Jul 12, 2008

Entertainment - Southern Superstars and Brand Endorsements

CHENNAI: Kamal Haasan has probably lost count of the number of times he has been approached to endorse a brand. In fact, there have been offers till as recently as last year. “The money was too small and it was not hard to say no,” says the actor, laughing. More seriously, the actor’s discomfort with appearing in commercials is quite evident. “I think the cost of my own integrity is far greater,” he adds. Haasan like his contemporary Rajinikanth has stayed away from commercial endorsements and it is apparent that the decision is one of choice rather than default. “I am here to act and why should I do anything else?” asks Haasan. Rajinikanth, like him, has also been clear about why he will not be drawn anywhere close to either appearing in commercials or lending his name for anything beyond what he is best known for, which is acting. Take the case of late 2000 when a couple of senior officials at Star TV flew down to Chennai hoping to sew up a deal with the Southern superstar. The purpose of the visit was rope in Rajinikanth for a Kaun Banega Crorepati for Tamil satellite television. The success of the gameshow in Hindi with Amitabh Bachchan was a huge boost for Star and they were keen on doing something similar on Vijay TV. What transpired during that meeting was really informal conversation before the broadcasters decided to break the ice and ask the Tamil superstar if he would be open to playing the host for the Tamil version. Apparently, Rajinikanth was happy to be considered, but politely declined saying he was not ready for it. Keeping Rajinikanth and Haasan company is the Telugu star, Nagarjuna who again has steadfastly stayed away from brand associations. So, what would these super heros cost to a brand, if they were ever tempted to turn brand ambassadors. But, more about that a bit later. STARRY STATUS There are a couple of interesting similarities between Rajinikanth and Haasan. Both began their careers in the 70s and acted in many a film together as well. The peak to stardom too took place at pretty much the same time and for close to three decades, the two have controlled the fortunes of the Tamil film industry in more than one ways. Strangely enough, the phase during the 80s and to a large extent the 90s as well saw the South catering to a specific and a small audience. That limited the appeal of Rajinikanth and Hassan to Tamil Nadu and other parts of the South in addition to having a small spillover in Tamil-speaking countries like Singapore and Malaysia. “Around 10-15 years ago, films with these stars were not really watched a great deal in the North as was the case with stars from the East (Uttam Kumar and Biswajit). These actors were largely restricted to the South and East and therefore, they were never top of mind names to most people,” points out Sunil Alagh, Chairman, SKA Advisors and well known brand consultant. At that stage, it was more than common to watch a Dharmendra or a Rajesh Khanna or even a Sanjeev Kumar being in the brand endorsement story in some form. Those from the era of the late 70s or early 80s would find it hard to recall too many advertisements with Southern stars barring those with Jaya Prada for a saree brand or a handful of male stars making a rare appearance. “It’s not a problem at the brand’s end. It’s a lack of inclination at the star’s end,” points out Vivek Kamath, Director, Matrix Entertainment, a celebrity management firm. For Rajinikanth and Haasan, their iconic status often comes in the way of endorsing brands. Films and politics are often closely interlinked and messages made through films often have significant political overtones. It is this image which often needs to be managed carefully

Haasan, for his part, thinks there are other things to be looked at while doing endorsements. “There are always issues of products being spurious or being injurious to health like cigarette smoking. These things make me uncomfortable,” he says. Advertisers offer another point of view. “Actors in the South are choosy about the brands they endorse because the brand’s fortunes are linked to the film’s fortunes. The failure of a brand, for instance, could directly affect the perception of the star’s next movie,” says S. Radhakrishnan, President, Mudra (South). Instances like Kerala superstar, Mammooty’s decision not to endorse Coca-Cola was after the brand ran into problems with activists in the state are not a rarity. Likewise, Nagarjuna, the Telugu industry’s star, is seen only in messages related to a social cause. BRAND WORTHY? The scarcity factor is what Rajinikanth and Haasan bank on. Their films are released on an infrequent basis (a release very 1½ -2 years) compared to their counterparts in Bollywood who often have three releases each year. More importantly, both these stars could become a lot more expensive if they chose to star in advertisements. “Economies of scale may be a deterrent in the case of Southern stars as investments on them need to be monetized over one or two or at best a few states,” says Manish Porwal, CEO, Percept Talent Management. None of that has actually been a deterrent for some innovative people. Of course, there have been interesting cases of a still from a Rajinikanth’s film from the early 90s, Muthu on the wrapper of a chips brand manufactured by Japanese food company, Tohato. This was not courtesy a deal signed with the actor but was instead the result of the star’s popularity in Japan which the company capitalized on. Interestingly, it was Muthu that was among the earliest films of Rajinikanth with political overtones that resulted in the buzz in about the star’s foray into Tamil Nadu politics. The release of 'Sivaji — The Boss' was also accompanied by talks that a leading soft drinks manufacturer came close to clinching a deal with him. This involved Rajinikanth’s face on the bottle cap. Apparently, the star was not too kicked with the idea. Haasan admits that there was a temptation to take the plunge at some stage. “Sometimes, I guess all of us need the money. Having said that, there are no regrets since it is important to enjoy my acting,” he says quite firmly. Advertising industry executives think it would be anything but cheap to get these stars. They opine that it would be at least twice as much as what the Bollywood stars charge. Logically, it could be only the soft drink manufacturers or mobile service providers who could make investments of that magnitude. On the face of it, there does seem to be a huge market for these stars. “Yes, there will be a lot of advertisers who will be willing to sign on Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Of course, they will be very expensive as a proposition and in the logical world of marketing may not be value for money in most cases,” says Percept’s Porwal. With both these stars having had unimaginably long runs at the box office, the reason to endorse brands gets only stronger over time. Other younger stars from Tamil Nadu and other states in the South have done a great deal though which has now resulted in greater leveling amongst stars from all regions. “This is due to greater media exposure and the Indian youth becoming more universal in their aspirations and appreciation. Therefore, age is against Kamal and Rajini and the younger stars like Madhavan in Tamil Nadu and Chetan in Karnataka having higher levels of appeal,” maintains SKA Advisors’ Alagh. Without a doubt, these two mega-stars are finicky about what their public image is. Their visuals in the smallest barber shops in Tamil Nadu or even the garish posters in auto-rickshaws are more the exception than the rule. Till then advertisers will have to work just a little bit harder

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