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Every time you’re surfing the channels on television, and making sense of the flurry of advertisements, chances are that the one thing that will register is how often a familiar, famous face shows up. Be it Virat Kohli, Alia Bhatt or Ranveer Singh, you definitely notice the celebs even as the ads fly by thick and fast, making it difficult to tell one from the other. There was a time when Sachin Tendulkar was almost synonymous with an MRF or Boost, a time when consumers could actually recall which popular face endorsed a brand or product line. Today, most A-list stars lend their image to an average of 15 brands each, which begs the question – are celebrity-led advertisements becoming more about the celebrity than the product? Also, are celebrities diluting their own brand value by endorsing everything - from toothpaste and soap to mobile phones?

According to a report released earlier this year by corporate advisers Duff & Phelps, the overall brand value of the top 15 Indian celebrities was $712 million in 2017. Actor Ranveer Singh today endorses 25 brands across categories, while Virat Kohli, Akshay Kumar, Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan are ambassadors for more than 20 brands each. What can brands do, then, to stand out? And how do the stars keep their credibility intact?

Ultimately, everything comes down to brand fit and credibility. Consumers can see through inauthentic messaging and force fits, points out Harish Bijoor, brand expert & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. “When I recommend a celebrity for a brand, for me the ultimate issue in focus is, does the celebrity fit the brand and is there an umbilical connect for a start. I hate force-fits and dissuade force-fits altogether. Does the brand look comfortable with the celebrity in question, and is the celebrity looking hunky dory in its company?” asks Bijoor.

As a practice, celebrity endorsement is signed based on a particular brand category. Therefore, it is exclusive to that particular category. Vinit Karnik, Business Head, ESP Properties, the Entertainment & Sports division of GroupM, notes that this exclusivity plays a critical role as a differentiator in the marketplace and in the minds of consumers. “The challenge advertisers have is to design a creative campaign for multimedia. Creative treatment for the digital media needs to be different than traditional media and the celebrity can add value to the role he/she plays in the creative by breaking the clutter,” Karnik explains.

Bling Entertainment, a celebrity management company, manages personalities like Kangana Ranaut, Vidya Balan and Guru Randhawa, while also working with brands to execute celebrity endorsement deals on their behalf. Swati Iyer, Director & Business Head, Bling Entertainment explains that celebrities, when used judiciously, can provide a point of differentiation based on the values and attributes they stand for, irrespective of how many brands they represent. She explains, “A lot depends on the product life cycle of the brand and its target audience. Sometimes, in a highly competitive market, a brand may still go with a face that is endorsing 20 other brands as at that time they need instant awareness to be built up. However most brands realize that in this market, popular celebrities very rarely may endorse less than 10-12 brands so instead of avoiding them altogether, they create memorable campaigns that stand out due to more effective messaging.”

Sunil Raina, President and Business Head, Lava International Limited, agrees with Iyer and points out that a brand must work to create noticeable campaigns with an endorser who shares similar attributes. He says, “Celebrity endorsements are effective when they truly embody what the brand and its proposition stand for. Lava’s brand proposition of reliability worked beautifully with Mahendra Singh Dhoni as our ambassador.”

Lesser exposed celebrities might actually add more value to a brand than someone endorsing a slew of products. The endorsement has to move the product off dealer shelves. No other measure is acceptable, says Sandeep Goyal, Founder, Mogae Group, who has a PhD to his name for a thesis on celebrities as human brands. “Multiple endorsements by celebrities kills value for the brand, leads to consumer confusion and dilution of message. An overexposed Virat diminishes his own effectiveness to sell, while a lesser exposed Rohit Sharma could work better, but then agency creative teams have to work much harder on ideation and execution. Most celebrity ads look as if they are (and they actually are) shot in a rush because the celebrity has no time available to do justice to a script,” he says. He adds that Kent RO has gained more from using Hema Malini than any brand working with an A-list star.

