Virat Kohli, Priyanka and others caught in the PNB fraud case crossfire

Diamonds, a bank heist, a glitzy set of actors and flashy businessmen and an international man hunt for criminals—the Rs 114 billion Punjab National Bank-Nirav Modi scam has all the makings of a Bollywood potboiler. But before someone turns it into a script, the unfolding story could end up turning the knife deeper into the brand-endorser relationship that has endured a few hard knocks in the recent past. 

The big question is whether endorsers must be accountable for the frauds, failures and controversies of the brands they endorse? While it is impossible to be fully aware of every aspect of a brand, experts are divided over the extent of culpability. Santosh Desai, MD & CEO, Future Brands says, “I find this whole debate irrational. How would a brand ambassador know of something like this? Senior officials at the bank in question were not aware. The investigative authorities were not aware. How would the endorser then know? This is not to say that the endorser should not do any due diligence. But I find this argument completely out of place.”

This is not the first time that such questions have arisen though. In 2015, the Nestle-Maggi scandal put Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit under the scanner and in 2016, MS Dhoni was hauled over the coals on social media over his association with real-estate group Amrapali (see box). Over the years, there have been other such instances and that has prompted the government to look at ways to strengthen the Consumer Protection Act. Now the PNB scandal will raise fresh concerns, trigger off a chain of political comments and make endorsers and brands more wary of signing up with each other. 

The scandal casts a long shadow; PNB ambassador is Virat Kohli, captain of the Indian cricket team, Priyanka Chopra and Siddharth Malhotra are the faces of the Nirav Modi label, Kangana Ranaut, Kriti Sanon and many others endorse the family of brands under the Gitanjali Group which is owned by Mehul Choksi. (Choksi is Nirav Modi’s uncle and also on the run.) 

Kohli is undoubtedly the hottest brand among celebrities and PNB has used him extensively for TV and print campaigns. Kohli has maintained that he chooses to endorse products and/or services that he either has an experience with, or personally has confidence in. For PNB, he said that he chose to endorse the bank since he has been banking with them from the age of 16. Of course, there is no way Kohli, or any other endorser, could have foreseen the big bank fraud but Brand Virat is unlikely to escape unscathed. Ditto for Priyanka Chopra who has been trying to build her reputation as a bankable international actor.

N Chandramouli, chief executive officer, TRA says, “While there have been instances in the past where the brand ambassador should have been careful like in the Dhoni-Amrapali case, the PNB issue does not fall in this bracket. No brand ambassador would have known about it. However, the unfortunate side of being a public figure is that he or she finds himself or herself in the firing. This is inescapable.”

Brand managers for celebrities say they are aware of the potential threat. Anirban Das Blah, founder KWAN, an entertainment agency says that celebrities are getting more cautious as are their support teams. With access to information, and technology, contracts are now getting more airtight. There is an attempt to professionalise the endorsement business with management teams keeping track of every aspect of the brand’s journey, he says. 

With controversies such as this one, experts say brand ambassadors will get even more cautious, especially when it comes to associating with categories like jewellery much the way it is with real estate. However jewellery labels and celebrities go back a long way. Be it Hollywood where leading ladies walk the red carpet during the Oscars and other award ceremonies wearing their favourite labels or Bollywood where brands get actors to model their designs in a film and at public events. The scandal is unlikely to snap these ties, but it will definitely make uneasy bedfellows out of the two. 

Diamonds and Rust

The Punjab National Bank-Gitanjali Gems-Nirav Modi circle of influence

Priyanka Chopra: Endorses the Nirav Modi label, is part of an ongoing print and out-of-home (OOH) campaign and was brought on board for her international appeal (having been a part of the American television series Quantico and a few Hollywood films)

Siddharth Malhotra: Model-turned actor, he is on many of the hoardings and print ads with Priyanka Chopra for the Nirav Modi label

Kangana Ranaut: She is the face of Nakshatra, a brand under the Mehul Choksi-owned Gitanjali group. In the past, Nakshatra has been endorsed by some of the most famous names in the industry: Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif

Lara Datta and Mahesh Bhupathi: They promoted Sangini brand from the Gitanjali group, but in December 2017 filed an insolvency petition against the jewellery manufacturer for non-payment of dues

Kriti Sanon: Endorses Gili, the first jewellery label launched by the Gitanjali group in 1994 as it took the first steps into modern retail 

Virat Kohli: Is brand ambassador for Punjab National Bank, has been a part of its campaigns for a few years now

In the eye of the storm

2016: MS Dhoni and Amrapali Group

Then the Indian cricket captain, Dhoni came under attack on social media when the real estate major he endorsed, the Amrapali Group, reneged on its commitment to property buyers in Noida. The project called Sapphire had overshot all deadlines and all those who had invested in the apartments trolled Dhoni, asking him to take the brand to task. The two parted ways with the Amrapali promoters saying that the cricketer was unnecessarily being drawn into the mess

2015: Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit and Nestle

Maggi Noddles went off the shelves as the Uttar Pradesh FDA ran a test on some packets and found lead concentration above permissible limits. As the company scrambled to cobble together its defence, actors Bachchan and Dixit found themselves in the line of consumer and political fire 

 


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