SRK: The commoner who became king

Academic, management consultant and content editor Koral Dasgupta's research papers have been published in leading journals and presented at renowned B-Schools across India. Being a keen observer of Bollywood, she loves to dig out academic learning from films.

Koral Dasgupta, academic, management consultant, content editor and authorShe is also a freelance painter and her paintings draw inspiration from Indian mythology and the Madhubani art form, and are used as corporate gifts by many organisations. In this interview with Swetha Amit, she talks about the brand called Shahrukh Khan, his strong connect with consumers and the responsibilities of being a brand ambassador.

Power Of A Common Man: Connecting with Consumers the SRK Way  is an eye-catching title. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
I often wondered if anyone would write a marketing book on Shahrukh Khan as I personally feel he is a marketing genius. I was teaching in management schools and my sessions often touched the face of the Indian film industry with questions such as what makes SRK a big brand that he is, etc. 

At that point in time I was on my maternity break and had a lot of free time on my hands. I just thought I would document these thoughts as a reference for the following year. 

I did extensive research on the topic by speaking to a lot of people including fans and those who were not  fans of the actor. Slowly, these documents started folding into chapters. I had just completed three chapters when my maternity term was over and I had to get back to work.

After eight months, when I reopened these documents, it felt like reconnecting with a long-lost friend. As I resumed writing, the tempo seemed to return and I finished penning down the chapters. I had two options - either giving out these chapters to a public journal or to get it published as a book. I chose the latter. 

Initially I thought of the title The Man Who Cannot Die when the movie Jab tak Hai Jaan released.  However I had to obtain permission from Yash Raj films who were planning to use the same title for a book they were coming out with at a later date on the late Yash Chopra.

So when Chennai Express released I got this title Power Of A Common Man which I felt was perfect for this book. People said that I would get sued by Red Chillies entertainment and the big man himself; however nothing of that sort happened thankfully. So that's how my book Power Of A Common Man came about.

Could you tell us about your background and what propelled you towards writing?
After completing my MBA, I started with a sales and marketing job. Post that I got into corporate relations and then moved on to business development of educational initiatives. Then I started teaching in management schools.

While teaching, I realised that I had to give my students something besides their text book material. I felt I had to hold their attention span by making the classroom sessions a lot more interesting.

So I began to bring in numerous discussions on innovative brands and made it entertaining. One fine day I just threw a question to the students by asking, 'Why do you think the movie Don was remade and why not other Amitabh Bachchan films?

This had the entire class researching and digging out information from Google and a case study on it was made in a short while. In fact there is a chapter in my book on this and it was documented by one of the students. 

So when such instances happen it improves both the attendance and attention span of the students as they were coming back with a lot more questions to fuel their inquisitive minds.

So all this put together made me realize that my information was adding value to the students. In the quest to do something meaningful and make a difference, I decided to write and that's how I progressed towards writing.

Your book underlines the theme of connecting with consumers the SRK way. What made you choose an Indian actor as the backdrop for your book? Did you personally get to meet him?
I have been a huge fan of the actor right from his Fauji days and have followed him closely. As I matured from a fan girl to an adult, I often wondered as to why I or so many other people are such huge fans of his?

Actors age over a period of time and lose their sheen. A lot of ardent fans of Amitabh Bachchan lost interest in him once he turned 50. However, here was a person whom fans still adored despite so many years and especially with the new breed of actors, who probably are a more attractive lot, coming in. It was interesting to understand what SRK had done in order to still retain his undying popularity.

The fact remains that from scratch, he has grown to become somebody who had broadened his fan base on international shores as well. That's what makes his story a lot more intriguing. Unfortunately I haven't had the opportunity to meet him.

As an actor, Shahrukh has endorsed several brands right from cars, watches to soaps and fairness creams and has managed to win hearts across a varied strata in the society. What would you say is his USP that makes him equally appealing to both the classes and the masses?
I think it was a certain image which he built for himself.

You see, Shahrukh is one person who is not necessarily the best at anything, be it his looks, dancing, height or acting. However, despite all these shortcomings, he is still at the top. So his image spells out a message saying that even if you are not the best in anything, you can still be the best.

He has carried himself in such an intelligent manner and has carved an image of being reachable and someone who is not out of the world yet successful beyond anybody else. That relatability quotient is his USP.

There was time when the Indian auto market was  monopoly of Maruti until Shahrukh endorsed Hyndai Santro, after which Zen faced stiff competition.  Do you think celebrity endorsements play a vital role in boosting sales and the product profile?
I think celebrity endorsements just help in building up the brand. It doesn't boost sales. 

Technically speaking, sales is a very short-term endeavour and a brand is a long-term endeavour. For instance if I give an offer saying, I will sell Power Of A Common Man outside Shahrukh Khan's house along with his autographed copies, then sales are bound to spike up immediately.

However that is only for a short period of time. But when I build a brand of  Power Of A Common Man then one can relate it to the movie Chennai Express and immediately recollect the book. So that takes an effort.  Celebrity endorsement is all about helping in creating a certain mind space of a particular brand and not to spike up sales.

Being a brand ambassador for a product can be a daunting task as the latter comes under severe scrutiny if the product is embroiled in safety/health concerns such as what happened with Maggi today. What is your take on this?
Ideally celebrities should have knowledge about the products they endorse. When they talk about a certain product, their message reaches far and wide and tends to influence people to a certain extent.  Again that influence needn't be on sales as I have mentioned earlier. However it builds the reputation of the organisation that builds the brand. So taking all these factors into consideration, I personally believe that celebrities need to be certain about what they are standing up for.

Your book says that Shahrukh has also endorsed products like Fair and handsome. Considering how celebrities like Kangana Ranaut recently refused a Rs2-crore deal to endorse a fairness cream, would you say that these stars have a certain responsibility towards society with regards to such endorsements which tends to build a certain stereotype?
I would say that stars obviously have a high impact with respect to what they do. For instance when Shahrukh Khan says that the name of the woman should appear before the male actor in his films, it makes you wonder why. While it may not have a major impact in the urban areas, it definitely does with rural audiences.

However it's very difficult for stars to come out and make an absolute difference given their time constraints which prohibits them from thinking beyond a limit. But yes, they do have certain responsibilities as they are watched by millions, who sometimes tend to blindly emulate them.

You have talked about the making of the product, Don, in 1978 where there were no marketing strategies and most of the energies were focused only on the product. Do you think that Don, which was remade in 2006 would have survived with the same principle? Does marketing play a more vital role than the product today?
No. Don in 2006 would not have worked with the same principle as its counterpart in 1978. 

In fact a lot of films today are unheard of due to the lack of PR. The industry has opened up to an extent where you have international products coming in. So there is a lot of competition. In order to highlight your product as a cut above the rest, one needs to promote it in a proactive manner.

Book cover of Power of a common manHowever I wouldn't say that marketing is more important than the product, as in such cases, you will see products like Happy New Year or a Chennai Express. While I believe that a good product can do well, marketing also plays a very vital role today. Audiences today are getting mature so one has to be responsible enough to have the right content along with the promotional strategies.

Today is the era of social media where a flurry of ideas and comments get exchanged. How much of role would you say social media plays on the equity of a brand?
I would say it plays a huge role as social media is a bigger tool than word of mouth these days. Earlier if you were a 'nobody', people wouldn't take notice of you. But today if you make a statement and it becomes viral through retweets and multiple shares, then people immediately take notice. So I believe that social media plays a huge role today. It's a serious ball game as all of us are hooked on to it and our lives seem to revolve around social media.

Keeping the brand alive in the minds of a consumers requires a proactive PR today. However too much visibility can also be detrimental as customers tend to lose interest. So how should one maintain a balance? 
If you are a celebrity today, it depends on how much you project yourself. From my understanding, they need to constantly throw something at people to be talked about.  It could either be something good or bad. The fun aspect of it comes when there is a controversy. In such a scenario there could be 10 people who will rip the celebrity / brand apart to which another 10 people will jump to the defence reminding the naysayers of the good things associated with the brand. So here while bad tends to get highlighted, it is balanced by the good, which eventually gets spoken about.

In one of your case studies you have mentioned about how Indian writing has come a long way in the last decade. Would you attribute this sudden boost in readership of Indian fiction to active marketing and PR?
Today it's all about understanding the market. You see reading is considered an intellectual hobby.

However, there also exists a section of the population who fall under the non- intellectual category. So authors like Chetan Bhagat have managed to cater to this segment by giving them the easy to read books. 

For instance his first book talked about his life at IIT which gave readers a taste of an IITian's life. Being the first of its kind, the audience lapped up this product well.  Possessing a strong business and marketing brain, Chetan Bhagat discovered the formula to success by catering to this target segment by introducing a surprise element in each of the books.  So he knew how to sell himself. So yes a lot of it is related to active marketing and PR.

Lastly, any plans for your next book? 
Yes. In fact my next book is about to hit the shelves soon. It's called Fall Winter Collection 'and it's about the life of a sculptor and his ambitious project based on the women in Lord Krishna's life.

Book Excerpt

Overview of Consumer Behaviour, Case 2, pages 4&5
In the last ten years, Indian writers attempting English novels and the publishing industry simultaneously have gone through a revolution in walking the retail way. It started with Chetan Bhagat's 'Five point someone' (Rupa & Co.) in 2004, as he introduced books to non-English readers.

Reading is an intellectual habit that everyone loves to claim, but not all are intellectually capacitated to practise. It requires patience, thinking abilities and a genuine love for books.

Many would name reading as their hobby when asked, but a little probing would show that the last thing they had read was Femina some six months earlier! Bhagat and his publishers introduced books priced at less than Rs100 that were meant for fast, easy-going youngsters whose patience with the printed page wasn't very high.

So now this generation had less priced, not so fat books that spoke about college days or the first few years in a job and connected right to the core of their not-so-perfect lives. Association with the stories required no intellectual updation and Bhagat's clear and convincing narration with its uncomplicated flow of thoughts made him an easy read!

'Introducing music to the deaf'' was not an easy task. Bhagat, with an IIT-IIM brain attacked the market with all the right ingredients put together to offer the right things at the right time. His communication about books always had a shock value that generated interest, be it a love story at IIT or a call from God in a call centre or an inter-community rom-com at IIM or a suicide note from a stranger…!

Revolution 2020: Love, Corruption, Ambition, his latest, was released when India was ablaze in support of Anna Hazare. The prices of his books have been kept low and he conceptualised plots that were easy to relate to. His first novel talked about life in IIT, something that many aspired to experience. Also hit IIT-IIM background gave him a certain status and hence his books perceptually elevated the reader to his level.

Reading thus became a convincing hobby for more number of youngsters with Bhagat in confidence. Bhagat's books revolutionised the publication industry not only with new readers, but also with many other young writers who tried to follow the Bhagat model of storytelling.