Did Ayushmann Khurrana Take the Difference Too Far?, Marketing & Advertising News, ET BrandEquity

Advice to Ayushmann for 2022: don’t change. Stay the same. A tiger never changes its stripes. (Image credits: Shubhra Dey)

By Sandeep Goyal

I have to start this piece with a warning. Ayushmann Khurrana comes from my hometown, Chandigarh. Ayushmann Khurrana is from my college – DAV College. Ayushmann Khurrana is from my school – St. John’s. All these common roots are reason enough for me to have a little more affection for him. But I have to admit that I don’t know him personally. Our headmaster, bless the lady, tried to introduce us two Johnians, who are now working in Bombay, but his hyper-possessive agents at YRF blocked any further contact. I have however heard him at live concerts, and his interpretation of Paani Da is simply outstanding.

Ayushmann was the subject of one of my first pieces on human marks in 2018. I said then, after looking at his pillar model that yeh lambi daud ka ghoda hai. This guy will go far. From the research I had done on him up to that point, and the data I had shown, a very robust and energetic upward curve for empathy, affection, and emulatorability. Three very formidable Es in the field of human brands in which I get into. In 2020, when we finally published the TIARA report at the Indian Institute of Human Brands (IIHB), Ayushmann validated my prediction of 2018 as India’s most identified with celebrity. Khurrana then became the new darling of advertisers. For Khurrana, 2018-19 had not only been a dream run at the box office, but also as a celebrity brand endorser for those trying to reach out to the guy next door. His seven consecutive successes, including Andhadhun, which won him a National Film Award for Best Actor had already made him a force to be reckoned with in Bollywood. In 2020, Khurrana was already the face of 15 brands – from eyewear (Titan) to watches (Daniel Wellington) and clothing (Turtle) to men’s skincare (The Man Company). Our analysis at the time showed that the most important dimension behind Khurrana’s rise in brand awareness was that, unlike most other celebrities, he was not perceived as aloof and off-putting. His relatability was very high, which contributed to him being considered “endearing”. Which, in the construction of TIARA, earned it a very high “emulability” score. This is all very much in line with what was seen in the data two years earlier, in 2018.

What is emulation? Emulator is an amalgamation of people liking or loving the celebrity, respecting it, identifying with it – wanting to be like it. I wrote then: “Ayushmann’s shrewd choice in the reel roles earned him a very high score for ‘identifying’ with, in addition to the hugely important parameter ‘he’s like me.’ For an even larger audience, emulator is the desire, “I wish I was like him.” Why? Ayushmann has an easy familiarity and comes across as friendly and fun, affable and genuine. And cool too. Consequently, his films are doing well and he is in demand by brands.

Is all of this still true in 2022? If we look back, Ayushmann played a sperm donor in Vicky Donor in 2012. An unprecedented super hit. Nautanki Sala! in 2013, based on the 2003 French comedy After You was a mixed success. Dum Laga Ke Haisha in 2015 was the remake of the international hit My fat bride. Super-duper blow. Bareilly ki Burfi based on the novel by Nicolas Barreau, The ingredients of love, was a tangled romantic comedy with Ayushmann playing Chirag Dubey who nearly loses his daughter to Pritam Vidrohi played by Rajkummar Rao. Another crushing blow. Shubh Mangal Saavdhan the tamil movie remake Kalyana Samayal Saadham saw Khurrana play Mudit Sharma, who is about to get married, and how he deals with his erectile dysfunction with his fiancé and his family. Great shot again. Andhadhun based on The Tuner (The Piano Tuner), a 2010 French short about a blind pianist, had Ayushmann Khurana playing the blind lead, and went on to be a BIG hit. Badhaai Ho, the story of a middle-aged mother who becomes pregnant, much to the disappointment of her sons and the embarrassment of the whole family, had Ayushmann in a very cute role as the bullied eldest son. It was a sleeper shot. Ayushmann as ACP Ayaan Ranjan in Section 15 was very measured and restrained. Medium shot. The Pooja call center which is actually Karamveer Singh, in dream girl was a role with a twist for Ayushmann. To hit. Balmukund Shukla played by Anshumann as Bala was a satirical dark comedy about a man suffering from male pattern baldness, and the story of his lack of confidence and the societal pressure placed on him with premature baldness. Interesting and different. Great shot. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan was about homosexuality. Did above average business. And Gulabo Sitabo was about a small town wastrel. As it was on Netflix, no BO numbers to report. And at the end of last year Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui published on the subject of LGBT / transgender. Warm blow. Quite a repertoire, and a pretty good success rate, right?

