Virat Kohli as Uber's brand ambassador: How long will the ride last?

Sometime last year when Virat Kohli announced that he would not endorse a cola brand ever because it went against his lifestyle and principles, he set the cat among the pigeons. As Pepsi’s most high profile brand ambassador in the country, he had in effect turned against his own brand. The company however did not react and the issue was soon relegated to anecdotal status while Kohli continued on his winning spree making himself one of the most sought after faces among brands.

Now he has signed up yet another endorsement contract; this time with Uber (India). This is a first of its kind initiative for Uber. But for the cricketer, who is valued at US $144 million as per the Rise of the Millennials Report, this is his twentieth brand endorsement. Kohli signing yet another brand is hardly news. But it still gets to the headlines because the Indian captain has not been as discreet or as discriminating with his associations as he is with his game. 

For instance when he cut himself out of cola major PepsiCo’s endorsement list, he did so publicly. In an interview to a media house he said that he was going to practice what he preached and stick to endorsements that promoted healthy lifestyles. Pepsi did not fit the bill. Endorsing a soft drink appeared out of sync with the Kohli persona. So Brand Kohli decided to go kosher. Pepsi did not react except to indicate that the cola major and Kohli had had a good run and they were satisfied with that. However the truth of the matter is that Kohli had been on a fitness trip for at least 3-4 years prior to dumping Pepsi. Why did it take him so long to dump the brand?

The problem with such pronouncements is that they haunt the endorser long after words have been spoken. Take for instance the recent scandal with Punjab National Bank (PNB). Embroiled in one of the biggest bank scams of our times, PNB had chosen Virat Kohli as its brand ambassador in September 2017 for his "mass appeal to the youth of our country" and because of his qualities like "determination, focus, and winning habit". During the signing of the contract, the cricketer had said in various interviews that PNB is 'Mera Apna Bank' (my own bank) and that he was an account holder since the age of 16 years. Now that brand PNB is up in flames, the team that represents his brand interests was forced to declare: "There is no dialogue to extend the contract so as of now." 

Uber has had a history of mishaps in its short innings in India. Hardly a day goes without a newspaper headline about accusations and misdemeanours related to the brand in some part of the world or the other. If something serious were to hit the brand, how would the Indian captain react? Kohli’s managers would have accounted for the risks associated with the Uber endorsement, but they will have to be careful as given the public scrutiny that brands and endorsers find themselves under today, it will be difficult to walk away from potential scandals in the future. 

Endorsements like the one for the cab aggregator are uber-sensitive. There has been much history of bad news around the brand. A bigger disaster could happen. Anytime. Anyday. Anywhere. Kohli may have got off lightly on PNB as they never really ran a visible enough brand campaign and very few people were actually aware of his association with the tainted bank. But the Uber deal is a big one and the limelight is unlikely to ever move away from the brand and its endorser. Captain Kohli, watch out.
Sandeep Goyal tracks celebrities as ‘human brands’. Over the years, he has worked with over two dozen celebrities for ad-campaigns

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel