Thursday, September 25, 2008

Never give up on the idea!

Celebrity value: Disgraced cricketer Shane Warne’s story lent credibility to Nike’s campaign.

Shane Warne was the ultimate celebrity of my time. He exhilarated fans and exasperated authorities and sponsors with the same ease with which he bowled the flipper. Like the great tennis player John McEnroe who was arguably Nike’s greatest flag bearer, Warne, another endorser of the brand, challenged the establishment and yet was a champion, which was the individuality that the brand portrayed and valued in its endorsers. After Warne’s phenomenal performance in the unforgettable 1999 World Cup in England, Nike produced an ad titled “Never give up”.

It was my favourite, as it showed Warne facing a number of challenges that might have seemed insurmountable to ordinary mortals, some of whom competed with him — his shoulder injury, the betting scandal, separation from his family and the ultimate insult — being dropped from the team that he was such an integral and important part of; and then the commercial ends with him making a brilliant comeback in the finals at Lords against a hapless Pakistan, which Australia won in a canter.

Like to all great work the response was extreme and not middle-of-the-road. As per Michael Simon, creative director of the Advertising agency Foot Cone Belding: “Blokes punched the air and went “Come on”. Women said I don’t care how good he is, he’s a nob.” As for me, the commercial made a profound impression on me, not only because Shane Warne was one of my favourite cricketers, but also because the idea was powerful. Warne was in the news for all the wrong reasons and had come out of the depths to the pinnacle as only he can do, and this commercial had captured that. Once again a clever scriptwriter had an idea that the celebrity had taken to the next level with his real-life story and rather than use the celebrity to prop up a weak idea as we see so often.

Reel life or real life

All of us are voyeurs in some sense of the term and love to peek into the lives of celebrities. The importance index of socialites seems to be directly proportionate to the gossip that they have access to about the celebrities that we all admire and yet we must concede that these same celebrities constantly provide grist to the gossip mill with their errors of omission and commission. Thank God for that, otherwise we would all be so bored! Of course, some of these are facts and not gossip as celebrity lives are open books.

It is common knowledge that M. S. Dhoni, India’s one-day and T20 captain (and at this point of time the hottest celebrity when it comes to sponsorships), was an indifferent student at best and has just now enrolled for a graduate course years after leaving school. Of course, one can be defensive about one’s lack of education or flaunt it. Or better still, let that be the idea of a television commercial for one of the myriad brands that one is endorsing.

Dhoni and Pepsi have done just that in the new “Youngistan” commercial. Although it is likely that you would have seen the commercial too, as it has got wide exposure, the script is still worth recounting. The commercial begins with Dhoni in an unlikely setting, the classroom, where he is clearly ill at ease. The teacher seems to revel in his role of increasing the young sportsman’s discomfiture and asks him his marks in Mathematics.

I am sure there will soon be another maxim that says that like you do not ask a man his salary and a woman her age, people must remember not to ask youngsters their marks in Maths! Dhoni sheepishly says 41, reminding me of my rank in class X, but back to the script!

The film gets into monologue mode where he says he realises he did not spend much time studying in school though he did spend time studying pitches and opposition bowlers’ minds as he examines someone who at close quarters looks surprisingly like Brett Lee. But he is mortal enough to concede that he has been unable to read the mind of Sreesanth who is gyrating in the background. He ends the commercial by saying that thanks to all his studies he has already won a world cup and the secret is to have a thirst for success.

Why do I like this commercial? Is it because it is true to Pepsi’s character of being for the young and young at heart? Is it because it appeals to the popular sentiment that my children seem to reflect that you do not have to study to be successful? Is it because the brand promise of quenching thirst is so deftly woven into the script? Is it because it is the story of the lad from Ranchi who is so far from us geographically and yet so close to our hearts? Is it because of the power of the idea that builds real life into a commercial that is endearing? Yes. Once again my submission to writers is: “Never give up on the power of the idea”. That and not the celebrity will make your commercial striking.

Clever writers too know the value of the presence and charisma that someone such as Dhoni brings to the script and table. He seems to have the same poise behind and in front of the wicket as he has in front of the camera. I wish I could say the same for some of our other cricketers who seem to be as nervous in front of the camera as they have been in their nineties.

Rejection is not the name of the game

There was a time when actors used to reject film scripts that were not challenging or interesting. Or so out-of-work actors claimed.

Looks like actors do not exercise the same level of restraint or judgment when it comes to choosing scripts for products that they endorse. It seems like they are guided by considerations of a quick buck. I recently had the misfortune of seeing another celebrity commercial featuring Preity Zinta of BSNL fame and you must forgive me if I do not get the script right, as the commercial made for agonising watching, much less for remembering. The action happens on a film set and we have a distraught actor saying that she is unable to concentrate on the lines of the film as her washing machine is not working. I am sure out-of-work actors do their own laundry and those that own cricket teams must do the team’s laundry as well, which explains her confusion. Preity Zinta seems to pick real losers when it comes to endorsement scripts. Given the increasing importance of actors in this entire celebrity environment one hopes that actors, who may have a limited understanding of branding, will at least have a better feel for the audience and exercise one level of quality control in the script. Well, there is no harm in hoping, is there?

Cricketers, actors, who else?

Our marketers and advertising agencies, despite all the hype about thinking differently and out of the box, end up being surprisingly predictable in their thinking and execution. Cricket and (hold your breath) films or entertainment seem to be the only two genres in their horizon. Dhoni endorses 12 brands at last count. Giving him a run for his money is Saif Ali Khan. Ads which were featuring Saif appeared for about 45 lakh seconds last year leaving behind Shah Rukh Khan with 42 lakh seconds and Big B with a mere 32 lakh seconds.

Younger actors are replacing the older actors. TVS, Sonata, Titan, Brylcreem, Lays, Taj Mahal Tea, Royal Stag, Pepsi, Toshiba, Videocon are all using celebrities. Surely our agencies, marketers and communication experts are taking the easy way out. Yet, there is no denying the fact that celebrities bring instant awareness to the brands they endorse, but yet the question must be asked: How many of these celebrities are part of the long-term strategy of the brand, like the Nike brand that this piece started with?

Never give up

Let me end with my familiar refrain. More and more companies are joining the celebrity bandwagon as they seem to be following the herd or getting satisfied with the awareness which is just one part of the whole buying equation. At the risk of sounding nostalgic one can only remember some long-term strategies like a continuing character that Surf Excel created in Lalitaji, Onida’s creation of the devil or Amul’s little moppet that still continues to be the longest running campaign. Maybe there is learning from the life and times of Shane Warne. In cricket and branding there can be no pain without gain.
Are you ready for the pain of the long term?

(Ramanujam Sridhar is the CEO of brandcomm and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)