If there is one celebrity brand that is being steered to a planned blueprint, it is surely that of Khiladi Akshay Kumar.
Over Independence Day, three very interesting commercials of Akshay Kumar got released. Created for the Sadak Suraksha Jeevan Raksha Road Safety campaign of The Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, the TVCs feature Akshay as a Mumbai Police cop.
In the first commercial, Akshay catches an errant driver wrongly entering a one-way street. Without appearing to reprimand the motorist, Akshay engages him in some very polite conversation, praising his father. The driver is a bit confused as Akshay goes on to recount how he has been reading the books of the driver’s father and only that very morning had garlanded the picture of the father. The driver tries to correct Akshay suggesting that he is perhaps confusing him with someone else as his father’s name is not Lokmanya Tilak. It is then that Akshay lands his punch. Oh! So your father is not Lokmanya Tilak, he asks incredulously. In the manner that you steered the car into Lokmanya Tilak Road, I thought it was your baap ka road! The ad scores a 10/10. Beautifully scripted but more importantly beautifully enacted by Akshay Kumar, the Sadak Suraksha Jeevan Raksha ad is one more carefully planned maneouver in the astutely orchestrated strategy that is being rolled out to build Akshay Kumar into India’s Mr. Do-Good.
Akshay Kumar started out in Bollywood as an action hero, best known for his martial arts. But his initial success came from the eminently successful Khiladi series … Khiladi, Main Khiladi Tu Anari, Sabse Bada Khiladi, Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi and International Khiladi (Khiladi 420 and Khiladi 786 followed many years later) … where he combined his good action hero image with good romance, an image further strengthened by the role he played in Dil To Pagal Hai in the 1997 super-hit movie that co-starred Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Karisma Kapoor.
Akshay Kumar has had many interesting roles to play over the past 25 years. He has played many shades of the cop in Khakee, Aan: Men At Work, Police Force: An Inside Story. He has played comedy to his very best with superhits Welcome, Hera Pheri, Mujhse Shaadhi Karogi, Bhagam Bhag, Heyy Babyy, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Singh is King, Singh is Bling and the Housefull series, and more.
But Akshay Kumar as an actor took a completely different turn with a new set of roles … socially responsible roles … that he started essaying with Rustom, Airlift, Baby, Jolly LLB 2 and Oh My God. Akshay further enhanced the Mr. Do-Good image with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Pad Man, both films many have said were made to please those in government. Khiladi Kumar’s release over this Independence Day, Gold, in a manner of speaking continues the do-gooder act.
The visibly planned transformation of Akshay Kumar has also been reflected in the roles that he has been playing in the more commercial world of advertising. His Kajaria tiles ad of 2016 where he played an Army man is full of buzz words like mitti ki hifazat, sanskaar, viraasat, desh ki bulandiyan, desh ki mitti and so on. In the commercials for Honda two-wheelers and even for Tata Ace trucks, Akshay has played roles that are goody-goody, clean and in ‘the-son-any-mother-would-be-proud-to-have’ kind of mould. With the three new commercials for the Sadak Suraksha Jeevan Raksha Road Safety campaign of The Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, Akshay has only further embellished the image of him being a guy who is squarely in the right quarter.
Back to the Sadak Suraksha Jeevan Raksha campaign, the second and third commercials are equally interesting. Akshay upbraids a young bike rider who is riding without a helmet, but with two girl companions in tow, for being perhaps the son of comedian Mehmood. But it is the third commercial with a Sardarji in an open jeep, driving without a seat belt, whose baap Akshay thinks is Dadabhai Naoroji, is actually the funniest in the series. Akshay is very convincing in his role as the traffic cop. His lines are very well written, and equally wittily delivered. The rest of the actors also perform well, making this new campaign, one of the best I have seen featuring a celebrity endorsee.
The interesting part of the Akshay Kumar story is that in the last three-five years, he has completely re-scripted his personal brand. While he did not completely move away from his action hero/romantic hero/comic hero personas, he assiduously cultivated a completely new avatar of himself as Mr. Clean, Mr. Do-Good, Mr. Mean-Good, Mr. Societal, Mr. Concerned … This entire transformation has not happened by accident. You can discern a clear and visible pattern in what Akshay Kumar is doing. He is slowly, but surely moving towards taking on the mantle of Amitabh Bachchan as India’s most Trusted human brand.
In a piece in the Business Standard last year, I had written how Amitabh Bachchan had emerged as the most 'trustworthy' celebrity, winning across geographies, demographics and income classifications in a study on Human Brands conducted in end-2015 that covered about 2,500 respondents across five cities. No mean achievement for a septuagenarian who less than 20 years ago was almost consigned to the dung-heap as a spent-force. 'Trustworthy' in that research mapped each celebrity over 64 parameters, was a combination of 'I-trust-him' and 'others-trust-him'. Plus was an amalgam of 'trusted', 'honest', 'reliable' and 'dependable'. Bachchan scored extremely high on most parameters and his combined score left all the Khans, all cricketers and all of Bollywood trailing.
In 2017, the Human Brands study was updated across five cities with a sample size slightly exceeding a thousand respondents. For the purposes of a follow-up piece in Business Standard, I segregated some of the attributes specific to Big B.
5 cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Pune and Bangalore) sample of 1020 respondents. Percentage agree
Amitabh Bachchan led across almost all the parameters above. Gravitas remains his strongest asset. His closest competitor on that is Rahul Dravid, with Akshay Kumar in third place. Interestingly Bachchan’s score on credibility is matched closest at 2nd place again by Akshay Kumar. In fact, Akshay outscores Bachchan on both Approachable and Fun. On Authority, Akhay Kumar is just next to SRK after Big B. His Honesty scores are also very close to Mr. Bachchan. From the above chart, Akshay Kumar is the closest to becoming an inheritor to the crown of Big B.
What has added greatly to Brand Akshay Kumar is that he has largely remained controversy-free. He is seen to be a good family man. In fact his wife Twinkle Khanna has emerged as a writer and high quality society lady in her own right, further enhancing the Akshay brand. While all of the ageing Khans have kind of struggled with roles intended to keep them looking in their romantic 2os and 30s, Akshay has boldly stepped out to play roles which have defined a ‘New, Improved Akshay Kumar’.
Akshay is bordering 50; he is beginning to grey. If he handles his personal brand well (and as of right now he is doing a fabulous job of it), he could be easily the first choice to replace Amitabh Bachchan in most brand endorsements. And perhaps even take his place in KBC soon. Akshay, as they say, lambi daud ka ghoda hai. He could well be the answer to, ‘After Big B, who?’
Sandeep Goyal is a PhD in Human Brands from FMS Delhi. He carefully monitors all movements in the celebrity space, especially related to endorsement advertising.