Anushka Sharma, Puma marketing ploy: Effective strategy or a failed publicity

Recently, Anushka Sharma shared a social media post by the India arm of the popular German sportswear brand as an Instagram story. The post showed the actress posing for a photo, in which she was wearing a yellow Puma sports bra and navy blue leggings. The logo was prominently visible on her chest. In the story, Anushka appeared to express outrage over the company using her photo for promoting its products without her permission. “Hey, Puma India? I’m sure you know that you have to take permission before you can use my imagery for publicity since I’m not your ambassador. Please take it down!” she wrote. Virat Kohli, India’s star cricketer and Anushka’s husband who is already Puma India’s brand ambassador, shared the story.

So what was that Puma-Anushka Sharma fuss all about?

Many thought all this hullabaloo smacked of a poorly-conceived marketing gimmick, while Anushka’s fans conveyed anger at Puma. Of course, the former set of people was proven right. It had to be a gimmick. It was ludicrously obvious. 

And indeed the next day, Puma shared a photo depicting what appeared to be a contract between the actress and the company with its contents blurred and a CONFIDENTIAL written in big, red letters. Anushka shared the post in another one of her stories, writing, “I’ll sleep on it.” Now, the rest of those who still thought this was a booboo on part of Puma also realised what was happening. It was not actually subtle, mind you.

And no, Puma didn’t quickly draw up a contract to save face. The company had already signed Anushka and this was done to garner headlines, increase brand recall, and do what every marketing campaign is supposed to do: sell more products. 

Was it an effective strategy?

That is something only Puma knows or will know in the future. Having a recognised name, particularly a big celebrity like Anushka, always helps, so long as the product roughly coincides with the image of the said celebrity. And the actress is quite well-known for her fitness. And many brands have made judicious and innovative use of social media to increase awareness about their products in the recent past. So yes, at one level, it may indeed be effective. Again, it’s too early to say but a cursory perusal of tweets and comments indicates that a goodly number of people are impressed by whoever cooked up the campaign.

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And even if many are slamming the company and the actor, a popular saying will have it that any sort of publicity is good publicity. This is something most marketing experts will agree with. It is better to be notorious than unknown.

The trouble is, these sorts of strategies do tend to backfire. Social media is a hard nut to crack for even veteran marketing and advertising professionals. On social media, people do not see the entire thing straight away, they are usually too busy scrolling to see the next piece of content. It is entirely possible that many saw Anushka’s initial story slamming Puma, got busy with professional endeavours, and missed the rest of the drama. Those may not even be aware that it was a joke. For them, Puma is now a company that is guilty of using a celeb’s image to promote its products without actually paying them.

Have social media ad campaigns backfired before?

More than one can count. Particularly those that intend to hoodwink potential customers in some way. One famous example is Burger King, a popular fast food chain that appears to be going from one marketing fiasco to another in the last couple of decades. On 2021’s International Women’s Day, Burger King UK shared an advertisement in newspapers that highlighted the lack of female chefs in its restaurants. The ad began with the text “Women belong in the kitchen” before adding that the company was sponsoring a scholarship programme for women who wish to “pursue their culinary dreams” and highlighted the skewed employee sex ratio in restaurants in the UK and the US. The  Burger King Foundation promised $25,000 grants to chosen female aspiring cooks/chefs under the H.E.R. (Helping Equalize Restaurants) scholarships.

All well and good. But the social media team of Burger King, to reproduce the campaign on that most unsubtle of social networks — Twitter — began with a tweet reading “Women belong in the kitchen” and let it all simmer for a while. While in the print, the context was hard to miss, on Twitter? Not so. Of course, it went haywire, with tweeple, even after learning what the brand had intended, excoriating the company for using a lame, old sexist joke to promote what was, essentially, a good cause. And since the tweet could stand on its own, it was shared widely without context and the company had to withdraw the tweet and issue an apology.

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“We hear you. We got our initial tweet wrong and we’re sorry. Our aim was to draw attention to the fact that only 20% of professional chefs in UK kitchens are women and to help change that by awarding culinary scholarships. We will do better next time,” said Burger King.

A lesson to be learned here.

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