14 Apr 2021 16:07 IST

When the brand ambassador puts you in a spot

Fortune Oil sticking to Ganguly and using the opportunity to inform its audience served the brand better

On February 14, 2021, less than a month after former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly was discharged from hospital following his second angioplasty, Fortune Rice Bran Health Oil was back with a new ad featuring Ganguly. In the print ad, released on Valentine’s Day, Ganguly assured his fans that his “heart is just fine,” and urged people to take good care of their heart health. The ambassador of a brand that positions itself as ‘heart-healthy oil’ suffering a heart attack is nothing short of a nightmare. Will the new ad help control the damage done to the brand’s reputation? Could the brand manager have handled the situation any differently?

Ganguly, fondly called Dada enjoys a cult-like following. He was named as the brand ambassador of Adani Wilmar Ltd’s (AWL) Fortune Rice Bran Health Oil in January 2020. During his playing days, Ganguly was a swashbuckling batsman and an all-rounder. As a captain, he was credited with changing the face of Indian cricket by turning the team into a combative unit. And ever since, he has made a name for himself as a widely-respected cricket administrator and commentator. Since October 23, 2019, he has been President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

Fortune oil positions itself as the healthy oil for the 40-plus age group. This was a keenly contested segment with many competitors including Saffola Oil, a Marico Ltd brand. Fortune came out with an advertisement with the tagline “Dada bole (says) welcome to the 40s.” The company also used the hashtag #WelcomeToThe40s. In the television commercial, it clearly states that the Fortune Rice Bran Health cooking oil has Gamma Oryzanol, which increases good cholesterol and reduces bad cholesterol, and as a result, keeps the heart healthy. Towards the end, Ganguly says, “Fortune Rice Bran Health is healthier than healthy oils.”

On April 7, 2020, Ganguly shared the ad on Twitter: “Yes, you can live your life to the fullest even in your 40s. Just have to play it smart. Make sure you’re taking care of your heart and immunity. It starts with your oil. Switch to an oil that cuts bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol. An oil that boosts your immunity.”

 

 

 

 

 

Fortune runs out

But as luck would have it, on January 2, 2021, Ganguly complained of chest pain during his regular workout session and was rushed to Woodlands Hospital, Kolkata. Doctors attending to him reported that he had suffered a mild heart attack and had to undergo angioplasty. The news came as a shock to cricket fans as he is just 48 years old, and known to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Following this, the Fortune brand faced a backlash across all social media platforms and was widely lampooned by trolls. People questioned brand endorsements and if celebrities even used the products they endorsed. Some wondered sarcastically which cooking oil Mrs Ganguly used. Former Indian cricketer Kirti Azad tweeted, “Dada @SGanguly99 get well soon. Always promote tested and tried products. Be self-conscious and careful. God bless.”

Soon news surfaced that another angioplasty was performed on January 28, 2021, after Ganguly complained of chest pain on January 27, leading to a crisis for AWL.

Industry observers pointed out that far too many brands had found themselves in similarly sticky situations. In most cases, the brand ambassadors were just dropped. Indian cricketer Yuvraj Singh was the first brand ambassador for Revital H Capsule but the company replaced him with actor Salman Khan after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. In 2020, Dabur Chyawanprash replaced actor Amitabh Bachchan with another actor Akshay Kumar after Bachchan contracted the coronavirus. Though Akshay Kumar himself tweeted that he had tested positive later.

On January 5, 2020, AWL stopped all ads of Fortune oil featuring Ganguly, across platforms, even while affirming that Ganguly would continue as brand ambassador. Angshu Mallick, Deputy Chief Executive, AWL, said that such an unfortunate incident could happen with anyone and that the company wished Ganguly a speedy recovery. However, it did not stop some people from wondering why the company had pulled out the advertisement if its product was really healthy.

The company assured consumers that even according to World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, compared to other vegetable oils, rice bran oil has the best available combination of mono and polyunsaturated fat and saturated fats.

Comeback

Fortune oil’s Valentine Day comeback ad carried a smiling image of Ganguly with the headline: “Today seems like a good day to talk about the heart.” The ad aimed to dispel myths surrounding heart attacks and Ganguly went on to explain that he had a family history of heart troubles that led to his heart ailment even though he was “fairly young and fit.” In the ad, Ganguly urged people to take good care of their heart — follow healthy habits, exercise, increase intake of antioxidants, rest, and go for regular tests and check-ups.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AWL received mixed responses to its comeback ad, with some people hailing it as a good example of a brand supporting its ambassador in the face of trolling, while others wondering whether it was too early for the company to launch a new ad campaign.

Analysis

The case throws some important questions on the value of celebrity endorsement and a brand’s response to a crisis situation.

Double-edged sword

Companies often rely on celebrity endorsements to grow their brands. Celebrities have huge fan following; they trust them and try to emulate them by using the products they endorse. So brands can build credibility and stand out from their rivals by their association with a celebrity. The brand can also gain huge visibility (help brand recall) and may even get access to new markets through such associations. On the flip side, celebrity endorsements are very expensive and, at times, run the risk of the celebrity overshadowing the brand. Moreover, it could be a major disaster for a brand if the brand ambassador gets embroiled in a scandal.

