Sunday, June 07, 2015

Why 'Celebrity Endorsement' Is A Double-Edged Sword?

We all know the value of brand equity and the significant role it plays in the marketing strategy of every business. Increasing market share and customer acquisition (as well as retention) through the use of celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan or Priyanka Chopra and so on has been a consistent practice of brands for years now. And why not? These celebrities are strong brands in themselves and attract instant attention with their presence both on and off the screen.

Almost everyone is in on the act, ranging from cola giants to soaps to even sports leagues such as IPL, services like Tata Sky and news channels, including NDTV Prime. It is a recipe for success after all, since consumers are likely to be inspired to mimic the projected consumption habits of their idols.

Of course, many if not most ad campaigns exaggerate to a great extent the benefits of their products. You see a dusky Priyanka Chopra with whitened skin after using a face cream, Katrina Kaif's mane transformed into a shimmering vision after a shampoo and so on. It is highly unlikely that every user of a product enjoys such results. Value is delivered, yes, but in most cases not to the extent shown so graphically in the advertisement. (I have tried every shampoo I could get my hands on. Improvements? Yes. Miracles? No.)

Having worked in the advertising and marketing space for a few years, I understand the need for this exaggeration from the seller's point of view. It gets people to the stores and makes them buy their products in the hope that those miracles will happen for them too. And there are certainly plenty of happy customers. There is an inherent grab value attached to a film star or a sports star endorsing a brand versus the same product being advertised without a celebrity flogging it. This is what the brand banks on to bring in the big bucks.

But let's talk for a minute about the consumer. At some point we must also stop and ask ourselves -- Isn't Shah Rukh Khan, my favourite celebrity, my idol, tricking me into spending my money on something that is not going to change my life the way he promises on screen? Given that advertising is a game of who reels in more with the best kind of fishing rod (ad campaign), isn't there a line that defines how much is too much?

In recent years, there have been numerous cases of television and print ad campaigns that have enraged consumers with their racist, insensitive and negative messages warranting immediate public apologies and canning of the ads. Sometimes, the ads are merely considered disrespectful even though they are ostensibly promoting something socially desirable. Benetton tops the list with their well-known portfolio of controversial ad campaigns that sparked debate worldwide, such as the montage of the Pope locking lips with Egypt's Ahmed El-Tayeb as part of an anti-hate campaign.

Today there is also much talk about CSR being integral to brands and business for the future. And I agree -- social and environmental responsibility needs to ultimately be embedded in the vision and strategy of every company. But a company that claims to practice "marketing for good" and simultaneously steps on a lot of toes with borderline-unethical advertising campaigns, more so with the use of celebrities, will raise a lot of questions in the minds of consumers and perhaps even stain their credibility.

In a Nielsen study last year in the US, 900 people were questioned on what it is they look for when they buy products and services ranging from electronics to insurance. Forty-six percent of the target group said they would trust expert advice and rely on products whose advertising offers them that. If I want to buy medicine for a migraine, I would definitely be more influenced by a certified or well- known doctor on TV telling me to go buy a particular brand, than Ranbir Kapoor, for example.

Then there is Maggi, one of our country's favourite noodles snacks, particularly popular among children. It has come under the scanner because of allegations that some samples contain dangerous levels of lead and MSG. While Maggi awaits its fate, which reports say could well be a ban, the furore also brings into focus the social responsibility of celebrities to endorse products that are healthy for consumption (although their culpability may not extend to criminal cases being filed against them!)

As the media website Media Bistro puts it,"Fame does not make one an expert on anything other than being famous." Brands that recognise this and amend their strategies to become more socially and morally engaging with the use of expert endorsements instead of celebrities may just be able to connect (profitably) with consumers.

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