Bollywood Goldrush: India's stars get ahead in advertising

Whether for soft drinks, hair oil or make-up, India's celebrities are making a fortune in endorsements, writes Andrew Buncombe

Andrew Buncombe
Thursday 03 November 2011 17:05

When it emerged that the Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor had in the same week signed up to be the celebrity face of both a property company and a line of Indian beauty products, it did not merit front-page news.

The 30-year-old actress – "a benchmark for confidence", according to one report – already endorses about 20 other products and is known for promoting everything from telephone services to laptop computers.

Such a lucrative portfolio certainly places Ms Kapoor in the upper league of celebrity endorsers. But, remarkably, there are a couple of her colleagues from the stratospheric heights of the movie and sporting worlds who put their names to even more products. A few years back, a number of the leading male stars represented dozens of items all at the same time.

In India, the role of so-called "brand ambassadors" is a growing industry worth an estimated £280m, and one that has surged in the past five years. It also appears to operate with a different internal logic to similar advertising elsewhere in the world; while in the West celebrity endorsers might worry about over-exposure, in India it appears that leading stars can advertise dozens of products without fear of diluting their own brand equity.

"There is no science to it," said Manish Porwal, an advertising-industry analyst who has, over the years, tracked the relative endorsement power of various Indian celebrities. "We thought the consumer would be irritated by seeing [a celebrity] all the time. Apparently, he is not."

Assessing the most powerful endorsers is not a simple task and there is no single measure. For years, the actor Aamir Khan would endorse only three or four products. Subsequently, he charged higher fees than many of his colleagues who endorsed more products. At the same time, the number of products endorsed does not necessarily equate with the largest financial haul. Different reports have claimed that one or other individual has the most impact on sales.

Aware of these complexities, Mr Porwal, while with his previous company, Percept Talent Management, in 2009 set about trying to measure the power and influence of various celebrities. His study, based on an assessment of an individual's media presence, popularity, image attributes, power of persuasion and exposure, found that the Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the leading celebrity, followed by actors Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Amitabh Bachchan, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, actor Hrithik Roshan, another cricketer Yuvraj Singh, and actors Katrina Kaif, Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan.

Almost all of those in the top 10 are endorsers of multiple brands, from beauty products to mobile phones, and yet few respondents said they felt that they suffered from over-exposure. By contrast, the people who respondents said they did not want to see more of were the actors Rakhi Sawant and Mallika Sherawat, and the Formula 1 driver Narain Karthikeyan.

Analysts say more research is required of the endorsement and advertising industry. Siddhartha Mukherjee, of the TAM media research company, claimed that 35 to 40 per cent of advertisements for products on Indian television involved a celebrity. Brand managers might question whether or not it was necessary to use a high-profile face, he said, but often the client insisted on doing so. "It is very rare that people will ask whether the celebrity will have the right impact. It's purely gut," he added.

Mr Mukherjee's most recently collated data suggest that, in terms of the percentage of airtime, the top five celebrities are Katrina Kaif, a British-born actress, Shah Rukh Khan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Kareena Kapoor and Sachin Tendulkar. The top five in terms of the numbers of products advertised (if actual products rather than simple brands are counted) are Dhoni (34 products), Khan (26), Kapoor (21), Tendulkar (19) and Kaif (18). The actor Amitabh Bachchan, 68, known within the world of Bollywood as the "Big B" and who once had dozens of products to his name, has downsized his endorsements to a relatively modest 15 – among them cement, suits, the state of Gujarat and a programme to eradicate leprosy within India.

Mr Porwal said he believed the reason it was possible for celebrities to endorse so many products without them suffering over-exposure was because when consumers were purchasing, they drew distinct lines. "When a person is buying a car, they are not thinking about buying a hair oil," he added.

Quite why a company opts for a specific celebrity is often opaque. Analysis suggests that Indian brand managers may, like elsewhere in the world, simply opt for the biggest star of the moment. Others suggest there may be more esoteric reasons: one said the Mayor Sandal brand of toiletries requested Mahendra Singh Dhoni as its ambassador because they shared the same initials.

In a statement, Unilever, the maker of Lakme beauty products, which has signed Ms Kapoor as its celebrity face, said: "Lakme, since its inception, has always celebrated beauty and as an ode to the contemporary Indian woman... Kareena Kapoor [is] a dynamic individual, a mesmerising beauty, a caring sister, a devoted daughter, a talented actress and, above all, an epitome of the confident Indian woman. She is a perfect fit for the brand as she embodies the quintessential essence of beauty, which the brand represents."

Kapoor sounded equally delighted by the arrangement, saying: "I'm very proud to be associated with a brand that introduced the concept of make-up to the Indian woman and today I'm excited to undertake this new journey with them."

Asked whether Kapoor's impact may be reduced as a result of the string of other products she endorses, Unilever said it had no comment. A spokesman for Kapoor could not be reached.

Some believe celebrities do little to build the actual brand. "Unlike in other countries, the celebrity has nothing to do with the category of item," said Suhel Seth, of the Delhi-based PR firm Counselage. "In India, they are there to cut through the clutter. It's a clutter-clearing device, not about equity building."

Mr Seth recently worked on a series of advertisements for the Tata Group which featured employees of the company rather than celebrities. He claimed the response it received was very enthusiastic. "I am against celebrity endorsements," he added. "If you have someone who advertises 35 products, how is the consumer supposed to remember which brand of tyre it is he endorses? It's silly for the brand. These ordinary people cut through the clutter more than celebrities do."

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