Of celebrity endorsements, Pan Bahar and Pierce Brosnan

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Advertising is considered effective when it creates or builds affinity towards a brand or cause, leading to either an action (a sale when the opportunity arises, downloading an app, cutting out a coupon, calling a toll-free number etc.) or a behavioural or attitudinal change. An ad’s effect on sales is not immediately apparent or even possible to track as the subliminal messaging in an ad comes into effect when the occasion for category purchase kicks in. Behavioural or attitudinal change can come into play when a brand attempts to change its positioning or attempts to change or create a new habit among consumers.

Before the advertising: the product

When a brand succeeds in the market, the credit usually goes to the quality of the product, the positioning and to an extent the advertising (if it is good). Brands can succeed in the marketplace even if the advertising is mediocre or run-of-the-mill; there are several examples of brand successes with no mass-media advertising support too. But no amount of good advertising can sell a bad product.

A product is given shape into a brand after considerations about the market need the product meets, the segment it tries to appeal to, the positioning and lastly, the branding elements: packaging and advertising. The point I am trying to make is that very often brand owners create products which have little or no differentiation and rely heavily (solely, rather) on advertising to deliver everything – create differentiation, build preference and drive sales. I admit that it is not always possible to create a significant product-based differentiation especially in consumer goods. Many businesses and brands have been built without an inherent product advantage. Pricing, distribution, trade marketing and advertising have played a role in creating such brands – many examples abound, especially in consumer goods. Brand strategy is supposed to precede advertising strategy. Trouble is, advertising is the only strategy many brands have.

Why celebrities in advertising?

Every ad presented to a client company (at least the ones which run marketing in a professional manner) usually goes through a set process: defining the brand strategy, the opportunity or problem the brand communication must address, the advertising strategy and the creative execution. But very often, attention and energy is skewed towards the creative execution rather than on strategy. The reason: what is expected to deliver awareness and preference is the creative. It is one metric which brand managers love track -from relying on research to what their friends are talking about.

In that context, the presence of a celebrity is considered a sure shot way of gaining awareness. It is a proven way to gain traction, especially for challenger and new brands. If it weren’t giving great ROI, this practice would not be in vogue for so many years.

Celebrity advertising is an option which MNCs, local corporates, family run enterprises resort to. In my experience, brand owners (from any of the above categories) choose a celebrity to endorse their brand for one of these reasons:

Create awareness and visibility: as I said earlier, the presence of a celebrity increases the chances of people noticing an ad. Of course, as with everything else, there are pros and cons to every approach. Lack of credibility, surfeit of celebrity ads, a celebrity lending his or her name to too many brands, a mismatch between the brand values and celebrities persona are some of the cons.

Boss wants it: sometimes there isn’t any deep brand strategy behind the reason to go with celebrity advertising. The decision maker (usually the one who holds the purse strings) decides to sign up a celebrity and the team simply implements it.

Competition has one: a competing brand signing up a celebrity is a trigger for other brands in the category to follow suit.

Brand strategy demands it: very rarely do we see this case where the core brand strategy demans the use of celebrity. The one instance I can think of is Lux – where it has been positioned as the ‘beauty soap of film stars’ for decades. Snickers is another example of the core brand messaging (hunger filler) and the creative rendition (‘you are not your when you are hungry’) demanding a use of celebrity.

Good fit between the values of the brand and celebrity: this too is a rarity where the values a brand represents fits in with the values a celebrity represents and the approach fits the brand strategy as well.

Celebrity – creative executions

In terms of creative executions, the advertising pundits beleive that the most effective way is to use the celebrity as a character. But that requires a compelling story to be told and a relevant fit the celebrity character in it. The most common approach (and a lazy one, naturally) is to simply have the celebrity ‘endorse’ the brand crudely (celebrity as pack holder) or otherwise. And then come the usual problem-solution approach, talking heads and such like which are common in non-celebrity advertising too. Executing celebrity advertising has its own set of problems – from availability of the star in short notice, time & location constraints and so on.

The ‘celebrity as pack holder’ approach is an expensive way to buy awareness. But beyond creating awarenss it is unlikely to not do much else. The ads usually are run-of-the-mill and leaves the audience cold. The sheer media weightage delivers the goods as far as creating awareness is concerned.

Pan Bahar and Pierce Brosnan

Ads featuring celebrities have been talked about for various reasons primarily led by (a) the unusual portrayal of the star in the ad (b) choice of the celebrity itself and (c) the creative story telling in the ad. The Pan Bahar ad is being debated (and trolled) because of the seeming mismatch between the product and the celebrity. The ad has been dissed in social media, analysed in trade media and even got a mention in Time magazine and WSJ. In my view, if the objective was only to get the brand talked about it has succeeded spectacluarly. But what good is brand name awareness alone, that too among an audience which is not likely to augment sales of the brand? I doubt if the actual audience (or the potential audience) know of Pierce Brosnan and ‘transfer’ his qualiites to the brand. A lot of the negative feedback is also because of the category. While the brand owner attributes it to people confusing Pan Bahar with ghutka, fact is the product does carry a health warning.

There was a time when celebrities didn’t think too much about the brand being advertised (harmful products like tobacoo and alcohol were kosher). But times have changed. Am sure Pierce Brosnan and his team asked about the product details (celebrities usually do nowadays) but still went ahead with the endorsement. Such decisions affect the brand equity of the celebrity. In the movie M S Dhoni, an untold story there is a sequence where he reprimands another cricketer for consuming alcohol as he warns him that it could turn into an addiction. And then it is jarring to see M S Dhoni in an ad for brand McDowells (albeit surrogate).

Pan Bhar has bought brand name awareness in an expensive manner. I am not sure how it improves brand equity or sales among their core audience – an issue which is common to many celebrity endorsements.

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