The Air India Maharaja had pride of place in the showcase of my family home. Every time I see that iconic image I am reminded of that long ago trip and can visualize the plaster doll sitting on the shelf through my childhood. Ronald McDonald reminds me of long road trips to Coorg when my daughter was smaller and took photos with the mascot. The Amul girl makes me smile.
Contrast this with the memories evoked by celebrities. When I see Pierce Brosnan I don’t think of paan masala. Sharapova does not evoke in me a desire to buy a Gurgaon apartment. Lionel Messi doesn’t prompt warm thoughts of Tata Motors. Watching a Hugh Jackman movie doesn’t remind me to switch from iPhone to Micromax.
And when I see Rafael Nadal, I think tennis. Not Infosys.

Research is on my side – Characters ace Celebrities

When we were discussing Infosys’ 3D billboard in Times Square on a marketers Whatsapp group, Karthi Marshan popped up with this gem of data. IPSOS research on which element promotes recall shows that sound – like the Mastercard or Titan’s “sonic signature” is the most memorable, followed by characters like Colonel Sanders. Celebrities are a significantly poorer third.
It makes logical sense – very often the celebrity delivers awareness and some credibility, but they overshadow your brand and often endorse multiple other products adding to a certain confusion in our mind. You also usually get just one shot at getting licensed images. In my ad agency days I managed a tea brand, Super Dust, which had secured a shoot with movie star Raveena Tandon. Unfortunately by the time I inherited the brand we were left with just one image we were allowed to use – it showed her on riding a horse. There’s only so many situations you can come up with that sort of photo no matter how good your editing skills!
But a character is uniquely yours, is a one time investment and you can make it appear wherever you want. So many advantages — compared to a celeb!

Personalities vs Characters vs Celebrities

A real person as a perennial spokesperson for the brand adds a personal touch and authenticity. Hence the success of brands that celebrities own and can associate closely with – the Kardashians, Charlotte Tilbury, Salman Khan come to mind. Col Sanders was once a real person before he became a “character”. Recently the MDH Masala Uncle was replaced by his son – I think they would have been better off converting him to a character. Karl Lagerfield was Chanel’s long time designer, personality and then finally a character that goes with his eponymous brand.
The Rolling Stones launched a new album this week – Hackney Diamonds. Don’t be mean – don’t ask if they’re still alive. At 80 Mick Jagger has amazing energy. But perhaps not enough to get a good video going – so the music video for Angry uses a CGI of their younger selves – again, something you can do if you own your imagery.
Philip Kotler and Jagdish Sheth are marketing personalities who have transitioned their names into institutions offering education in marketing, as did consultants and accountants of an earlier era.
If you have a person strongly associated with your brand, my recommendation would be to hang on to them and transition them to a character as they age out.

What about Influencers?

Influencers can gain you reach and credibility. Celebrities are generally high on reach but not on credibility. Influencers tend to be lower on reach but higher on credibility in their chosen sphere. I wrote about this earlier.

I’m a brand owner on a budget – what should I do?

Personalities help brands gain relatability and credibility. Incorporate either a person like the owner or founder of the brand or a character into your communication. You’re reading this newsletter because it’s my voice. It can’t be replicated by ChatGPT – trust me, I’ve tried!  Don’t be shy! Put your picture out there and share your values and why you believe you are making a difference.
Yet, despite the research – and logic – brand owners seem more likely to retire characters like the Twitter bird or the Air India Maharaja and rely on “brand colours” or well, celebrities. It’s just so much more exciting in our dull lives to hang out with a star for a few days, literally and figuratively.  Brand boredom is a real issue for brand owners, not the customers.
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Jessie Paul is the Founder and CEO of Paul Writer, a firm she founded in early 2010 to raise the bar for marketing in India. Previously, as Chief Marketing Officer of Wipro’s IT business and as Global Brand Manager at Infosys, Jessie has been recognized for her contribution towards putting the Indian IT industry on the global map. With over 18 years in services marketing, including a stint with Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, Jessie is considered an expert in brand globalization and has been named one of the most influential business women in the Indian IT industry.


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