While the news of Sourav Ganguly’s heart attack in Kolkata triggered much sympathy and prayer amongst his myriad fans over the weekend, the internet and WhatsApp came alive with memes and forwards taking a dig at Fortune cooking oil.
Sourav Ganguly is the brand ambassador of Adani Wilmar’s Fortune rice bran oil. His ‘dada bole welcome to the 40s’ campaign for Fortune has been heavily promoted in recent months. Said to contain ‘gamma oryzanol’, Fortune has been claiming that it is ‘a heart health oil that gives you the power of immunity’. And to prove them completely wrong, Sourav 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 has turned into a PR misfortune of the titanic kind.
To be honest, the choice of Sourav as a brand ambassador was not really inappropriate. The product demanded a ‘senior’ endorser (40+) to advertise the product. Sourav with his 7,212 Test runs and 16 centuries, and 11,613 runs in 311 ODIs is a super-achiever – a hotshot India captain, now the President of the BCCI. At 48, he looked in the pink of health and appeared supremely fit and athletic. With well-controlled weight at 68 kilograms and a height of 180 cm, Sourav Ganguly was seemingly the epitome of good health. He gym-ed everyday (in fact the heart attack came just after a gym session) and no one at Fortune could have guessed that Sourav could soon be the victim of a Myocardial Infarction (MI).
I must have received 20-25 forwards of the Sourav Ganguly Fortune ad over the weekend with terse messages saying that Fortune oil 'se heart attack aa jaata hai. Ganguly ko aa gaya na?! Bhai bach ke'. Since I am in Chandigarh these days, more Punjabi friends with pro-farmer sympathies sent me virulent anti-Adani messages saying his Fortune oil gave Sourav Ganguly a heart attack; his anti-farmer positioning will do worse for the sons of the soil. Bad timing really for Fortune.
Twitter was abuzz with similar negativity. There was a lot of angst on import of cheap edible oils (by Adani) rather than purchase from local farmers. And poor Mrs. Sourav Ganguly was being constantly lampooned saying that celebrities are known never to use the brands they endorse; so wonder what oil was the ex-captain’s wife feeding him to have got a heart attack!
Fortune’s misfortune is really not of its own making. As I said before, Sourav Ganguly ticked every box in the selection of a good brand ambassador. But this unfortunate turn of events, the heart attack, has got the brand to literally have egg on its face.
Is Fortune alone in such a situation? Kapil Dev’s recent heart attack created a similar situation for Zota Healthcare’s DavaIndia – a generic medicines brand which was pretty visible in past months. Just that Dava was not well known enough. So there was not much noise in social media. Kapil Dev is no longer the brand ambassador for Boost but his “Boost is the secret of my energy” remains indelibly embedded in the minds of many Indians. So, though not directly impacted, Kapil’s ill-health would still have cast some shadow on the goodness of the health drink.
Choreographer-film-maker Remo D’Souza suffered a similar ailment three weeks ago. Remo was admitted to a hospital in Mumbai after he suffered a heart attack. The 46-year-old director was in the ICU of the Kokilaben hospital. Now, Remo was the brand ambassador of a health insurance brand. Aditya Birla Health Insurance Co. Limited (ABHICL), the health insurance arm of Aditya Birla Capital Limited, had launched the third edition of its campaign – #JumpForHealth on World Health Day (April 7, 2019) to reinforce its belief in empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle. D’Souza led the campaign by creating a #JumpForHealth themed dance and nominated others to contribute by jumping for the movement. For every 10,000 jumps collected, 1 prosthetic leg was to be donated to the under-privileged. Remo D’Souza’s heart attack put Aditya Birla in quite a bit of a spot.
What should brands do when misfortune hits?
Brand stories about brand ambassadors running into controversies abound. Tiger Woods’ infidelity crisis is known to all; Nike dropped Kobe Bryant for being unfaithful and Michael Vick for going Cujo on some dogs. Michael Phelps lost his deal with Kellogg's after going one toke over the line. Oprah Winfrey tweeted her great love for Microsoft Surface using an Apple iPad. The PR guys had nowhere to run. There are Indian examples too: Aamir and Snapdeal. Also Incredible India. Salman and Thums Up. And there are more.
Well the simplest advice in such situations is to just lie low. Take the hits. Some of them on the chin. But do not be provoked. Very soon the whole controversy will blow over. This is not always easy to do, but is really the most practical advice in such a situation. No one can really be blamed for all the happened: Ganguly surely was not aware of his own medical condition before-hand or he would have sought medical help well in time. The bigger problem in this case was not really the heart attack, but the Adani-farmer controversy which gave grist to the mill to some.
From my very many years in business, I can also tell you that all the anti-Fortune tirade did not emanate from irate consumers. Most of it is usually fanned by competitors. All companies have what we in the olden days used to call DTD – Dirty Tricks Department! Occasions such as this to take potshots at a competitor in trouble is par for the course in marketing warfare! Just fun and games.
Fortune or misfortune, I wish Dada a speedy recovery. Whether to continue to use Fortune cooking oil in his kitchen is now a call he will seriously need to take, though! And soon! Cricket and Bengal need him.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal is Chief Mentor of the Indian Institute of Human Brands (IIHB). Celebrity controversies always bring out his best.