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Alokananda Chakraborty: Friends as brand endorsers

'Friends' are beginning to give Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Salman Khan a run for their money

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Airtel has an interesting campaign on air currently that says: “I, me, myself…boring hai/ ‘us’ and ‘we’ interesting hai/Internet hai toh friendship hai/Friendship hai toh sharing hai. This is a sequel to the immensely popular campaign from 2011 that said “Har ek friend zaroori hota hai”, which brought brand Airtel back into focus when Vodafone’s pug and and Idea’s were beginning to eclipse its visibility. Mind you, here we are not talking subscriber base or the pecking order in the India mobile phone market; this is simply about brand recall and the likeability factor.

Now look at another campaign from a brand in a completely unrelated category, chocolates. Film director and screenwriter Anurag Kashyap features in an ad supposedly created to introduce a new pack priced at Rs 10. The product is called With Friends. At the end of the ad the voice-over goes something like this: “Naya Cadbury shots with friends pack, ab dosto ke saath kuch meetha ho jaye.

I don’t know which of them burst onto the advertising space first, but till recently now it was Hindi film stars – big, small and somewhere in between – and cricketing icons – young, old and somewhere in between – who appeared to be the safest bets for Indian advertisers who were running out of ideas or dealing with some other sort of creative block. Suddenly friends and friendship seem to be the flavour of the season. The idea, evidently, is to ride on the immense goodwill that friends enjoy, and use the positive rub-off of the association to the brand’s benefit. Be it in terms of recall or likeability. Or both.

Now, the concept “bringing people together” has been widely used in the advertising of categories that target the youth in a big way. Think soft-drink brands Pepsi and Mountain Dew. In recent years, Thums Up has also joined the gang with “Aaj kuch toofani karte hai/dhadkan ke joshiley rocket udake/boring pe daring ka jacket chadake…” and so on.

The popular opinion is that beverage brands in particular portray themselves as best enjoyed with friends, be it a night out with the boys or an all-girl night in. And this is a global phenomenon. Some well-documented examples that come straight to mind are Chivas’ “Live with Chivalry” global effort that was launched in 2008, and Budweiser’s US campaign “Band of Buds”. While both the campaigns are based on the close association and the bonding that groups of friends enjoy, Chivas has taken a moral high ground in that it shows groups of men united through a chivalrous code of conduct, men who understand how true gentlemen should conduct themselves. Closer home, we have had a whole series of Bagpiper ads that run on the theme of “Khoob jamega rang jab mil baithenge teen yaar: aap, main aur Bagpiper”.

So what’s new? What is new is this accent not on the broad of bonding, but on friends in particular. Could this be a fallout of social networking? Of the growing size of online communities and shrinking size of real families? A social psychologist would probably explain better but while the list of endorsements by “friends” grows longer, let us focus on the two most recent endorsement deals that this particular species has struck. First, for the sheer convenience it affords and, second, for the circumstances that might have led to the line being taken.

Airtel has a strong reason for roping in an endorser of the stature of “friends”. The company is trying to live down the mixed messages some of its earlier advertising sent out. Take the one just preceding “Har ek…”: the campaign said “Dil jo chaahe paas laaye” without spelling out what the brand actually stood for or how it added value to the subscriber’s life. In came “friends” to make the brand more contemporary and youthful without alienating or compromising on Airtel’s older audience. “Friendship” as a mnemonic has been touched upon by other players in the category earlier — by brands such as Virgin Mobile and Tata DoCoMo. Airtel is trying to go beyond the frivolous — it hopes to strike a human connection, says the company’s advertising agency.

In the case of Cadbury, although the brand is a clear leader in the market, the category has been a victim of flat growth rates for a while now. And experts say even a leader needs a makeover for time to time to keep the brand relevant to consumers. The answer, as Cadbury saw it, lay in getting friends to endorse the brand.

These ads clearly point to one thing: if nothing else “friends” are something of a blessing for Indian advertisers when it comes to imparting ebullience and energy and, most importantly, respectability to brands. Especially to those in need of image enhancement or rejuvenation. But the question is: how long can these brands leverage the goodwill of friends given the burgeoning clutter of friends-endorsed ads?

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