Brands are core assets; it is of prime importance for companies to select the right brand ambassador. Ganguly with his cult status in a cricket-crazy nation seemed to be an ideal choice for AWL to represent the image and promise of the Fortune oil brand. Ganguly’s unconventional image, being forthright and outspoken, staying away from controversy, his emotional attachment for the game of cricket, and never-give-up attitude, are all qualities that brands look for in an ambassador. He was a role model for many in the age group and life stage in the target audience of the Fortune oil brand. He personified the values that the brands wanted to associate with.

It is not uncommon for companies to quickly dissociate with the celebrity endorser when he/she makes a mistake or gets into a controversy that may affect the brand. In this case, there was no indiscretion on Ganguly’s part; rather it was an unfortunate incident. However, it led to a lot of negative publicity and the potential effect on the Fortune brand wasn’t any less damaging; nor was the challenges before it’s brand custodians any less demanding.

Responding to a crisis

It is the brand manager’s responsibility to manage any crisis arising out of an untoward incident involving the brand ambassador. To resolve the situation, the following steps can be taken:

  • All promotional activities featuring the brand ambassador should be stopped.
  • The brand should lie low and wait for the storm to blow over. The cooling-off period helps the brand to smoothly transition from the old brand position to the new one.
  • During the cooling-off period, the brand should focus on understanding the consumer’s sentiments and conduct a focus group study.
  • The brand could take this as an opportunity to educate customers. For instance, in this case, the brand manager could further come up with a series of 15-30 second films or three to five-minute educational films.
  • There is a high chance that during the cooling-off period, consumers will forget about the incident.
  • After the cooling-off period, the company could come up with new advertisements, with or without a celebrity. However, the brand manager needs to think creatively and out-of-the-box. In this case, if the brand decides to go without the current brand ambassador or any other celebrity, then the narrative of the new promotion strategy should be around the causes of a heart attack in the 40s. The brand could emphasise the importance of a healthy lifestyle, regular health check-ups, healthy diet, yoga, exercise, and so on. In the new narrative, the brand should also focus on overall health, which includes physical health, emotional health, and mental health.
  • Another alternative is to take the situation head-on by responding to concerns directly in traditional and social media, in a clear and transparent manner. Done well, this can give the perception that the company is honest in its approach. It allows the company to have more control over the narrative, as well, resulting positive impact in the long term.

Countering negative publicity

During a crisis, the company has to counter negative publicity as quickly as possible. In the case of Fortune oil, people from different walks of life including Ganguly’s fans, former cricketers, customers, and critics, dragged the reputation of the brand into the ground.

To counter this magnitude of social media backlash, a company should have proper infrastructure and people with the right skill set.s to control the bad publicity in on social media. The company can also hire influencers who can turn the spotlight to the good aspects of of the product or service.

The company can link its website and have all the updates related to the incident in one place. This will not only help all the stakeholders get information but it will also facilitate better understanding of the company’s perspective and what steps it is taking to tackle the issue at hand.

One school of thought also suggests simply ignoring the social media trolls. In the world of internet, where attention span is short, in most cases, trolling dies out in a few days. The trolls will find something else, and forget Ganguly and Fortune oil in no time. This is again a risky strategy.

Pulling the plug on promotions

AWL adopted the right communication strategy by stopping all promotional activities featuring Ganguly immediately after the news of his heart attack. Fortune brand, which had positioned itself as a healthy oil for the 40-plus age group, had already become a target of ridicule and derision following the news, and continuing the ads could have further strengthened this negative association, permanently damaging the brand, even putting the company and/or the brand ambassador in legal hot water.

Retaining Ganguly

It is always good for the brand custodian to focus on the brand strategy, company’s values, and company’s purpose to attract customers. Customers buy products and services because of the trust created and desire generated by the brand. Though dropping Ganguly as the brand ambassador could have had few benefits for Fortune, it wasn’t without risks either. Such a reaction could prove to be counterproductive, eroding the credibility of the brand.

Continuing with Ganguly, as AWL did, was a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Disassociation with the current brand ambassador is not the right step because a heart attack occurs not just because of the oil. It depends on many things, including having a healthy lifestyle, diet, and even genetic. So, it was a better alternative to take this incident as an opportunity to educate the customers on the risks of heart attack.

 

 

 

 

Ganguly, who has a family history of cardiac issues, returned to active professional life after three to four weeks of rest. So, this gives the brand the opportunity to show that he could have had a worse outcome had he not used Fortune oil. This narrative could also help the company strengthen its position in the space of healthy heart, which is largely controlled by Saffola.

Standing strongly with Ganguly as its brand ambassador, Fortune oil could communicate that cooking oil cannot be treated as medicine that can cure heart disorders. It could also bring in a reputed cardiologist to explain what went wrong in the case of Ganguly. Ganguly can talk about it and promote awareness on this critical issue. This will show that the brand is committed to its choice of celebrity as well as the issue of heart health, thereby strengthening AWL’s position in the market.

(Debapratim Purkayastha is Director, Manish Agarwal is Faculty Associate, and Sanjib Dutta is Research Lead, at IBS Case Research Center, Hyderabad.)