There is an old saying in some language that I don’t remember that goes “If you keep talking amongst the same community of people without interacting with the rest of the world, then your world will get defined by your language rather than your language being defined by the world”. This is so true of people following various professions. All professions actually see the developing of groups around a certain kind of vocabulary and this vocabulary reinforces the vocabulary. This is particularly true of the marketing world and the academic world. I happen to know that most times in academics in order to gain acceptance to into the hallowed portals of great institutions and to be recognised by people with formidable reputations certain kinds of language need to be used. Usually academic seminars are full of people who have puffed themselves up to unleash a certain kind of vocabulary on people who have come with similar vocabulary and thus the enchanted circle of academicians is created and perpetuated. In most instances this kind of description of reality ends up being fatuous and devoid of any meaningful content.
I have the pleasure of not only knowing the academic world and its unfortunate trappings but also that of the marketing world. It is a world in which homilies and platitudes are freely ad infinitum and ad absurdum without anyone realizing that this is getting them nowhere. One of the most frequently used expression in the marketing and business world is “thinking out of the box”. After having heard many people use this expression repeatedly I started asking them what this thing meant, how did it originate, what is the box and how does one get out of it. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that an overwhelming majority of them did not know the origins of the expression and simply thought that it was an expression to say do things differently. Though this understanding is not wrong at all, the sadness of it is that people when asked to do things differently actually find themselves thinking in the box while deluding themselves that they are doing something different. That is the reason why the market is always full of me too products and ad campaigns that mirror each other.
Since we are talking automotive here, let me recall the example of Bajaj Auto thinking out of the box. The first motorcycle that Bajaj launched in India, the Kawasaki Bajaj KB 100 came with features that did not exist on any two wheeler before it. It came with a tachometer, fuel gauge, a combined ignition and handlebar lock (and the handle bar could be locked in any direction), parking lights, a choke lever that could be used by the left thumb without having to take the hand off the handlebar and a helmet lock for people to securely lock up their helmets instead of having to carry them around. The product did not do too well in its initial iterations but in its second iteration as the RTZ it did reasonably well. Then Bajaj realized the folly of thinking in the box and decided to develop and four stroke motorcycle to rival the Hero Honda CD 100. The result of the out of the box thinking was the creation of a motorcycle that was costlier than the KB100 RTZ but one that did not have parking lights, did not have a combined lock for ignition and handlebar and the handlebar lock went to the ungainly position near the top of the front forks, a choke lever near the carburettor which entailed bending down, no tachometer, no fuel gauge and no helmet lock. The silencer looked exactly like the one on the Hero Honda CD100, the bike sounded like a CD100 and was devoid of all the cues of styling and design that the KB100 had and to top it all it was unimaginatively called the 4S, standing for 4 stroke.
This is the problem with MBA driven marketing culture which looks for ready made formulae to start producing things that will start making money from the first day. The film world is a bit like that. Stories of brothers or twins separated at birth but meeting later, six songs (of which at least four in some foreign location), 12 fights, evil mother in law, evil wife who is tamed like the proverbial shrew and the sundry baddies who are in some hundreds but are battered by the super man hero. Now if you are wondering why I am saying all this read on and the answer will be obvious. I am now going to launch into that intersection where me too marketing ideas meet me too film ideas and see the launch of products with film stars as brand ambassadors. Of course, in India cricketers are Gods so some of them have become brand ambassadors as well.
I am going to avoid going into consumer durables because we are an auto magazine. Let us look at how brand ambassadors have done in making successes out of products. It would not be wrong on my part to say that the one advertising campaign that stands out in the automotive world is the one involving Shah Rukh Khan in the launch of the Hyundai Santro. The advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi came up with a campaign that was truly path breaking and perhaps the product itself needed validation from a brand ambassador. The beauty of the campaign was the CEO or Hyundai Motors India chasing Shah Rukh Khan to get him to endorse the Santro and the actor asking if the car could do something or the other and the car doing all those things till finally Shah Rukh Khan asks for the keys of the car and agrees to endorse it. Let me quote marketing and advertising guru Sunu Sen here. He said celebrity endorsements work only if you show the celebrity doing what he is famous for, while endorsing a product or brand. Sen in fact found flaw with the Pepsi ad campaign which showed cricketers playing football.
To come back to the point about Shah Rukh Khan and the Santro. I said the car needed a brand ambassador at that time. So let me explain. To most Indians Hyundai was then an unknown name and quantity and to complicate things the Santro was being launched along with the Daewoo Matiz (and Daewoo had made themselves known because they were already in the market for a couple of years before Hyundai came in) and the Tata Indica. Not only was Hyundai an unknown entity, the Santro to complicate matters was not the greatest looking car, and that is putting things mildly. On the other hand there was the cutesy Matiz that had vowed audiences all over the world and the Indica on which rested the hopes and aspirations of a nation since it was a car made for India by an Indian company and top it all it did have good looks. So the Santro had all the qualities of a loser and to convert this loser into a winner a brand ambassador was required. Shah Rukh Khan fit the bill, a young hero known for action and with a wild fan following that encompassed both men and women and Hyundai and Saatchi and Saatchi produced a campaign that will be etched in the memories of Indians who saw it, forever.
