Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, the owner-founder and brand ambassador of MDH Masalas passed away this morning at the ripe old age of 98. The doyen of the spice business in India, was a class five drop-out from Sialkot, now in Pakistan, who arrived in Delhi with just Rs.1500 in his pocket. But he rose to become one of India’s highest paid CEOS making Rs 21 crore a year and drove around in a stretch limo, all in one much celebrated lifetime that saw him rise from rags to riches.
But for us in the marketing and advertising business, he was perhaps India’s longest running brand ambassadors (bar the Amul girl perhaps) who outlasted the likes of Lalita ji at Surf, Gattu at Asian Paints and Goody at Kansai Nerolac. He was an owner-CEO who stood up as his brand’s salesman a la Lee Iacocca at Chrysler (of the ‘If you can buy a better car, buy it!’ fame) and told his consumers, ‘the buck stops here’ without actually ever verbalising it.
Is it a good idea to have the CEO as the brand ambassador?
Lee Iacocca of Chrysler was surely the first of the CEO tribe to feature in the advertising of his own brand. But then Lacocca was one of a kind. He was aggressive, he was combative, he was a transformational leader who delivered results. Featuring in his own brand advertising gave his brand, Chrysler, which was under major threat, a new life. It also gave credibility to the messaging. Without a personality quite like lacocca’s, his featuring in the Chrysler advertising could have boomeranged.
Dave Thomas of Wendy’s, Colonel Harland David Sanders of KFC, John Schnatter of Papa John’s pizza and Richard Branson of Virgin followed lacocca in endorsing their company brands. Branson had a flamboyant personality all of his own, and he stamped that on the Virgin brand. The likes of Thomas, the Colonel and Schnatter took a long while to build the rhythm between themselves and their brand’s personality. In all these cases, they were more supportive of the brand communication rather than the engine of its brand personality. In all these cases, the brands used them at best as mascots, rather than an using an outsider celebrity.
In many ways, Mahashay Gulati of MDH too followed this more self effacing model. He was a part of the brand, a part of the promise but in no way did he try to stamp the brand with his own personality. He was there as a symbol of reassurance, someone who signaled the quality of the product and how the brand brought happiness to the kitchen and the food that was cooked with it.
What has been the Indian experience with CEOs as ambassadors ?
Pawan Goenka of Mahindra tried to emulate Lee Iacocca sometimes in 2007 by becoming the salesman for his brand. It turned out to be a damp squib. Goenka had very little by way of public credentials and was largely unknown. By the time Lee Iacocca donned the mantle of a brand ambassador, he was already a marketing legend because of the success of Ford’s Mustang which he had made into an iconic car. The Goenka campaign is hardly remembered today, and Pawan Goenka is a name very few people would recall outside the automobile industry. The results could have been vastly different if Pawan’s boss Anand Mahindra had featured in the advertising. Many years later, today, Anand Mahindra is one of India’s most followed corporate leaders in social media. He has a personality, he has the pedigree and his very bearing has panache. If he had featured in the Mahindra advertising way back in 2007, he could well have become the Indian equivalent of Iacocca. For the low profile, almost unknown Pawan Goenka, the role of brand ambassador was too large a mountain to climb.
I was personally associated with one of the biggest disasters using the CEO as a brand ambassador, way back in the 1990s. In about 1995, while at Rediffusion, we ran a campaign for MS Shoes. The company was going public and the promoter Pawan Sachdeva became the face of the advertising campaign. Overnight, Sachdeva became a visible superstar with people stopping him for autographs and handshakes because the MS Shoes campaign spent tonnes of media money catapulting the small trader-promoter into a visible face for everyone to recognise and recall. But the MS Shoes public issue was red-carded by the government, Sachdeva was arrested and thrown into prison and his fame turned to notoriety.
Worse still was the attempt by Rohtash Goel of Omaxe to try and build himself into a visible personality by putting himself in his own advertising. Goel again was a Johnny-come-lately, an obscure nobody who had gotten lucky with his real estate business. But he did not have either the credibility or the standing to play a brand ambassador. His company got into tons of consumer complaints for cheating and Goel quickly melted back into his not so well-known reality.
So, India’s experiments with owners as CEOs have largely failed. You can count Baba Ramdev as one exception perhaps for Patanjali. But then, the Baba was already a well known yoga guru and it was the brand Patanjali that capitalised on his already famous name. The likes of Mukesh D Ambani have also made brief appearances in their company ads but these were all tactical one-offs.
So, is the CEO as a brand ambassador a good idea or not ?
If you take the Mahashay as an example only, then the CEO can work as the celebrity ambassador. But it is a risky experiment with more to lose than to gain. Products succeed and products fail. Latching on to a product or brand and putting personal goodwill on it for a CEO is a huge risk to take. The Mahashay was always a part of the script. He was not its mainstay. He was not the hero of the ad. Just a genial old man… a grandfather or a family elder. He lent flavor and continuity to the advertising without intruding into its content. He never ever went into praising the product or listing its positives. He was there, yet not there because you saw him as an endearing character, not a domineering CEO or salesman. The MDH handling of the Mahashay was masterful, and controlled. Hence it worked successfully for nearly 40 years. Most other brands would have found it a tough act to emulate and follow.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal heads the Indian Institue of Human Brands (IIHB). Goyal has had the privilege of meeting the Mahashay about 20 years ago, and discussing MDH’s usage of him as brand ambassador.