Pepsico India this morning announced that it has signed on superstar Salman Khan as its brand ambassador for its flagship Pepsi Cola brand. Surprising as the choice is … an ageing 50+ Salman trying to woo a young cola generation … the new ambassador is also controversial and kind of contra-intuitive as a choice. But Pepsi surely has its reasons.
Salman Khan was the face of Thums Up for years and years. Then he did a stint for Mountain Dew for Pepsico. But he has been out of the fizzy drinks category for about three years now.
The choice of Salman Khan is surprising for more reasons than one. Top of the list of course is the long list of controversies surrounding Brand Salman. Most times, multinationals especially steer clear of having tainted celebrities helm their brands. Lots of global do’s and don’ts normally kick-in. Corporate reputation therefore governs most such choices. It must have taken brand managers at Pepsi India a lot of convincing internally and internationally to sign-on Salman, who has court convictions in a culpable homicide case for negligent driving where he killed one; and a conviction in the black buck poaching case where he has appealed a five-years imprisonment sentence. Very strong arguments must have been tabled to still push for Salman despite his colorful past.
From my very many years of studying ‘human brands’ my charitable view on the subject is that Salman is without doubt an ‘irreverent’ brand. Rebellious. Anti-establishment. Kind of ‘black sheep’. Someone who cares little for societal norms. Runs life by his own rules, his own convictions. Pepsi too has always prided itself in its twenty-years old ‘nothing official about it’ positioning. That has been the constant ignition for its swag. The choice of Salman could well be dictated by that mutual streak of irreverence. That is the easiest justification that I can think of. Though, for the record, the past Salman Khan stint with Pepsico lasted only about a year on Mountain Dew, way back in 2010-11, and Khan was dropped without much ceremony, making way for young unknown common faces.
The choice of Salman, this time around, especially at the onset of winter which is a low season for colas and fizzy drinks, may actually be more tactical than strategic. Khan’s Dabangg 3 is due for launch. The previous two editions of Dabangg have been huge successes. Breaking box-office records like never before. Salman himself has been praised to the skies by discerning critics for his Chulbul Pandey role. The normally reticent Anupama Chopra from NDTV wrote about his performance: “It's the role of a lifetime and Salman Khan bites into it like a starving man devours a feast. He inhabits it fully, strutting and swaggering and even, spoofing himself.” Even the Times of India went on record about the success of Dabangg to say, “ … ascribe its allure to the star charisma of Salman Khan, who has managed to carry off the over-the-top articulation of Chulbul Pandey with unbridled enthusiasm and zeal.” Pepsi could well be laying its bets on yet another super-duper blockbuster in Dabangg 3, that would carry Pepsi to much greater heights of proximity with the masses in the Hindi heartland.
Dabangg 3 was initially supposed to release on May 22, 2020, coinciding with Eid-ul-Fitr. But when Salman Khan’s other movie Inshallah got shelved, the release date of Dabangg 3 was advanced to 20 December, 2019 to benefit from the Christmas-New Year holidays at the end of the year. Dabangg 3 has all the past ingredients of success … Salman, Sonakshi Sinha, Arbaaz Khan, Mahie Gill all essaying roles that have endeared them to the audiences; and an unfailing formula that the Economic Times complemented Dabangg for its superlative commercial success, ‘despite having an “accent on inanity...” and “...complete incoherence in terms of plot and credibility.” ‘
So, if you read between the lines, Pepsi has really invested in Chulbul Pandey rather than Salman Khan. Invested in his mind-blowing popularity. Invested in the likely blockbuster success of the third edition of Dabangg. Which is clever thinking. And not a risky bet really.
Nevertheless, hitching a teenager-targetted Pepsi to an ageing and controversial Salman is still an adventure fraught with many dangers. Tactical gains from such an association really need to be seriously weighed against the imagery that this kind of partnership evokes in the long run. There are obvious short term gains. But brands like Pepsi have a history of over a hundred years, and a horizon of over a hundred countries. Short-term decisions can often hurt long-term.
Having said that, the Dabangg tsunami will most likely drown all the nay-sayers this Christmas. Salman, despite all his negatives, has the Midas Touch. There will be house-full signs all over the Hindi heartland this year-end, and that is the magic that Pepsi is encashing by signing up Sallu. It may well be a decision that will prove wise and winsome. Who knows?
(Dr. Sandeep Goyal is an expert on Human Brands.)