The flip side of being a brand icon

In modern, consumerist India, brands are everything. Celebrities too are revered, given almost a god-like status in some cases. A marriage between the two was always on and consequently, the association between a brand and the endorser is deep. The question then is, when and to what extent does one start to adversely affect the other for no apparent fault of the other.

Aamir Khan has waded into a storm, head-on, with his statements on intolerance and the atmosphere of fear in India. Given his background, quality of work and track record of inviting backlash, one would doubt that he did so unwittingly. This write-up isn’t an endorsement or condemnation of his views or even whether he was being reasonable in saying he considered the possibility of leaving the country. Rather, the sensitivity over brand endorsement is something worth considering, given the coldness that one usually sees in that aspect.

Soon after Aamir Khan’s statement, a combination of those disagreeing with this viewpoint, those offended by their star’s perceived readiness to shun their apparent affection and those loyal to the current political dispensation (which does seem overly and needlessly sensitive to criticism of any sort these days) immediately vented their ire on his most visible endorsement, Snapdeal. Their app rating was downgraded in Playstore (what does that achieve anyway?!) and the app itself was deleted from smartphones as a mark of protest (doubtless only until the next mega sale is announced, which may be precipitated by this controversy, surely) under a movement hash-tagged ‘#appwapasi’.

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Realizing the massive potential for loss of Gross Merchandise Value (GMV, or to put it very simply, revenue), Snapdeal snapped into damage control mode.  A statement was released, which read “Snapdeal is neither connected nor plays a role in comments made by Aamir Khan in his personal capacity. Snapdeal is a proud Indian company built by passionate young Indians focused on building an inclusive digital India”. This served two purposes – a) it left Snapdeal completely disassociated from Aamir Khan’s personal/political views as an individual (fair enough); and b) subtly showcased their buy in into Prime Minister Modi’s beloved ‘Digital India’ campaign (convenient). To what extent hyper-ventilating BJP supporters were placated is not known – one would have to do an analysis of pre and post-press release app deletion rates. That anyway isn’t the point. The larger issue is should the two (brand and endorser) affect each other in such an adverse manner. Fearing a similar backlash, Godrej hurriedly issued a preemptive statement soon after Snapdeal’s. “Aamir Khan’s contract with Godrej ended in March 2014. The said views are his personal and in no way connected to us”. Coca-Cola issued a relatively benign statement – “We have had no commercial association with Aamir Khan for several years and it is therefore out of bounds for us to comment on his remarks”. Safety first – both brands never felt the need to highlight the disassociation at any point earlier. Satirists too had a field day – they suggested that true patriots should not just delete the Snapdeal app, they should throw away their Tata Sky STBs, sell off Samsung mobile phones, and last but not the least, boycott ‘Incredible India’ by keeping foreign/Indian tourists out. The irony (and double whammy) is that while the brands above will not escape damage despite the press releases, true liberals will also end up boycotting them citing their perceived spinelessness!

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Prior to the controversy, the brands were happy to use the star’s appeal in a symbiotic relationship. Symbiotic, not parasitic since the star too was handsomely compensated for lending his name. So what keeps both parties content and prosperous? Answer: absence of passionate outbursts.

Consider a serial-endorser like Amitabh Bachchan who markets everything from jewelry to pens to entire States. He is never one to court controversy. Barring his social association with some unsavory political elements from UP, he does not link himself with any political camps. He is polite to a fault. He rarely opens his mouth publicly for anything other than dialogues or brand slogans. It’s like he almost doesn’t exist outside of his movies and ads!

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Further out, look at Roger Federer who has a most enviable brand endorsement portfolio – Gillette, Credit Suisse, Rolex, Lindt, Mercedes Benz, Nike, Wilson, Moët & Chandon, besides others. Again, a player who is a do-gooder, never courts controversy and wants to be nice to everyone (besides the odd spat with Djokovic and his family). Other, more emotional players like Nadal have in the past accused him of not taking a stand on behalf of the player’s body.

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The reason for both Federer’s and Bachchan’s guarded public stance is economics. When you have so much riding on you, prudence is not such a virtue but a necessity.

So how ought to these commercial relationships work? The fear now is that after this controversy, Indian brand endorsement contracts may become much tighter in terms of both what the brand ambassador can / can’t do (even in his/her personal capacity and time) if it affects the brand, and include damage-mitigation and cost recovery mechanisms. Goes without saying that in a country defined by emotion, everything will affect the brand. At the first whiff of a threat to brand value or revenues, the association will be abruptly and crudely killed. Social Media – where every user is an objective and well-informed reporter, and every post is the distilled, honest truth – will be the great facilitator for adding fuel to fire. That is the overt part. In terms of the under-current, this will no doubt cause celebrities who have way too much money riding on them to clam up – much like the much-loved Mr.Federer and Mr.Bachchan.

And what of the inverse? What happens when the star’s appeal is affected by the controversy around the brand? This happened in the case of Madhuri Dixit and Maggi Noodles (Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta, among others, also helped market Maggi but escaped controversy possibly because they did not harp on the health virtues of consuming the plasticky mass, unlike Madhuri Dixit). Does she have recourse to Nestlé? I doubt it.

As for Aamir Khan, a lot is at stake financially. In his heyday, when he was the highest paid endorser, earnings reached Rs5-7crs per day of work. Then again, he can probably rest assured that public memory is about as short as Amit Shah’s temper. One definite outcome is that he will per force need to turn as choosy about brand endorsements as he is about the movie roles he signs up for – if he opts to stay back in India and doesn’t want to clam up, there may not be many brands lining up with contracts.

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