CEO as brand ambassador – taking MDH as an example.

How MDH’s ‘Mahashay’ became a household name

Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, owner, founder, and brand ambassador of MDH Masalas passed away at 98. Doyen of India’s spice trade, a fifth-grade dropout from Sialkot, now Pakistan, arrived in Delhi with only Rs 500 in his pocket. But he has become one of India’s highest-paid CEOs, earning Rs 21 crore a year and driving an extended limo during a celebrity life that has seen him rise from the crowd.

But for us in the marketing and advertising industry, he is probably the oldest brand ambassador in India (with the possible exception of his daughter Amul) who has survived Lalita Ji at Surf, Gattu at Asian Paints and Goody at Kansai Nerolac.

The owner-CEO introduces himself as a salesman for his Lee lacocca-like brand at Chrysler (about “If you can buy a better car, buy it!”) And tell your consumers that “the responsibility ends here” without ever actually expressing it.

Is it a good idea to have the CEO as a brand ambassador?

Indeed, Chrysler’s Lee lacocca was the first of the CEO tribe to appear in an advertisement for his own brand. But then, lacocca was one of the unique species. He’s aggressive, he’s fighting, and he’s a leader that transforms and delivers results. Self-branded advertising breathed new life into his brand, Chrysler, which was already under serious threat. It also lends credibility to the message. Without a personality quite like Lacocca, his appearances in Chrysler commercials might have been explosive.

Dave Thomas of Wendy’s, Colonel Harland David Sanders of KFC, John Schnatter of Papa John’s pizza and Richard Branson of Virgin have followed Lacocca in endorsing their companies’ brands. Branson has a pompous personality of his own, and he stamped it on the Virgin brand. People like Thomas, The Colonel, and Schnatter have built a rhythm between themselves and their brand personalities. In all these cases, they are more about brand communication than brand personality orientation. In all of these cases, brands best use them as mascots rather than an outside celebrities.

In many ways, Mahashay Gulati of MDH also follows this more effective model. He’s part of the brand, part of the promise, but in no way is he trying to mark the brand with his own personality. He is there as a symbol of comfort, someone who signals the quality of the product and how the brand brings happiness to the kitchen and the food that is cooked there.

What is the Indian experience with CEOs as ambassadors?

Mahindra’s Pawan Goenka tried to imitate Lee Iacocca in 2007 by becoming the seller of his brand. Turns out it was a wet cannon. Goenka has very few public references and is virtually unknown. By the time Lee lacocca took on the role of brand ambassador, he was already a marketing legend thanks to the success of the Ford Mustang, the car for which he became an iconic vehicle. The Goenka campaign is barely remembered today, and Pawan Goenka is a name few people can remember outside of the auto industry. The results could have been very different if boss Anand Mahindra had appeared in the ad. A few years later, Anand Mahindra is one of India’s most followed business leaders on social media. He has a personality, and his looks have fanfare. Had he appeared in Mahindra’s 2007 commercial, he might have become the Indian equivalent of Iacocca. For Pawan Goenka, a little-known and virtually unknown, the role of brand ambassador is too big a mountain to climb.

Worse is Omaxe’s attempt at Rohtash Goel to build an evident personality by placing himself in his own publicity. Recently, Goel is Johnny, a little-known man who got lucky with his real estate business. But he doesn’t have the reputation and qualifications to play the role of a brand ambassador. His company received numerous consumer complaints for fraud, and Goel quickly sank into his little-known reality.

As a result, India’s experiments with CEO owners have largely failed. You can consider Baba Ramdev as an exception, perhaps to Patanjali. But by then, Baba was already a famous yoga guru, and the Patanjali brand capitalized on his already famous name. People like Mukesh D Ambani also make guest appearances in their companies’ commercials, but it’s all a one-off tactic.

So is the CEO being a brand ambassador a good idea?

If you just take Mahashay as an example, the CEO can become a celebrity ambassador. But it was a risky experience with more to lose than to gain. Products succeed, and products fail. Sticking with a product or brand and putting personal goodwill into it for a CEO is a considerable risk. Mahashay has always been part of the script. He is not the mainstay. He is not the hero of advertising. Just a great old man… a grandfather, or a family elder. He created flavor and continuity for the ad without infringing on its content. He never praised the product or listed its positives. He’s there, but not because you see him as a likeable character, not an overbearing CEO or salesman. Mahashay’s handling of MDH is proficient and controlled. Therefore, it has been operating successfully for almost 40 years. Most other brands will find this difficult to imitate and follow.

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