people for misguiding them. The dependence on maps is minimal.
However, Google is slowly but surely changing this. A few years ago, I became a total convert and an unabashed admirer of ‘Googleavalli’, as my family cheerfully calls the lady who flawlessly guided us through Mannargudi and Mayiladurai (Mayiladuthurai) . While a majority of young, tech-savvy urban youngsters have taken to Google Maps like a duck takes to water, a number of others haven’t.
Advertising can make a difference
A lot of Google’s acceptance happens through word of mouth. India, however, presents different challenges given its diversity and complexity, in addition to the issue of poor connectivity. How do you reach out to people of different demographics and psychographic status, who live in the same city and struggle with the same traffic snarls?
This is when Google started its city-centric outdoor campaigns aimed at inducing more people to use their maps. Here’s a sample of what the brand did some time back.
The ones that followed on television showed smart, young people who stayed away from crowded roads caused by marriage processions and victory processions after the inevitable cricket match. One of India’s most frustrating feature is the absolute lack of concern that people have for everyone else, and nowhere is it in greater display than on the streets. Which is where Google Maps comes into play.
Of marriages and tension
The most recent commercial is an interesting one, as it is set in a typical Indian wedding scenario with its share of tension and drama. The bride’s mother is tense and starts worrying about the garlands, that haven’t reached the marriage venue yet.
She keeps calling florist, who keeps getting stuck in one traffic block after the other, even as he keeps saying ‘paanch minute’ (five minutes), like most Indians who are invariably late for most places and events say. There is an element of humour, as the lady uses the same ‘paanch minute’ technique to delay the florists’ payment!
So what do we learn? That even big, global brands like Google realise that India and its consumers are different. It may be a vast and often untapped market, but you do need a strategy to tap it. To equate it with Mexico or Philippines would be replicating the mistakes other big multinationals who have bitten the dust here, make. As Steve Waugh, the Australian cricketer discovered, you need to embrace the country and its people before you attempt to conquer it. The same philosophy applies to its consumers too.
PR persons must learn to think innovatively and provide clients with useful information
The first word that comes to mind when one thinks of advertising is ‘creativity’. Other phrases or words that might come up are ‘out of the box’, ‘different’, ‘whacky’ and even ‘weird’ (a reference, perhaps, to some of my advertising brethren’s choice in clothes and hair styles). One thing, however, is pretty clear: an agency’s creative abilities help brands get noticed and move the consumer to action. Agencies often get new business only on the basis of their creative talents.
My question is, should the related field of public relations also adopt creativity as its very motto in today’s challenging times? This leads me to an important question: what exactly is creativity?
Peace activist and artist Mary Lou Cook said, “Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.”
My submission is that PR companies have a strong need to re-brand and reorient themselves as “the other creative communications agency”. Why do I say that?
Let’s step back to look at public relations in today’s scenario. Despite the proliferation of social media and various other platforms, it is still difficult to get a story across in the media. A far cry from the earlier days, when all you had to do was to meet the journalist and, lo and behold, you had a front page story! Those days, there were fewer companies and the media had to hunt for stories. The main skill-set that PR executives needed was the ability to build relations with media and clients. The phrase ‘wine and dine’ was often unfairly used to describe a PR agency’s work.
Today, with a bevy of verticals, numerous PR companies pushing their clients’ causes and the media becoming increasingly selective in what it will carry, the challenges have become more pronounced.
The power of a story
One of the main reasons why people love advertisements and, at times, prefer watching them to television programmes, is that advertising has powerful stories driving its content. The Samsung customer service ad for India — where the service engineer faces numerous obstacles, including a tree-blocked road and mountainous terrain, to get a TV repaired so that blind children can watch their hostel-mate participate in a singing contest — topped the list of most-watched ads on YouTube in 2017, with over 150 million views!
What sets it apart? It is simple, has an element of surprise, is touching but does not go overboard, and isn’t soppy. I believe the power of the story made it hugely popular. So, where’s the analogy for PR companies and what must they do?
What’s your pitch?
Today, to put it mildly, journalists lead stressful lives. They work under myriad pressures and ever-shrinking deadlines, even as they compete with their colleagues to break stories or move up to the front page of their respective newspapers. Then, why should they read your pitch? They will read a press release if it is well-crafted, caters to the current interests of the reader and is brief. Remember the saying ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’.
