After wrestler Sushil Kumar was arrested on murder charges, the old controversy around the brand ambassador impacting the fortunes of the endorsed brand resurfaced. There was much din and noise in earlier cases involving Saurav Ganguly and Akshay Kumar when their infirmities made the brands they were endorsing a laughing stock on social media. Both the brands, Fortune Oil and Dabur Chyawanprash, and their celebrity ambassadors were badly lampooned in earlier months.
So with Sushil Kumar now in jail, the team at the Indian Institute of Human Brands (IIHB) set out to ask consumers if the arrest of the fallen Olympian would impact their views on Patanjali Desi Ghee. A total of 332 respondents (M= 231, F=101), all in the 18-35 years age segment were telephonically contacted in the week of 7 June 2021. 87% of the respondents said that Patanjali Ghee had done no wrong. The celebrity’s personal morality was not the responsibility of the brand, and Kumar’s arrest in the murder case would not impact their choice or purchase of the ghee brand.
Olympic wrestler Sushil Kumar was arrested in Delhi last month in connection with the murder of a fellow wrestler. The victim, Sagar Dhankhar, was allegedly beaten during a fight involving rival wrestlers at the capital's wrestling academy on 4 May, and later died. Silver Olympic medallist Kumar, 37, then allegedly went on the run, travelling across India before being nabbed. Kumar won a freestyle wrestling Silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and a Bronze at Beijing four years earlier. He also won a world title, and Gold medals at the Commonwealth Games too.
Given his success, Sushil Kumar had been roped in by Patanjali Desi Ghee as their brand ambassador way back in 2015, and the relationship between the wrestler and the brand is said to be going strong even today. Patanjali Ghee’s ad spot opens with the line, ‘rasoi mein sirf khana hi nahi banta, bante hain sapne’. In parallel Sushil Kumar is seen exercising hard towards becoming a champion and his mother, passionately cooking for him in the kitchen. The ad draws a close relevance between home cooked food and success of a person with the sign-off ‘champion banney ki taakat’.
It is very interesting to see that consumers chose to draw a line between the celebrity Sushil Kumar’s personal conduct and his brand endorsement.
- Nearly 100% of respondents agreed that Sushil Kumar’s conduct was not to acceptable societal standards, and murder is serious stuff. Whether he is convicted or acquitted, his being accused of murder has brought ill-repute to the brand endorsed by him.
- 94% of respondents said they considered Sushil Kumar a negative endorsee after the murder rap.
- 87% of those surveyed said that Patanjali Ghee however should not in any way be connected to Sushil’s misdemeanors as the brand had done no wrong.
- 82% felt that the brand had made no over-claim with reference to the product, and Sushil’s involvement in the murder investigation did not bring down the brand in their esteem. They would continue to buy it.
- 84% actually called the Sushil incident “unfortunate” for the brand, Patanjali Ghee.
- 90% respondents felt Patanjali Ghee should not air the ad any more.
- 92% consumers said Patanjali Ghee should drop Sushil Kumar as a brand ambassador. 8% said he had yet to be convicted, hence not proven guilty.
The research findings actually completely exonerate the brand while holding the celebrity guilty of likely misconduct.
Former Indian captain Saurav Ganguly had borne the brunt of much trolling earlier this year for hyperbole in the advertising for Fortune oil. As the brand ambassador of Adani Wilmar’s Fortune rice bran oil, Ganguly’s ‘dada bole welcome to the 40s’ campaign for Fortune had been heavily promoted in previous months. Said to contain ‘gamma oryzanol’, Fortune had been claiming that it is ‘a heart health oil that gives you the power of immunity’. And to prove them completely wrong, Saurav Ganguly came down with a mild cardiac attack
that necessitated immediate angioplasty that found three blocked blood vessels, requiring three stents to be placed instantly. For Fortune oils, the heart attack turned into a massive PR misfortune.
Akshay Kumar had reported in sick in early April this year, testing positive for Covid-19, and in fact had to be admitted to hospital in Mumbai. He was immediately on the receiving end of much light-hearted trolling: as brand ambassador for Dabur Chyawanprash
, he has been the face of all the communication put out by the brand claiming, “Protection against Covid-19 with 2 spoons of Chyawanprash daily” works beautifully. Now that the claim seemed all hype with Akshay coming down with Covid-19, the trolls had a field day, taking digs at him, and at Dabur’s do-good brand of Chyawanprash.
The verdict in the Sushil Kumar episode seems different because the brand has not got cornered for any product related hype. Yes, the celebrity endorser has faltered and fallen, but consumers see that as no fault of the brand. The clarity of understanding amongst consumers on the issue is actually good news for brands: they are getting discerning enough to separate the chaff from the grain.
The author is chief mentor, Indian Institute of Human Brands (IIHB) and managing director, Rediffusion