In the name of the father.....

In the name of the father, brands and holy cows

Roopen Roy

The first successful brand ambassador of a mass merchandise product in India was a film star. Lux soap was launched in India in 1929. The advertisement featured Leela Chitnis. It was branded as "the beauty soap of film stars”. In the West, numerous film stars from Elizabeth Taylor to Merlyn Monroe and from Jennifer Lopez to Catherine Zeta Jones have featured on the advertisements of this famous Unilever brand. The magic formula of associating the soap with the beauty and glamour of film stars has worked wonders across cultures and generations and around the globe.

After Leela Chitnis, Lux has featured many stars in India from Madhubala to Aishwariya Rai and several in between to boost sales. Lakme another famous brand uses fashion shows for promotion. Stars like Deepika Padukone and Katrina Kaif walk the ramps for Lakme.

Cricket celebrities have gone further. They have promoted products that have nothing to do with the game of cricket. They promote a wide range of products: from steel rods to suitings, from mobile phones to personal computers. I suppose people who want to vend their products tend to believe that the association of a celebrity with their brand will send the sales of their products sky-rocketing.

There are contrarian thinkers too. I remember an advertisement of Heineken beer. It famously blended the Dutch traditions of being careful with money with the promotion of a brand that was quintessentially Dutch. It had the photograph of a Heineken glass overflowing with the frothy, amber drink. The copy read somewhat like this: “We could have spent a lot of money taking this photograph with beautiful models on a beach in the Caribbean drinking our beer”. And--- then came the punch line: “If you make a great beer, you do not have to make a great fuss.”

When a celebrity is picked, one must be thoughtful about his association with the product and the impact on the potential buyers and consumers. I would doubt seriously if Maqbool Fida Hussein-the famous painter, who takes pride in walking unshod, would be a great brand ambassador for Bally shoes. If a razor company wanted to pay a “tribute” to Tagore in its advertisements –it would be particularly inadvisable. It will not only evoke the ire of people in India (especially where I come from) for its poor taste –it will certainly not promote the sales of its razor blades.

It is believed that a cigar company once tried to use Bernard Shaw (who never smoked) as its brand ambassador by declaring in his name: “I do not smoke, not even Abdullah cigars.” Churchill may have been a better ambassador for Havana cigars. I must hasten to add, however, that “Churchill” cigars are sold but they are not a brand of cigars as commonly misunderstood. “Churchill” refers to a particular size of cigar: 7 inches long with a ring gauge of 47 manufactured by the Cuban factory that produces the Romeo Y Julieta brand.

One must be careful and sensitive while dealing with statesman and national leaders. We Indians are particularly touchy about our national leaders. Sam Pitroda created a fire storm once. While speaking to the students of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta he proclaimed that one could wear jeans, drink Scotch and yet remain a follower of Gandhi. I was not shocked then by the notion but somewhat perplexed by his choice of words .When I met him in person he recalled his comment and the furor it had created. He added that being in step with the times or making lifestyle choices did not act as a barrier to following Gandhiji’s teachings.

There is nothing wrong with keeping up with the changing times. Last week, Rahul Gandhi appeared in jeans to connect with Generation Y in a campus. Barack Obama uses Facebook skillfully. He used it recently to reach out directly and talk straight when some folks criticized him for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Shashi Tharoor is prolific on Twitter although he now understands the danger of messing around with holy cows in India.

But how do you explain what Mont Blanc did on October 2, 2009? A brand that is associated with the world’s finest writing instruments brought out a limited edition pen in India in the name of the father of our nation. The fountain pen is in 18-carat solid gold. It is engraved with Gandhiji's image, has a saffron-colored mandarin garnet on the clip and a rhodium-plated nib. The price tag of each pen : Rs 1.4 million. The limited edition has been released to pay “tribute” to Bapuji---- who preached “plain living and high thinking”. A tribute ? Excuse me!!!!

(Roopen Roy is the Managing Director of Deloitte Consulting, India. The views expressed in this article are his own).