Celebrities and ambassadors not living up to the brand principles always brings out the social media trolls to play. This year began with Sourav Ganguly's much-publicised heart attack, especially at the back of the former cricketer endorsing Adani Wilmar’s Fortune rice bran oil; the product claims to strengthen heart health. Fortune and Ganguly were both roasted on social media, while questions were raised about the oil’s efficacy.
The latest celebrity at the receiving end of similar backlash is actor Akshay Kumar, who tested positive for Covid. Kumar is the brand ambassador for Dabur Chyawanprash, which has 'cross my heart and hope to die' images of him plastered across the advertisements which claim to provide immunity from Covid-19.
However, does a brand deserve blame for misleading its users? Or does the celebrity, for endorsing a brand that doesn’t live up to its claims? We delve deeper to find out.
Behind brand and celebrity trolling
"A badly behaved celebrity ambassador as the face of a rebel brand may not be a problem. But if the same celebrity is the face of a ‘sanskari’ brand that espouses high moral values, then it’s a conflict and will result in trolling," said Sourabh Mishra, co-founder and managing partner – branding, Azendor Consulting.
Backlash does make brands more conscious about the product claims the brand pitches through the celebrity. Addressing this, Tarun Rai, chairman and group CEO, Wunderman Thompson, South Asia said, "The more far-fetched the claims, the more the risk. Brands run this risk even without celebrities, who just fast-track the problem because of their visibility and social media status."
From the brand's perspective, Babita Baruah, managing partner, GTB India weighed in with, "Many brands approach celebrities by considering the popularity list. I would go by putting the brand role on the table first and mapping which celebrity can be the most trusted message endorser."
Role of creative agencies
Bringing to life a powerful brand idea is the forte of a good creative agency. A brand that is already well-defined can then use a celebrity to add to its established foundation. Validating this thought, Mishra believes that a strong brand foundation can make celebrity-led communication very attractive and vice-versa.
Contrary to popular belief, a celebrity-brand relationship heavily involves a creative agency’s opinion. While assumptions suggest that any sort of ads using celebrities turns out to be plain vanilla, Anil Nair, CEO, VMLY&R India opposes the thought.
He says, "Not all celebrity-led ads are boring or end up making the creators of that communication lazy. There are enough examples of campaigns where the brand and the celebrity have symbiotically fed into each other and have had long relationships, and in many cases even entertained consumers in the process."
Baruah is of the view that no advertising today can afford to be ‘plain vanilla’ and that a brand that relies entirely on the celebrity to do the creative job is worse than just 'boring' since it would push good resources down the proverbial drain.
On the flipside, Anupama Ramaswamy, managing partner and national creative director, Dentsu Impact, believes that limited time with celebrities on set does tend to make scripts a bit vanilla.
Rai explains that shifting the focus of the creative from the brand to the celebrity is lazy and poor advertising. "This happens very often in celebrity communication. One trick to prevent this is to ask whether the piece of advertising is engaging, on message, and focused on the brand, even without a celebrity,” he added.
Ambassadors’ value add
In a cluttered market, celebrities and influencers do the job of helping a brand stand out. "For the target segment that religiously follows the celebrity, the credibility of the brand’s message increases. The halo effect of a celebrity is one of the most effective ways to create the desired brand image," says Vipul Oberoi, chief marketing officer – IIFL Finance.
Speaking about the checklist while picking out an endorser for her brand, Poulomi Roy, chief marketing officer, RSH Global says, "We first decide the strategy, then figure out the narrative and its tonality, and only then reach out to a celebrity or influencer who would fit the bill. It’s never the other way around."
Damage-control for brands
When caught in any controversy, the best thing for a brand to do is to come clean and have an open discussion with its consumers about what happened, suggests Mishra, who calls both ambassadors, Ganguly and Kumar as very good fits for the brands they endorse. "If the brands had over-promised saying 'you will never get a heart attack if you use ‘x’', then there would have been an issue. If the brand transparently addresses these issues, its core audience will give them a fair hearing," he added.
Talking about the possibility of sales being impacted due to such controversies, Roy points out that the sales needle moves because of various factors, especially in the FMCG industry, and is not only associated with a celebrity or an influencer. However, Oberoi and Roy admit to never having faced a similar situation.
When it comes down to the termination of an endorser, Oberoi explains that brands always have the option to terminate an agreement with the ambassador, if he or she is not accused, but charged with illegal acts. Nevertheless, he says, "The client should first sit with the ambassador to understand his/her viewpoint. If the explanation is not satisfactory, it is best to part ways amicably. If a brand has decided to announce the separation to the general public, it should be drafted with the consent of both parties. Utilising such an opportunity to gain PR mileage and virality is uncalled for."
However, Roy believes that an act of nature where a celebrity gets ill after endorsing a healthcare brand can be defended intelligently.
Future of celebrity endorsements
When asked about the death of future celebrity endorsements, every respondent agreed to disagree. However, industry veterans believe that the media and consumer glare will force marketers, brand ambassadors, and agencies to choose their liaisons more carefully.
Speaking about the future of celebrity endorsements, Nair says, "Brand ambassadors play an important role as a fireplace and a force multiplier for certain brands at a specific point in their life. A few stray incidents will not change this time-tested equation between brand ambassadors and brands."
Baruah is certain that the current situations are a result of the consumers' increasing search for authenticity. She adds, "It isn’t about foregoing the use of ambassadors but deliberating upon what role or purpose the ambassador drives for the brand, or how close it is to his or her own life. I have never been in favour of mindless use of celebrities for short term eyeballs."
The phenomenon of brands being trolled for endorsing one product and sporting a competitor’s products is also common. In cases like these, experts believe that whether being seen in public sporting competition is detrimental or not depends more on past marketing communication. "Have you communicated that the celebrity uses only your product? Then being seen with a competitor brand indicates the endorsed brand is not favoured by the celebrity. Also, if it is a duopoly of sorts, the competitor will get undue mileage," Oberoi said.
On the other hand, Roy states that it is important to ensure that endorsers are not seen using a competition brand while making public appearances, especially with the prevalence of ‘trolls’ and ‘memers’ on social media.
However, in the end, all of it fizzles out. Commenting on this trolling phenomenon, Mishra quotes an old Bollywood song whose lyrics go by, “Kuchh toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna” (People will say something, it’s their job to) and states, "If there is no disconnect between what the brand stands for and what its ambassador’s behaviour is, then any trolling that happens should be ignored."