When the Hindustan Times media group hosted a Luxury Conference in Mumbai on January 13, the high-profile event stretched incongruity even in a country of staggering contrasts. The conference, with the backing of the Federation of Indian Commerce and Industry (FICCI), featured mega-spending painfully co-existing with news such as nearly 200 people dying of cold in northern India for want of blankets.
Striding this grim chasm of extreme luxury amid extreme poverty, India's sports and entertainment stars are increasingly being hired as brand ambassadors. They feed a new multimillion-US-dollar business spinning promotional contracts, guest appearances at private parties for hefty fees, and paid-for editorial plugs on metropolitan cocktail circuits - all part of the gold fluff in an economy that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expects to grow by 7-7.5% in 2005-06.
Amitabh Bachchan, India's most popular movie star and who, at the age of 62, is still the highest-paid and busiest model, TV anchor and actor, plugs products ranging from chocolates and ballpoint pens to soft drinks and wall paints. Estimated to be involved in projects worth more than $47 million, Bachchan even had the Income Tax Department demand nearly $2 million in dues to be paid in three days this month as he lay in an intensive-care unit of a New Delhi hospital for intestinal problems.
With Bachchan rides Sachin Tendulkar, one of Asia's richest athletes and ace cricketer, who made headlines with his five-year $22 million contract, which ended on December 31. The market estimate is that his next contract could be worth double the existing amount.
India's healthy economy has generated a new wave of single-person businesses, with such Bollywood stars as Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Amir Khan, Saif Ali Khan and athletes such as Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and Sania Mirza prospering as brand ambassadors.
Insiders say the celebrity management business is worth about $50 million just for the management agencies. The going seems good enough for brand ambassadors themselves to open celebrity management shops. The Bangalore-based Globosport, with doubles tennis ace Mahesh Bhupathi as management director, manages about 15 sports and movie stars and claims to be among the top two in the country, with a 20% share in the business.
"India is such a celebrity-driven country," Anirban Das, Globosport's vice president, told Asia Times Online from Bangalore. "Coastal China and Hong Kong to some extent, but a large section of India mostly lives out its lives in fantasies in entertainment."
Das sees the rampaging celebrity culture as one that is not new, but simply had booster rockets attached to it in recent years after Tendulkar signed his first multimillion-dollar contract with sports management agency Worldtel in the mid-1990s.
"People began to see how much money could be made out of celebrity endorsements," said Das, who believes that not many in his business have still caught on to the finer points and instead confine themselves to simply signing up the stars and hawking them to clients, many of whom are, or aspire to be, major international brands.
Leading branding consultant Martin Roll in his new book *Asian Brand Strategy* (published by Palgrave Macmillan) argues for branding strategies to become a predominant marketing force across the Asia-Pacific region.
Roll, a visiting professor at Shanghai's highly rated China-Europe International Business School, expects branding to be closely linked to cultural and social development among Asian consumers wanting to exchange colonial hangups for an Asian identity. In the next decade or two, marketing soothsayers expect Asia to contribute significantly to the next generation of globally known brands. India is expected to lead the pack, with an estimated 1 million-plus luxury consumers and the fastest-growing auto market in the world.
"The middle class is stretching [its] incomes to move to the luxury segment," B Venkatesh, sales manager of a Chevrolet showroom in South Delhi, told Asia Times Online. He said the Indian luxury market is growing by more than 8% year-on-year. Rolls-Royce sells its Phantom to Indian buyers for $795,000, and Bentley's Continental Flying Spur sells for $385,000.
Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath is even more upbeat. He told the Hindustan Luxury Conference on January 13 that the market for luxury lifestyle products could grow more than 50% annually and create many jobs.
He estimated just the high-end clothing market alone to be worth more than $235 million.
Amid cutthroat competition, marketing professionals see brand ambassadors as a necessity. "With about 85 television channels [carrying advertising], how do you break out of the clutter?" said Das. "Clients have lost faith [in] the creative abilities of advertising agencies, and just want a famous face to plug their products."
The advertising world agrees. "Using brand ambassadors works and every major client wants it now," said Nilesh Patil, associate media director of Euro RSCG in Mumbai. "Even the Mumbai Marathon [an international event held last Sunday] had a brand ambassador in Javagal Srinath," a former international cricketer.
Globosport politely refused to mention the worth of its contracts with stars such as tennis sensation Sania Mirza, but published average estimates of celebrity contracts range anywhere from $250,000 annually to the mega-million deal Tendulkar is expected to sign.
At the Hindustan Times Luxury Conference, Commerce Minister Nath was obviously wary of the "India Shining" gold-and-glitter image that the previous government disastrously peddled in its pre-election campaign, even as thousands of Indian farmers committed suicide after crop failures and mounting debts. Nath optimistically hoped that more employment opportunities could be created in the small-scale industry sector through indigenously designed luxury products, in a country where hundreds of millions still have no access to drinking water, electricity, sanitation and basic education.
Asia Times Online