With 13.3 million followers on photo-sharing app Instagram and 9.5 million on Facebook, Ranveer Singh enjoys a following that few Bollywood stars can boast of. Such that when 33-old Singh, the first Indian ambassador of Switzerland Tourism, shares a picture posing against Lake Geneva or masquerading as Charlie Chaplin at the eponymous museum in Vevey, social media is instantly abuzz with young Indians fawning over his travel escapades through likes, shares and retweets.
Switzerland Tourism is elated, and why not. Before the association with Singh, the tourism board says, Switzerland was struggling to go beyond its clichéd image as a romantic destination for honeymoon couples, thanks to Yash Raj films. The need of the hour was to connect with young Indian travellers seeking newer destinations in the country along with high-adrenaline adventures.
"I think it (the association with Ranveer) has had a huge impact. Ranveer has been fronting the campaign, Ranveer and his team have been coming up with a lot of creative ideas. I think if we were talking about the same new destinations on our own we would have not had such an impact," says Claudio Zemp, Director, Switzerland Tourism India.
Singh is not riding this bandwagon alone. Over the past three years, several foreign tourism boards have roped in Bollywood actors to promote their destinations, cuisines and activities through photographs and videos posted through the celebrity's personal social media feeds. These Facebook posts and Instagram photos and stories are then liked and shared by online followers and fan clubs.
While Sidharth Malhotra of 'Student of the Year' fame was brought on-board as the brand ambassador for New Zealand Tourism in October 2015, Dubai Tourism collaborated with Shahrukh Khan in early 2017. Among female actors, Parineeti Chopra became the first Indian woman ambassador for Australia Tourism in September 2017. And earlier this year, Fiji tourism signed on 'Barfi' actor Ileana D'cruz.
Brand consultants believe the digital medium brings far more benefits compared with traditional media, for the tourism boards as well as actors. For example, it speaks directly to the specific target audience and also offers exponential reach through the power of likes, shares and retweets.
"I think that is a fantastic strategy. Because when they are sharing their life with you, you almost become a peer group for them. You enjoy the holiday as they would. And therefore this is a much more relatable promise than having an endorsement where Amitabh Bachchan comes and says you should travel and it's a prescriptive way of saying you should travel to Gujarat," says Alpana Parida, Managing Director, DY Works, referring to Amitabh Bachchan's famous campaign for Gujarat Tourism. "The difference between the older kind of advertising was where somebody told you this is what you should do as opposed to someone showing what they're doing. So this is definitely more appealing," she adds.
The digital medium also proves to be far more cost effective than traditional media.
"Traditional media print and TV is very expensive. Most brands can't afford to sign a celebrity and then pay for media. Digital honestly is the way to go. Especially if you see tourism boards and their target audience, most are high spending urban youth between 20-35 years and most consume content in the digital space, with not too many watching TV. Digital not only allows you to target a specific audience but also offers better ROIs. That's why many brands go the digital and not the A-T-L way," says Indranil Das Blah, Co-Founder at Kwan Entertainment & Marketing Solutions, a celebrity talent management firm.
For Bollywood actors, representing these exalted locations is not only financially lucrative, but also offers high visibility on online platforms.
Says Blah: "A typical endorsement contract is very different from 3-4 years ago. A few years ago a celebrity would give his time and that would be used to shoot a TVC or print shoot. Today each contract has a digital component. Irrespective of how many days the celebrity offers to give for the campaign shoot, there is also a requirement for a particular number of posts on Twitter, FB, and Instagram. So if helps both parties because the brand gets a lot of engagement. For the ambassador, there is a lot more amplification in the digital space which, in turn, gets more content and in turn more followers. So it's a win-win to be more integrated into the digital medium."
"A flat fee required the star to simply show up, be present for the shoot and may be emote a bit. This requires engagement from them, to co-opt the brand, work for it to drive traffic to their post, driving traffic to the destination. There are more than just an ambassador, they're working for the brand. In that scenario, to be working for a variable fee on actual outcomes is a much smarter move for both. The brand will largely pay on success of the campaign and for stars, that success gives them better returns. So again it's a big win-win," adds Parida of DY Works.
But the moot question is: are these celebrity associations actually increasing tourist inflow to these destinations? Swiss Tourism says the alpine nation has witnessed a strong surge in Indian travellers after associating with Ranveer. In 2017, Switzerland saw an annual increase of 23.4 percent in the overnights spent by Indians in the country.
Zemp says: "With a 23 percent increase in overnights, it's clear we're getting an increase in passengers coming and the number of people applying for visas have increased dramatically. Even this year, we already have almost 30% more people applying for visas to come through the Swiss Embassy."
New Zealand has also seen double digit growth in Indian travellers over the past two years. Figures from New Zealand tourism's annual reports for 2015-16 and 2016-17 show the total number of Indian travelers grew 13.35 percent in 2016 and 15.2 percent in 2017. Growth in holiday visitors from India, however, saw a sharp drop from 22.10 percent in 2016 to 7 percent in 2017.
New Zealand's tourism board said Sidharth's brand appeal has resulted in New Zealand enjoying greater top-of-mind recall. Quoting its annual report for 2016-17, "Bollywood star Sidharth Malhotra continues to be our proud ambassador in India. His visit in November gained widespread media coverage across print, online, social and TV channels. PR content from Sidharth's visit reached 55 percent of all active considerers, up significantly from his 2015 visit (37 percent). This suggests that content and channels are having greater cut through, and the strength of the relationship is resulting in enhanced campaign effectiveness."
Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan's collaboration with Dubai Tourism through the award-winning 'BeMyGuest' campaign has also garnered widespread attention and led to a surge in Indian travellers to the gulf emirate. According to figures published by Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Dubai witnessed 15 percent growth in tourist arrivals from India in 2017. Hosting 2.1 million visitors, India also retained the top spot in terms of visitor arrivals.
While Indian travellers are increasingly visiting places endorsed by celebrities, brand consultants are quick to add that stars alone cannot ensure higher tourist inflows. On one hand, the cost of travel, facilities offered by the destination and climatic conditions are important factors that determine a traveller's holiday destination. On the other, even a big-ticket actor will be unable to change fortunes of a promising destination if the advertising communication fail to strike a chord with discerning young travellers.
"Fiji, for example, has roped in Ileana, who is possibly a good fit because of the creatives.If the creatives don't make sense, then the campaign won't work (in drawing tourists). So it's not really a function of which tier of celebrities are being roped in but how you use them that really matters," says Blah of Kwan Entertainment.