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India's biggest stars bowling for the brand builders

March 08, 2008 15:52 IST

In Hollywood, it would be hard to imagine reigning megastars such as Brad Pitt or George Clooney diluting their celebrity status by endorsing products ranging from antiseptic cream to cheap mobile phone deals.In India, it is par for the course.

A visitor cannot set foot in the country without seeing on every television channel or city billboard the monarchs of the country's movie industry, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, backing almost any product willing to pay their fees.

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That trend is extending ever more strongly to the country's other national passion, cricket. The launch of a new competition based on a popular short form of the game, Twenty20, has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars of investment from companies keen to use the sport's heroes to pump up their brands.

"These stars are iconic people and they build iconic brands," says Colvyn Harris, chief executive of advertising agency JWT India, part of the WPP communications group. "Try as they might to do otherwise, most large brands in India will end up having to use a celebrity."

In a country whose emerging middle class has never seen many modern consumer brands, particularly international ones, celebrities are one way to get customers immediately to identify with a product.

For the top Indian movie stars, advertising has become almost as big a money-earner as film-making itself. The country's movie industry is the world's most prolific, producing more than 1,000 films a year, but the average production budget is pitiful compared with a Hollywood blockbuster. A top budget film in India costs about $10m compared with 10 times that in the US.

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Visitors to the website of the industrial group Emami, for instance, will find Mr Bachchan alongside Bollywood diva Kareena Kapoor endorsing Boroplus antiseptic cream and prickly heat formula. On another page, Shah Rukh Khan is dressed in a sage-like Chinese outfit to push Sona Chandi Chawanprash, a health supplement.

Mr Bachchan, known as the "Big B", reportedly earns Rs30m to Rs40m for an advertising deal while Shah Rukh Khan gets as much as Rs60m an ad.
But cricket is steadily catching up, with many advertisers looking for a better mix in marketing portfolios. Vishnu Bhagat, executive director of finance and operations at Reebok India, says: "There are only two things in India that touch the hearts and minds of everyone - cricket and Bollywood - so you need to be in both."

This trend has received a boost from moves by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the sport's national organising body, to launch in April the Indian Premier League, a new version of the game designed for prime-time television.

As part of the competition, last month it auctioned eight teams for a total of $724m to leading figures, from Shah Rukh Khan himself to India's richest industrialist Mukesh Ambani, and sold the television and promotional rights for more than $1bn to Sony and the Singapore-based World Sports Group.

The companies that invested in the sport are hoping it will be a huge boon for their brands. But it is the players who have the most to gain, whether from lavish fees or increased endorsements.

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Sachin Tendulkar, Indian cricket's undisputed mega-star, commands what some industry insiders estimate is Rs30m to Rs50m for endorsements. He pushes everything from Aviva insurance to Adidas sports gear. Younger players such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whose image sells GE Money, Brylcreem and Speed engine oil, might command as much as Rs17.5m per brand and have up to 20 brands in their stable.

But cricket is still a sport and the appeal of players depends on their performance. Vinita Bangard, chief operating officer of Percept Talent Management, says brands tend to be tolerant when great stars go through bad patches but have exit clauses in case their form collapses completely. "India is an extremely emotional country - if a player underperforms it does have repercussions on the brand."

Such considerations lead some advertisers to favour Bollywood. It has more stars, they are more versatile and most have wider appeal than the cricketers. After all, says Ms Bangard: "They're far better looking than a lot of cricketers."

Joe Leahy in Mumbai