The recent uproar over small finance bank AU Bank’s commercial featuring Aamir Khan and Kiara Advani (top picture) once again demonstrated the challenges brands expose themselves to while engaging with celebrities in today’s highly connected world.
While netizens were quick to criticise the brand’s stand on a religious tradition, a great deal of anger was directed at Khan, who was branded a hypocrite and ‘anti-national’. Although AU Bank promptly took down the ad, the backlash leads to an important question: Should brands revisit their partnerships with celebrities in today’s polarised times, where boycott calls are rampant and a cancel culture prevails?
A lot depends on how brands employ a celebrity endorser, says Dheeraj Sinha, CEO, Leo Burnett, South Asia and chairman at BBH India. In the case of the recent controversy, he recommends that brands keep the celebrity presence close to their proposition or product, rather than taking up a bigger social or cultural issue.
“Far too often, brands exceed their boundaries. They should examine how much credibility they have to question something that is cultural or religious. That said, there is still a lot of value in using celebrities. They are like visibility rockets and can drive quick awareness for brands,” he says.
Celebrity associations drive huge mass appeal but it is also no secret that they carry some real risks. Brands could find themselves embroiled in a controversy on account of the endorser’s views or actions.
“Endorser popularity fluctuates on the basis of factors like poor form in sports or a series of movie flops. Another risk is that sometimes a celebrity endorses a whole range of brands. That weakens the association of the celebrity with each of these brands,” notes Amit Wadhwa, CEO at Dentsu Creative India.
This is also why many brands now have a moral clause that allows termination or suspension of an association, should the celebrity get into a controversy that could drag the brand down.
Even at a time when influencer marketing has become mainstream, celebrity associations continue to bring longer payback, observes business strategist and independent director, Lloyd Mathias.
“Brands need to integrate a celebrity into their communication in a manner that works off the celebrity’s popularity and yet remains meaningful to their proposition. Using a celebrity only to beat media clutter is not just lazy marketing, it’s also counterproductive. Authenticity and consistency are key, so it appears that the endorser genuinely believes in the brand proposition,” he points out.
Another factor in play is that often because of their popularity, instead of the star amplifying a brand’s values, it is the celebrity’s values that get projected on to the brand.
For instance, when Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt found themselves in a controversy over comments that Kapoor once made about eating beef, netizens took to social media to attack various brands that the duo endorsed. In instances when the message is right or righteous, brands should back their celebrity endorsers, says Vishnu Srivatsav, NCD at 22feet Tribal Worldwide. “We’ve seen brands like Nike do it with Colin Kaepernick. But I’ve seen India’s largest brands backing down and refusing to engage. On a personal note, like someone once said, it’s not a principle unless it costs you something,” he adds.
Brands must also work closely with their PR teams, and anticipate risks. Says Krishna Iyer, director, marketing, MullenLowe Lintas Group, “Brands have played it safe by either issuing an apology, followed by pulling out the communication or celebrity. Be the blade of grass in a storm. When the wave subsides, you bounce back.”
Brands that got into deep water
With his son Aryan Khan arrested during a drug bust in 2021, Shah Rukh Khan and brand BYJU’s were trolled on social media Some leading brands temporarily distanced themselves from Deepika Padukone after she stood with student protestors at the JNU in 2020
Aamir Khan’s comments on rising intolerance in India saw Snapdeal face a severe user backlash in 2016; the brand did not renew its contract with the actor