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WHITE SPIRITS – VODKA: I’m a celebrity, get me in here!

Roshan, Khan, Ahuja and Shilpa Shetty are some of the biggest names in Bollywood and in the past year all four have signed up to endorse vodka brands.

Hrithik Roshan, Zayed Khan, Shiney Ahuja and Shilpa Shetty. These names may not register with the average drinks business reader (except, of course, Shilpa Shetty – who is better known in this country for being the victim of reality TV racism). But as some of the biggest names in Bollywood, they are international megastars with legions of adoring followers. And in the past year, all four have signed up to endorse a vodka brand.

The reach and popularity of the Indian cinema industry is massive – and growing fast. According to Businessweek, in 2006, Bollywood movies sold 3.6 billion tickets worldwide, compared to Hollywood’s 2.6bn, and the stars are every bit as popular as their Hollywood counterparts.

India has relatively strict restrictions on alcohol advertising. The brand name can be shown, but the bottle itself can’t and, as UB Group president Vijay Rekhi explains, “we cannot even mention the product category”. As a result, brand owners tend to resort to alternative means of promotion: sponsoring sporting or cultural events; or the rather dubious practice of “surrogate” advertising, whereby a non-alcoholic alternative (McDowell’s soda, for example) is created and advertised. As Rekhi explains, however, “It is a real challenge to get the message across. We spend millions but it’s very difficult to tell what strategy works.”

Within this difficult environment, celebrity endorsement is a relatively cost-effective and highly impactful method. “People like to align themselves with the aspirational lifestyle of celebrities,” says Rekhi, “so if you get the right celebrity, it is very appealing to the target group … it’s a good method of reaching the consumer, and it stays in their mind. This is regarded as a safe course by the marketers.”

UB Group, which controls the vast majority of the Indian spirits market, was the first company to sign up Bollywood “brand ambassadors” to promote its vodkas, with Shetty representing Romanov and Khan promoting White Mischief. And the effectiveness of the strategy was borne out when UB’s biggest competitors rapidly followed suit. Radico Khaitan (the number-two player in the Indian spirits market) has persuaded Hrithik Roshan to support its new brand Magic Moments, while Diageo’s Shark Tooth brand is endorsed by Shiney Ahuja. These stars are an embodiment of the youthful, fashionable, urban cool that defines modern India – and they are figures of aspiration for the many millions of young consumers across this most populous nation.

© db November 2007

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