With all this, what would you call Ayushman Khurrana? Versatile? Innovative? Different? Differentiated? Distinctive? Unique? Out of the box? Does Brand Ayushmann zigzag when everyone else zigzags?

Which brings me to the heart of this piece: of course, Ayushmann is different, but is this differentiation relevant? Is this differentiation why brands like Toyota Urban Cruiser, KitKat by Nestlé, Bajaj Allianz, JSW Paints, Sprite, Tide, Colgate Palmolive, Cipla, UNICEF, Balaji Wafers, The Man Company, Titan Eye Plus, HDFC Payzapp, Godrej Security Solutions, Realme, Magicbricks, Nexus Mall, Daniel Wellington, Vingajoy, Urban Clap, Samsung Galaxy, Coca Cola, V-Mart, McDowell’s No. 1, VI John, Lancer, Flipkart, Blaupunkt, American Tourister, XOLO Plus, Datsun, Pizza Hut … and maybe others have bet on it?

But before going any further, let’s define what differentiation means.

Differentiation, in strategic marketing, measures the degree to which a brand is perceived as different from others. It is the ability of a brand to stand out from its competitors. Differentiation has three constituents. They are: Be different which refers to how the brand’s offering differs from its competitors. Being Unique refers to the quality of the brand and carries the essence of its existence. It has more to do with the credibility, authenticity and originality of the idea that the brand carries. Being distinctive refers to the value of a brand.

Ayushmann made waves with his role in Vicky Donor. This set him apart from the rest of the crowd of newcomers. As a role, it was different and memorable. And unique. And distinctive. With Vicky Donor, Ayushmann has found a winning formula by chance: to be different in that it selects themes that are out of the ordinary and can become hooks for memorization and public recall. He followed the formula in most of his other films. So it wasn’t really Ayushmann who was versatile, but the narratives in his films that were different and captured the popular imagination. In the process, it has itself been labeled as “different” if not “differentiated” by our definitions above.

Somehow in Gulabo Sitabo the waste he portrayed had nothing different to offer. That’s why not only did Amitabh Bachchan completely overshadow it, but most people who watched the movie didn’t really have much praise to offer for Khurrana’s role. According to the winning formula The Ayushmann, the differentiation was not clear enough; so this left Ayushmann Khurrana in a sort of lazy latecomer position.

I do not know if Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui was Ayushmann’s choice because of the mention of Chandigarh in the title, or the LGBT/transgender theme, or just to show that Ayushmann Khurrana has six-packs too! I normally enjoy Ayushmann playing his various roles. Somehow Manvinder ‘Manu’ Munjal just left me very cold.

My view is that Brand Ayushmann Khurrana needs an urgent course correction. He can’t be different just to be different. LGBT history hasn’t cut much ice, even with its loyal and die-hard following in Chandigarh itself. It just failed to resonate with enough viewers. Yes, it was different, but was it relevant and different? And therein lies the crux of the matter: if the formula for success is to continue, then story selection and its own role must receive far more rigorous attention. For that, he has a lot to learn from Aamir Khan.

When it comes to six-packs, Ayushmann has to understand that a steroid-induced chiseled body didn’t help even Shahrukh Khan once his flicks stopped hitting the upper circuits. Ayushmann Khurana didn’t have the six-packs in Vicky Donor. Or at least they were neither visible nor relevant. Same in Andhadhun or the other super-hits. An Ayushmann wanting to display a very athletic and fit body can actually take away Ayushmann’s greatest strength – his boy-next-door charm.

I may take examples that a few will remember, but Farooq Sheikh and Amol Palekar were exactly the mold of Ayushmann Khurana in the 1970s and 80s. But they were the underdogs. And losers who would eventually get lucky, and get the girl. Ayushmann is not the outsider but the ordinary Joe that everyone identifies with – and wants to emulate. The moment Khurrana decides to become more athletic or edgy or more upscale or wealthy or sophisticated, the original and authentic Ayushmann Khurrana brand will be lost. And that’s the biggest threat to his brand today: the urge to “be more” rather than “do more” of the same thing.

The brands that Ayushmann endorses love him as the simple, straight-forward, unvarnished individual he’s been through most of his career until Andhadhoun. WYSIWYG – What you see is what you get. A new and improved Ayushmann is neither necessary nor relevant. The new version can actually hurt and hurt the original.

Advice to Ayushmann for 2022: don’t change. Stay the same. A tiger never changes its stripes.

(The author is the managing director of Rediffusion. The opinions expressed are personal.)

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