Abhishek Maloo, Head-Marketing, TBZ-The Original cautions against the one-size-fits-all method to celebrity associations. Celebrity associations must be long term, ambassadors must not be overexposed and must be clear of controversies. “The days of celebrities endorsing anything and brands just riding the wave are over. No one really believes that celebrities use the brand they endorse. However, celebrity endorsements raise curiosity and help break clutter for a brand if used tactfully,” Maloo says. Brands like Philips have been able to build recall by appointing different personalities for each product line. Gulbahar Taurani, Marketing Director for Philips Personal Health, Indian subcontinent, explains the reasoning behind the appointment of each brand ambassador. “For our air purification segment, we got on board Rahul Dravid, in whom we found a partner who embodies the sense of trust and dependability that Philips itself is associated with. We also recently appointed Virat Kohli as the brand ambassador of the male grooming segment because he can reach out to the Indian youth. Alia Bhatt is the brand ambassador for the beauty segment as she is a confident personality. We also got Chef Ranveer Brar on board for the kitchen appliances category in India,” Taurani says. He notes that these partnerships perform an effective role in increasing the credibility of a brand, rather than the attractiveness of the endorser.

What a celebrity does is to reinforce her/his association and star status to ensure that the consumer’s mind is constantly refreshed around the brand. It’s like a shot-in-the-arm, and effective for an impactful launch or a campaign burst. However, there is a flip side that has become relevant, considering the newer sensitivities of young consumers, believes Mansoor Ali, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Hamdard India. Consumers don’t like it when brands are patronizing in their communication. “Young consumers do not like being talked down to. For them, an ad campaign based on deep product insights, relatable to the new world that they live in has more relevance. They connect more to such campaigns and relate to them on a personal level,” Ali opines.

One celebrity representing too many brands may cause a sense of confusion and fatigue for consumers, and they may struggle to tell one commercial from the other. This is especially true if the same person endorses products within one category. Mayank Shah, Category Head, Parle Products, believes that synergies need to exist between the brand and the endorser. “Brands are definitely better off working with someone who will pick and choose the products and companies he associates with. I would think twice before working with someone who lends his/her name to too many companies,” he says.

The one dubious measurement that all brands use to measure the effectiveness of influencer marketing is the number of views and impressions. While the numbers are important, the objective of influencer marketing is pretty much the same as that of celebrity endorsements. One Digital Entertainment, which works with artistes like Badshah, Raftaar and Arman Malik, strive to create a bridge between the audience and brand objectives largely on digital platforms. Gurpreet Singh, COO & Co-founder, One Digital Entertainment always advises brands to pay attention to more than just the numbers when it comes to evaluating campaigns. He says, “There is no point in making ads which look great, but which no one is sharing or talking about. You then have to pay additional money to market these ads. Another thing we pay attention to when we work with our artistes and with different brands is the authenticity factor. A lot of influencers today, and our artistes as well, are very clear that they want to only partner with brands that reflect their principles and values. So our endeavour with every piece of work is to create content that shows the synergy between the brand and artiste – that is definitely one way to get more views and reach in a more organic way.”

With Digital growing to become more prominent, micro-influencers with small and targeted sets of followers are able to connect with fans more effectively. This is why brands are also using Bollywood and cricket stars on social media platforms extensively. Anup Sharma, Communications Consultant, points out, “With the rise of brands with a purpose, today celebrities are associating with brands in raising issues. A good example is Chef Vikas Khanna working closely with Quaker Oats in highlighting the issue of hunger and malnutrition in the country.”

Chtrbox, the influencer marketing platform, has studied the difference in engagement metrics between microinfluencers and celebrities on social media platforms. On an average, though celebrities have significantly higher follower counts than micro-influencers, their engagement rate reaches a maximum of 4.45%. On the other hand, microinfluencers on an average see almost twice that rate of engagement at about 8.83%. Pranay Swarup, Co-Founder & CEO of Chtrbox.com, explains, “In many cases, micro-influencers also have a greater engagement rate than their extremely popular counterparts. But this doesn’t erase the importance of a celebrity’s reach and influence. The ideal campaign strategy for a brand would be to have a combination of mega, macro and microinfluencers. This ensures that all platforms of communication and reach are covered.”

Stars showed up in nearly 24% of Indian ads last year, according to market research agency Millward Brown. While that number has more than doubled over the past decade, it is off from its peak. Shudeep Majumdar, Co-founder, Zefmo Media Pvt. Ltd, an influencer marketing platform, points out that today local influencers are the most effective in smaller markets. “Brands today are looking at localizing content through local influencers to be more impactful in Tier II and Tier III cities rather than celebrity associations. In addition, the demand for regional influencers has witnessed a steep jump of almost 50% in 2018. These trends are likely to become even more pronounced in 2019,” concludes Majumdar.

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