Employees vs Celebs: The Tech Brand Ambassador Debate

by: - Last updated on: January 31st, 2017

It might have recently lost its high-profile global vice-president, but Xiaomi has forged a reputation for being unconventional and unorthodox in the Indian smartphone market. And thanks to its success (we hear the Redmi Note 4 has sold a quarter of a million units in ten minutes even as we write this), ever since the brand arrived in India, there has been a constant debate between those that prefer conventional ways of marketing and the ones that like the Xiaomi-approach.

When it entered India, Xiaomi was perhaps the first brand ever to sell its products only online and through a flash sale model, with absolutely zero advertising at that point in “traditional” media. No matter the odds against this succeeding (and the criticism from many quarters), it did prove that the not-so-mainstream ways can also work – it is now one of the top smartphone brands in the Indian market, well ahead of the likes of Sony, LG and HTC.

Although we have seen various companies adopting similar models since, the debate between the conventional and unconventional sides of product marketing continues. And now it could extend to marketing communications as well. There are companies which are content and satisfied with the old school methods, and there are others that are trying a different approach – or rather there is one, and yes, it is Xiaomi again.

Gionee Virat Kohli

This specifically is the tale of the two Chinese brothers (Well, brothers might just not be the right word but Chinese definitely is). Recently, Gionee signed the captain of the Indian cricket team, Virat Kohli as its brand ambassador – a move that comes as no surprise because the company previously had celebrity names like Alia Bhatt endorsing the brand. And in sheer celebrity terms, Virat Kohli is as big as they get. But trust Xiaomi (yes, that’s the other brother) to do something that was pretty much not a part of the marketing communication syllabus.

A few days ago, Xiaomi took the covers off the Redmi Note 4. But one thing that caught our eyes other than the smartphone itself (read our Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 review here) were some of the slides used in the presentation introducing it. These slides were showcasing the phone with models.

Sounds routine? Wait.

Instead of going with the mainstream way and choosing established models, Xiaomi chose to showcase its newly launched smartphone with the people who have worked in building the smartphone. The company used some well-known faces from its staff to model its products.

jai mani

So now we have two Chinese brand names using two very different communication strategies. Gionee before signing Virat Kohli had Alia Bhat as its brand ambassador while Xiaomi has had none. The two companies that have chosen two very different ways of marketing communications have been in the eyes of the users and the market. The question is: which is the better brand ambassador – the celeb or the employee?

We have seen Gionee’s TVCs, print ads and other mainstream advertising, which sticks to the tried and tested. On the other hand, Xiaomi recently ventured into outdoor advertising (OOH) where it stuck to focusing on the product. The company has still not paid a lot of attention to TVCs or print ads, preferring to focus mainly on new media. Both approaches have worked to an extent. While Xiaomi has managed to get the spotlight without heavily investing in “traditional” marketing, Gionee has been able to create a certain retention in the minds of the audience through its ads.

gionee alia

Speaking for ourselves, we have always had our doubts with how well celebrity endorsements pay off in the tech world but we cannot deny the fact that they do give the brand a lot of visibility and a familiar face. But do these translate into sales? Celebrities definitely build a connect and bridge the gap which is often there between relatively new companies like Gionee and the consumers, but we do not know how much does it motivates the consumer to buy a particular product. We have seen celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Katrina Kaif, Shah Rukh Khan as the brand ambassadors of brands like Zen Mobiles, Sony and Nokia but honestly, we have never seen a person buying a smartphone because of the fact that a certain celebrity is endorsing it.

Xiaomi has mostly taken the road less traveled when it comes to communications and has used some lesser known faces to go with its newly launched smartphone. We do have to say that we actually really liked the idea and it was well executed, too. The company just picked up the faces working behind the scenes and put them on the stage with the product, albeit with a professional photographer and settings. These faces were not as known as the face of Alia Bhatt or Virat Kohli for that matter but these people were not particularly unfamiliar faces, too. The company used the face of Jai Mani, its product manager of India, Manu Jain, India head of the company and various other people, whose faces might not be known to the general public but are comfortably identifiable in the Mi communities or even among geeks and tech bloggers. And that is exactly where the company is placing these images. They have been doing the rounds on various social media platforms and forums which have been one of the most used and highlighted media for Xiaomi to talk about its products – and of course, some of the employees have also switched their social network and chat DPs to those featuring them with the product (hey, they look that good). The company has created a very strong nexus on the social media which works on a combination of word of mouth and unconventional marketing communications and it has worked for the brand.

sudeep shree

The use of celebrities definitely builds a link between the product and the users, and consumers many-a-times associate the attributes of the celebrities with the product, but celebrities also at times divert attention from the product itself. But then, that is a risk that is as big as using lesser known faces to represent the product – it may actually create a lesser impact on the audience and the consumer might forget the product because of its not-so-strong approach in terms of ambassadors.

Xiaomi claims that its out of the box approach has been able to create loyalists which it calls the Mi fans, who are mainly an online community. On the other hand, brands like Gionee have used traditional methods and are trying to tap the humongous potential that resides in the offline market.

The two brands are definitely taking two completely different routes to get to the same ultimate destination – good old market share. And both are investing effort in the process but how much these efforts are going to turn into sales is still a very important question hovering around these very distinct approaches. While one company has spent possibly a fortune in signing a celebrity and buying slots and spaces, the other one has simply used its own resources to spread the message across.

Which one out of the two ways actually work? Well, they cater to different audiences, which have different needs and perceptions. And we will not know the answer until we see the actual sales figures, but at the end of the day, we think Xiaomi might just have upset some marcomms folk with its relatively low-budget approach. One thing we know for sure: it resulted in some very happy employees. A few decades ago, a company had put the signatures of the people who had made a product inside the product itself. It did not make the product any better but it did result in a tremendous boost in employee morale and added to the company’s aura of being different.

The company was Apple. The product was the Macintosh.
Do you know what they call Xiaomi?
The Apple of China.

Wonder if that had something to do with it all…

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