Leaving aside Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth (perhaps the last two superstars in the real sense), it would be the Khans -- Shah Rukh (SRK), Aamir and Salman -- who totally dominate the celebrity leadership skyline today. They represent brands worth billions of dollars and manage their personal wealth, investments and business interests with considerable élan. They're globally recognized brands themselves, invited and felicitated by top business schools such as Harvard and Yale.
Their brands tell the story of how every failure made them stronger, more engaging and more enduring.
Given their rub-off across generations, it is interesting to see and to evaluate, from a marketing perspective, the lessons that marketing professionals can derive from them. While this list is far from exhaustive, here are five major marketing insights that we can get from the Khans.
1. Delivering on brand promise
Never content to bask on their laurels, the Khans use every new film to push the envelope and strive for quality, perfection, engagement and innovation. Shahrukh, Aamir and Salman have effectively re-written the Bollywood script over the past 25 years.
However, there can be no success without occasional failures. All of the Khans have been known to be involved in films that bombed. For example, Shah Rukh's Happy New Year, Salman's Ek Tha Tiger and Aamir's Tum Mere Ho all received severe criticism and ridicule. But that did not stop them from breaking box office records with their subsequent films. The only reason for that is their ability to maintain a consistent brand in the face of failures. Their brands tell the story of how every failure made them stronger, more engaging and more enduring.
2. Marketing to the new-age customer
The Khans leave no stone unturned when it comes to marketing their movies – from TV promotions, merchandising, promotional events, music releases and magazine covers to the actual premier, they go the whole hog. The social media blitzkrieg includes trailers and promos on YouTube, Facebook pages, Twitter and Instagram posts.
Film promotions play on media hunger for fresh and exciting content, controversy and exaggerated drama; the film itself is also carefully calibrated to follow the marketing rules of segmentation, targeting and positioning. But even this is not enough. The Khans often break the mould when it comes to promoting their films.
Dubbed as the marketing genius of Bollywood, Aamir always manages to think of new ways to promote his films. During the release of 3 Idiots Aamir had the entire nation looking out for him when he travelled across the country in disguise for two weeks and challenged his fans to spot him. He donned a new avatar for his film Ghajini (shaved head and tattoos all over his body) and continued to wear that look to all social events long after the shoot finished. This generated a lot of curiosity among his fans. For the promotion of the movie PK, the film team put up talking standees across major theatres in the country. In the first such Bollywood movie promotion, Aamir Khan talked to people through the standees.
3. Creating a niche
The Khans are known for playing to their strengths. Shah Rukh, given his non-filmi, middle-class origins typifies values and attributes that resonate with his biggest fan base -- India's young and aspiring middle class. Aamir and Salman have been equally successful in developing enduring loyalists. Always the perfectionist, Aamir, through his constant endeavour to walk the unbeaten path, tries to offer something new to his fans each time they troop to the theatres. Salman on the other hand, the most "massified" of the three, excels at giving his constituents exactly what they're looking for -- more Salman!
Marketers need to create an enduring brand story that, like the Khans, allows them to play to the gallery.
Each has learned to play to his strengths, creating a definite niche that the other cannot transgress. There is an important learning here. Emulating the Khans, marketers need to go beyond merely creating touch-points with consumers. They need to create an enduring brand story that, like the Khans, allows them to play to the gallery.
4. Attention to detail and execution
A movie starring a Khan is not just epic in terms of acting but also in terms of props, locations, production quality, editing and effects. Every movie manages to convey a larger-than-life feeling while still remaining relatable to the majority of the population. Quality resides in the smaller details and focus on that is what makes their movies truly fascinating to watch.
Shah Rukh had to endure six hours of make-up every day during the filming of Fan to acquire the required look for his role. Aamir often sits through hours and hours of auditions himself to shortlist actors for smaller character roles in his movies. Salman's charisma and ability to set Bollywood trends is because he works towards etching out the finer details. Fans may forget the storyline of Dabangg but they will not forget Salman's eccentric style of wearing his sunglasses on the back of his collar. Similarly, brands have to ensure that even the smaller consumer expectations are consistently met while creating the larger brand image.
5. Engaging in a meaningful social dialogue beyond business
There's a human face too. Salman's "Being Human" tells the story of a Salman the humanist. The star's charity works in the area of healthcare and education for the underprivileged. Similarly, Aamir's TV show Satyamev Jayate portrayed him as a social crusader with a strong social conscience. He has also consistently taken a stand on social issues plaguing the country. Shah Rukh is largely known as the silent philanthropist but the only two Bollywood actors who were named in the Hurun India philanthropy list (for 2014) were Shah Rukh and Salman Khan. While Shahrukh was ranked at 33, Salman was ranked at 47.
Every movie manages to convey a larger-than-life feeling while still remaining relatable to the majority of the population. Quality resides in the smaller details...
Marketing reinvention time and again captivates the collective conscience of a nation. Marketers, therefore, need to constantly reinvent their brand strategy to tell a great story --one that is better than the competition's.
As India's greatest entertainers the Khans have been innovative, have taken risks, explored unchartered territory and in their amazing (and on-going) journey have also stumbled and taken missteps. As brands they have endured and have a great story to tell. This is what they have in common with the great brands of the world.