By Alokananda Chakraborty
Has Byju’s just scored a self-goal? That’s the question most of social media is asking after news came in on Friday that the edtech startup has hired Lionel Messi as its brand ambassador. Byju’s is obviously hoping that the legendary footballer will help it dribble past the raging controversy over laying off a large number of people.
Apart from poor timing, the irony is hard to miss. One of the reason Byju’s cited in defence of the layoff decision was “to control budget spending and to optimise marketing and operational cost”. The more important question is appointing Messi worth the time and money for a home-grown brand like Byju’s?
The track record isn’t inspiring. This isn’t the first time that Messi has agreed to endorse an Indian brand. In 2015, Tata Motors had appointed the soccer icon as its global brand ambassador for its passenger vehicles for all its markets. The result didn’t exactly set the Yamuna on fire for the company, as evident from its sales numbers in that period.
Let’s look at other examples. Within months of launching a new campaign (created by DDB Mudra) with Pierce Brosnan in 2016, Pan Bahar was forced to issue a rejoinder to media that the brands advertised under the Hollywood actor’s aegis had “no tobacco, no nicotine content”. That followed Brosnan’s interview to American celebrity news portal and weekly magazine People, in which he accused Pan Bahar of “misleading” him about the nature of the product. He said the company had “grossly manipulated” media outlets to falsely present him as a brand ambassador for their entire product range (as opposed to advertising a single product, a mouth freshener) — something he said was in violation of his contract.
Take Micromax, for instance. It was one of the first Indian brands to sign on an international celebrity, actor Hugh Jackman, in 2013. At that time, Micromax was a leading manufacturer of mobile phones in the country, seen as a price warrior occupying a sweet spot among global brands such as Samsung, Nokia, LG and Apple.
As long as the brand’s ambitions were confined within India, it used Indian cricket and Bollywood celebrities such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Akshay Kumar and Kalki Koechlin. But once it started harbouring global ambitions, the made-in-India tag began to rankle. So, enter Jackman.
But did the strategy pay off?
“Both endorsements (Pierce Brosnan-Pan Bahar, Hugh Jackman-Micromax) are red flags on how not to use a celebrity,” says Kunal Sinha, group strategy officer, M&C Saatchi Indonesia. “The global celebrities did precious little for the brands. Brosnan raked up a fair bit of controversy, with the actor claiming he had no idea he was promoting a ‘betel brand’. Micromax used Jackman to signal its global ambitions and then sank without a trace. Both associations were stretched and a total waste of (lots of) money.”
Alessandro Giuliani, managing director, SDA Bocconi Asia Center, thinks such associations are a hazard given that the life span of such endorsements is very short.
“With Messi, it could get worse,” says Azaan Sait of The Hub Bengaluru. “In my opinion, the brand could have invested the money to retain and upskill their team. Today’s customers are smart, and they will see right through this strategy that placed ego above doing what is right.”
Some, however, say Byju’s has done the right thing. Says Shashank Sharma, co-founder & CEO of Expedify, “Byju’s has been eyeing rapid expansion outside India and there are few celebrities who are as universally loved as Messi. He also exemplifies ‘learning’, which is the central value proposition for Byju’s. And now with the rise of football viewership in India that will see a huge jump during the upcoming FIFA World Cup, the timing couldn’t have been better.”
Indeed, hiring global celebrities assures a very large reach and spike in attention, says Giuliani of SDA Bocconi Asia Center.
“The fact that we’re talking about this means that it has generated buzz, confusion and hype in the market,” adds Sait of The Hub Bengaluru.