The Era of Zombie Brand Ambassadors


It is indeed a travesty when a celebrity driving a Maserati is promoting Maruti as his dream car. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that it wasn’t happening since Don Draper days but now everyone is under a miniscule microscope where even the brunch you had at Salt Bae’s Turkish restaurant Nusr Et will be promoted as digital headlines. And then the narrative doesn’t match by miles when you promote that humble vegan cafe chain back home. While talking to a generation who wants to have personalised conversations with their brands, between emulation and relatability, the latter will win almost every time.


Let’s start with a small test. Think of your two favorite shoes, cars, watches, denims and perfume brands. Now as of today how many of their brand ambassadors' names do you actually remember? Precisely.


How fickle is too fickle?


It definitely doesn’t help when in the day and age of immortal internet, stars shift to competitor camps faster than their breakups. Ranveer Singh jumps to Xiaomi from Vivo when his Vivo ads and memes are still fresh in the consumers minds. Or Salman Khan almost synonymous with Thumbs Up’s ‘Taste the Thunder’ casually switching to Pepsi with arguably average Swag Se Solo. The problem here isn’t that fans don’t want their idols to be richer just not at the cost of their loyalty sometimes built over decades. Will it be fair if they start reciprocating the same way? January Tom Cruise is the action God, come February it is Dwayne Johnson. Another problem with quick switchovers is trying to force fit during the organic and accountable decade.


The only anomaly for more than one reason of recent times is the triangle between Nike, Federer and Uniqlo. For starters here a legend at fag end of his career proactively wanted a collaboration that will last well after his playing years; something Nike doesn’t grant. He pitched himself to them and went on to become an active collaborator with Uniqlo much beyond the usual duties of brand ambassadorship, from co-designing to genuinely being invested in the brand - “That’s what’s so beautiful about Uniqlo—it’s accessible to people. Not everybody can afford Nike, too, or some other brands. It’s expensive. I know Uniqlo doesn’t have a store everywhere, like some other brands, but we’ll get there. We’ll work hard at it.” And people see as well as respect that kind of earnest long term logical commitment.


The fading correlation between celebrity’s star power to consumer’s purchase intent


Millennials are no longer smitten by the exclusive secret ingredient of super stars. A fraction of that magic aura came with the products and services they advocated. Now in 2020 they know the actual brand of cereals they munch, their dream vehicles, vacations and luxury designers they regularly collaborate with through social media. The halo is gone. And with it also has the sheen that was added to that box of cookies which had the smiling face of the celebrity you saw as a small window to being a part of their perfect lives. Now, Kendall Jenner at the zenith of her social media prowess can be removed from Pepsi a day after release because the content didn’t work and Hugh Jackman can’t rescue a depleting Micromax from feature rich amateur Chinese competition. Indian superstar Shahrukh Khan at his peak advocating FoodPanda over Zomato and Swiggy and guess which was the first to be sold? Or a Lady Gaga with her little monsters as the creative director and face of Polaroid can’t force a trend people are not ready to accept. That kind of gullibility doesn’t exist anymore. And hence if celebrities don’t become dynamic collaborators they are as good as any other good looking model in a technically flawless ad film. With just a global face the choice is between - millions of intangible views and millions of tangible dollars?


Campaign concept is the new superstar


Marilyn Monroe for Chanel No. 5 and James Bond for Aston Martin are two exemplary examples of how celebrity brand endorsements can sometimes transcend a product into legend status across generations. The present consumers living in the era of extraordinary advertising saturation, love to be called realist and look for relevance over royalty. Trust over stardom and free flowing over scripted. Influencers can reach them with the brand message, a stylish amplifier of sorts but actual thought behind the campaign and the resonance of product features will determine the success not the Everest of followers. (Even the world’s most followed & 21st century’s highest paid celebrity Cristiano Ronaldo can’t make the Japanese Facial Fitness Pao trend globally like Airpods, Kindle or FitBit)


No, don’t take my word for it. In the last decade the most famous campaigns across categories in every credible global list are - Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (2010), Coca-Cola's "Share a Coke" (2011), Volkswagen's "The Force" (2011), Red Bull’s “Stratos” jump (2012), Oreo's “Dunk In The Dark” (2013), Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” (2013), Always’ “Like A Girl (2014), Tide’s “Every Ad Is A Tide Ad” (2018). What’s the common denominator? None has a celebrity pushing or elevating the narrative. The idea laced with fine tuned insight finally is the hero like it always should have been.


Even in India the motherboard of celebrity worship, the college students now know if they want abs like Tiger Shroff & Disha Patani they probably shouldn't drink the sugar laced Pepsi they are promoting.


These ambassadors like Zombies bounce from one endorsement to another, not quite knowing why or what they are doing. Neither does the audience most times. Today even the average consumer researches before purchase, consults testimonials for denims and media reviews for IoT devices. They are intelligent enough to question now - Yes this benefits both the brand and the influencer, but is it actually going to benefit me? And that’s a question you won’t see answered in any brand endorsement contract.


Abhik Choudhury, January 2020


© Abhik Choudhury  2020