So am I saying that celebrity brand endorsements are good and that they work? Au contraire my argument is that the Hyundai-Shah Rukh Khan campaign is the exception rather than the rule. Automotive marketing truly began in India only in the 1990s with the liberalization of the Indian economy and with a flood of foreign brands some well known and some unknown coming into the country. Hyundai did something novel, something that no one had done before in the automotive world and it worked. But Hyundai were very prudent, they did not extend Shah Rukh Khan’s endorsements to the Accent, the Elantra and the Sonata despite the last two needing some big marketing push. Shah Rukh Khan is reserved for pushing the Santro and later the i10. If Hyundai tried to capitalise on Shah Rukh Khan’s image for other cars in their portfolio the Khan magic would be lost and so they could not possibly use him for the Santro and its replacements.
Now let us take the case of Fiat. I have said enough about how much brand equity the company had and how it all got squandered thanks to their once partner PAL. So Fiat also seeks a brand ambassador and they choose a God from the other magnificent obsession of us Indians, cricket. And they chose no less a person than the great Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar was used to sell both the Siena and the Palio and to make things look impressive, the ad campaign revolved around Tendulkar’s moods as reflected in his clothes and demeanour with the one constant being the Fiat car (it was mostly the Siena). I am pretty confident that I am the only person in this country that actually remembers that marketing campaign. Fiat made Tendulkar shake hands with the great Michael Schumacher and gave him a Ferrari (which he recently sold to buy himself a Nissan GT-R) and none of all this worked. Fiat has so fallen below the sea level that their latest ad campaign even shows their cars underwater asking people how deep they are willing to dive to buy a Fiat. That ad campaign gets cent percent for honesty.
Then there was Sachin Tendulkar who was supposed to endorse the TVS Victor when it was launched. I don’t know what kind of arrangement TVS has with its ambassadors since there were perhaps two commercials that used Tendulkar while selling the Victor. Most of the time it was shown as a motorcycle for the family man who was carting his wife and children on the Victor. It sold well for sometime and the brand then got killed and we heard at the Auto Expo 2012 that by the end of this year the brand will be resurrected. TVS used MS Dhoni to show the toughness of the Star City which was the successor to the Victor but again he was used very sparingly. Now in the recent past TVS have yet again used Virat Kohli only fleetingly for their Sport motorcycle. My guess is that TVS tried a few ads with the cricketers to see if they can sell and when they found that they could not they just dropped them. If that is the case, sound thinking.
Now let us come to the mother of all celebrity endorsed marketing-advertising campaigns, the one used by Maruti Suzuki for its Versa. It has both father and son Bachans and the car bombed like there was no tomorrow. Finally it had to be despecced and sold as the Eeco for it to garner some sales numbers. Now the Force One SUV from Force Motors uses Amitabh and it seems that they have not realized that he is now a spent force and therefore should not be used as a brand ambassador.
Then there is Mahindra that used Bipasha Basu and now Kareena Kapoor to sell their scooters and both the actresses have not managed to get the Rodeo or the Flyte selling in significant numbers. They tried using Amir Khan for their Stallio and Mojo motorcycles. The Mojo lost its mojo even before it hit the market and the Stallio has stalled apparently for good. The Hero MotoCorp campaign for the Pleasure scooter using Priyanka Chopra did not succeed because of her but because of the brand equity that the company has built especially in the northern part of the country. Most folks buying are men and so the concept of exclusive showrooms called 4her came to an end.
And now to return to the man who actually put Hyundai on its feet, Shah Rukh Khan. His selling power after the success of the Santro was so over estimated that a company called LML hired him as brand ambassador to sell their Freedom range of motorcycles. The motorcycles did not sell and if anything significant happened then that must be the denting of the value of the Khan of all seasons. And now about to join the list of dubious brand ambassadors is the third Khan from Bollywood, Salman Khan. Suzuki has roped in the bad boy of Bollywood to promote their soon to be launched mass market motorcycle the Hayate. Intriguing choice indeed considering the fact that the man was dropped from being brand ambassador for Thums Up. All the best Suzuki, please believe me you need it.
And then there is Yamaha, which is flogging a dead horse that goes by the name of John Abraham. Yamaha at some point realized the pointlessness of using John Abraham and dropped him but picked him up again, for reasons best known to them alone. While their arch rival Honda sells in big numbers of a couple of lakh units per month, Yamaha and Suzuki are struggling to sell even 25% (combined) of Honda’s sales. Bajaj in the past used R Madhavan to promote their Saphire scooter that refused to sell. Kapil Dev tried selling the Kinetic Boss and failed.
And yet Suzuki signs up Salman Khan and Yamaha re-signs John Abraham. The problem is that the marketing personnel are busy consulting their handbooks of “how to sell duds” and since they don’t interact with the outside world too much they are going round in circles trying to think out of the box – one that does not exist. Film stars are people who have lost touch with their own people as are cricketers. The very adulation that makes them starts drives them away from the people and by asking a celebrity to endorse a product or a brand the managers are risking antagonizing people who do not like these stars. The best way to sell a product is create one after listening to what people want and then they will pick the product up, hype or no hype. But then in today’s world people do not listen just like they do not read. A sure fire way of getting out of touch with reality, something that people who themselves are out of touch with reality cannot fix.