Celebrities as Brand Ambassadors:
The 'Hang in There' Mantra
As a young management student I was taught that using a celebrity to promote a brand was a risky proposition. The risks, I can recall, included questions like "What if the celebrity's ratings were to drop? What if you could not handle a celebrity's tantrums? What if the celebrity was to become a super celebrity and dump your brand?"
I had forgotten this lesson until one winter morning in 1997 when I was getting ready to meet the Indian chess prodigy Viswanathan Anand and his wife, Aruna, for a cup of coffee. I did not share my apprehensions with my boss. But I did get two of my colleagues to join me to reinforce my decision if I were to overrule the lesson I had learnt years ago.
At the end of the meeting, I nervously proposed that Anand and Aruna meet up with NIIT's entire leadership team to understand the company vision, its innovative practices, the depth of instructional R&D and the entire education delivery process. We set apart two full days for this and went through a series of presentations, walkthroughs and discussions to make sure that Anand believed in our product offerings as much as we believed in him.
When NIIT announced its relationship a few months later, marketing gurus were the first to comment on the smart move and the great synergy between Vishy and NIIT! The coming together of the Champion of the Mind Game, chess, and the trainer of manpower for an equally cerebral activity, Computer Software, we knew, was just the beginning of a long relationship.
A million plus NIIT students and NIIT-ians cheered Vishy on every single day of the month-long NIIT-sponsored FIDE World Chess Championship played in New Delhi and Tehran in 1998-99. And the Chess Grandmaster won the hearts of a billion Indians by bagging the World Chess title.
The sight of hundreds of budding chess champions from around the world during the tournament and a 30-minute meeting with FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov changed NIIT's approach to associating with its brand ambassador. Kirsan shared with us the experience of the Russian state of Kalmakiya after introducing chess in schools. Not only did the students' improved concentration led to a better pass percentage but it also saw an equally dramatic drop in crime rate in the state.
An NIIT Mind Champion's Academy (MCA) with active support of Viswanathan Anand was born a year later to touch thousands of government schools where NIIT was imparting computer education. An attempt to take the game of chess to the deep interiors of the country soon took shape in the form of Chess Clubs, purely on a voluntary basis and costing them not a penny.
This was Vishy's and NIIT's commitment to igniting a passion for chess in the young minds - so that one day we could proudly salute not one, but a hundred Viswanathan Anands.
Today, NIIT's MCA has grown to be the most comprehensive chess programme being run in the country. It works to a year-long calendar of tournaments that begin at the school level and go all the way up to the national championship.
To have grown to 4,000 government and private schools and nearly 200,000 students voluntarily is a magic that Vishy expected from NIIT. But what he could not have imagined is that MCA has managed to produce budding challengers to him so quickly and in such large numbers.
Viswanathan Anand's passion for Chess and imparting his tips for success were visible in his regular column "Success Mantras" that he contributed to several newspapers without charging them anything.
How has this 12-year-old celebrity-brand relationship - perhaps the longest in India - experience been? I must say both sides have had their challenges. Not every game was a cakewalk for Vishy. The Russian chess players like Vladimir Kramnik hung on to their World Chess title not by playing the game but by abstaining from the game. But Vishy's message was clear: You have to hang in there.
NIIT has been through the tough times of 2001-2002. That was when the Product Managers at NIIT would come and plead to me. Can you not pick up Vishy Anand's endorsement fee this year? And my message to them was clear as well - for a relationship to endure, you have to hang in there.
When I go to my alma mater a few weeks later my marketing mantra is going to be: Brands gain in strength by demonstrating passion, firing up the ambitions among larger audiences and delivering more than what's expected...time and again.
(Sanjiv Kataria, a strategic communications counsel, was brand custodian at NIIT until 2006. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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