I wish our PR executives would write to the point and better so that they capture the essence of the content in a few, well-chosen words rather than in voluminous paragraphs that sorely tempt the recipient to press the delete button.
The way forward
Sadly, the PR industry does not train its young people as well as it ought to. So, the bright young people manage on their own initiative and ability while the rest just about get by. While maintaining relationships is important, it is difficult for youngsters to build a rapport with older, more experienced journalists. But there is a silver lining. The media will welcome you if you are an expert on your client and their vertical. It will love you if you can give the story a nice angle that is not only about the client but is also interesting for the reader.
Can you tap into a current trend? Can you provide information that the journalist might otherwise take hours to find? Can you help the journalist without asking for your pound of flesh? The challenge, therefore, is for PR companies to train people to think differently and innovatively, and write succinctly. Then we will have a breed of PR professionals who think brand, think media and think creatively.
A lot of brands keep changing their ad campaigns, even before they have outlived their usefulness
When do clients change their ad campaigns? Usually when they believe that their consumers are getting tired of them. The reality, however, is that clients and agencies get tired of their campaigns much before the consumers do. That’s because clients see their own campaigns so many times — in their conference rooms, as part of agency reviews and every time they have a visitor.
Consumers, however, have a million other things on their mind. They don’t spend time in conference rooms. They are too busy standing in queues, ensuring their family has three square meals and in figuring out their children’s homework! And throw in around 900 TV channels they have access to, and it’s a miracle that they actually remember their house address, much less your brand!
And yet, brands keep changing their ad campaigns, sometimes even before they have outlived their usefulness.
Pugs multiply, creativity diminishes
How many of you remember ‘Hutch’, the mobile service? Or their advertising? Well, it is difficult not to remember the dog, a pug, that the brand introduced. Clearly, the advertising had created a brand property in the pug, which I am sure would have scored highly in all advertising recall studies.
While the pug featured in more commercials than a few Bollywood stars (and even escalated the price of pugs in India, if rumours are to be believed), it was part of several memorable commercials. This ad shows the boy’s faithful friend following him everywhere and ending up on his bed, the final message being the network follows you everywhere.
Let me once again reiterate my peeve with the brand’s advertising, which is true of all mobile service providers in India — ‘It has no relation to the actual level of service or coverage in the country!’ Sadly, as a consumer of Vodafone, I cannot really believe the claim of the network following me everywhere, as it has not been my experience with the brand.
Most recently, Vodafone came out with another commercial, that features another young boy being followed by a whole group of pugs. And the commercial has an astonishing claim — that it adds a tower every hour! Wow! Some clock! This claim seems as outlandish as saying Afghanistan is the greatest cricket team of all time, just because it made it to the Under-19 World Cup semi-finals in New Zealand.
Where is Hari Sadu?
Do you remember the old Naukri ad? It features an ill-tempered, evil boss who is universally hated and aptly called Hari Sadu. The boss’ assistant tells him the restaurant he wants reservation at, is on the line. Even as he tries to book a table for two, the man on the other end of the line seems to have a problem getting his name right.
At this time, one of his subordinates offers to help and does so by giving a cheeky expansion of the name — H for Hitler, A for arrogant, R for rascal and I for idiot — to the absolute delight of his peers and the shock of the boss. The tagline from the brand said, ‘Guess who has just heard from us?’
Clearly, a lot of young people leave their jobs because their immediate supervisor is insufferable. And while the ad may have offended a few employers, I think it was quite popular with younger people, whose bio-datas populate the brand’s website.
The brand recently changed its commercial for a more functional, less edgy and perhaps even less interesting one, featuring a number of bored, unwilling employees who have to be dragged to work on a Monday. Naukri offers itself as the alternative to a boring life at work — by helping them land jobs they will actually enjoy.
Now, irrespective of whether or not you’re looking for a change, which ad do you find more interesting? I realise that the brand has changed its positioning, but as a consumer, do I really care?
And men will always be men
Let me end with a new commercial, where, a young man wanting to impress a young woman on the road, attempts to change a car’s punctured tyre, presuming it was hers — only to realise later that it wasn’t!
But why do I prefer the earlier commercial, which features two guys with paunches (resembling mine), who suck it in with great effort to impress a young woman?
This is the eternal challenge — changes happen in both agencies and clients’ offices and those normally result in new advertising campaigns with different executions.