In the light of the latest multi-million dollar scam involving diamantaire Nirav Modi, we examine the repercussions of cases like these, the learnings they offer and ask if it is even possible for a tarnished brand to win back public trust
By SAMARPITA BANERJEE & SIMRAN SABHERWAL
As a top-angle shot of an exclusive terrace restaurant panned to a dapper-looking Siddharth Malhotra waiting to pop the question to his lady love, played by Priyanka Chopra in the ‘Say yes, forever’ campaign, millions of aspirational Indians were introduced to the ‘Haut Diamantaire’ brand, Nirav Modi. Established in 2010, it did not take brand Nirav Modi a long time to become a global jewellery brand as it spread its footprint to New York, Macau, Hong Kong, Beijing and London, in addition to its India presence in Mumbai and New Delhi. Besides Chopra and Malhotra, the brand also roped in Indian model and actor, Lisa Hayden, along with international faces like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Andreea Diaconu. Adding to the glamour quotient were the Nirav Modi designs popping up at various red carpet appearances around the necks and wrists of eminent actors including Kate Winslet, Dakota Johnson and Amy Adams, to name a few.
However, the expansion plans and a glittering future for both the man and the brand seem to have lost their shine given that the diamond merchant is the main accused in the Rs 11,400 crore Punjab National Bank (PNB) financial fraud case.
And it doesn’t stop there. Apart from brand Nirav Modi, other brands under Modi’s uncle Mehul Choksi, the promoter of Gitanjali Gems, have also lost their sparkle. When consumer preferences started changing in the 1990’s from traditional pieces to smaller pieces of jewellery, Choksi sensed a huge retail opportunity and launched jewellery brand Gili in 1994, and followed this up with brands Nakshatra, Asmi, Sangini, Nizam, and Parineeta.
However, the recent controversy has once again driven home the age-old proverb – all that glitters is not gold. Time and again, many companies have managed to create a buzz, and dazzle customers and investors through high-profile campaigns, getting them to buy into the glitzy marketing, only to later end up deceiving the consumer after getting embroiled in murky controversies.
The latest brand that has come under the scanner in the aftermath of the Nirav Modi case is Rotomac, whose promoters Vikram and Rahul Kothari have been charged with a loan default to the tune of Rs 3,700 crore.
BUILDING OF A BRAND
Trust is an important element for any brand to be successful, and it is here that brand Nirav Modi failed. Says Ronita Mitra, Founder, Brand Eagle Consulting, “The damage to the brand Nirav Modi is not about a bad quality product that has failed. Building a brand involves much more than visible advertising and use of celebrities. It is all aspects of the business coming together, the product and brand being what is finally consumed. In this case, he got the front end of the business right – the product was great, the advertising, visual identity…all worked very well. The most important aspect of a brand however is Trust.” She continues, “Trust is delivered not just by the product quality but what the organisation/ brand stands for – it’s purpose, it’s value system backed by robustness of organisational systems such as supply chain, financial systems, etc. In this case all the other aspects which contribute towards a strong foundation for the organisation and eventually trust, were weak.” Brands are also about the external image which they portray. While the internal image is privy only to the owners, their bankers and at times to their employees, consumers are more concerned about the front-end offering that the brand offers, rather than the back-end of the business.
This is probably what aided the meteoric rise of Modi. According to Ambi M G Parameswaran, Brand Strategist & Founder, Brand-Building.com, “Nirav Modi was attempting to build a brand; probably the first Indian designer brand, and took it global. Great ambitions and vision, purely from a branding view point. And great chutzpah! If you remember Tanishq and Titan, too, wanted to enter the developed markets with their watches and jewellery, but had to beat a hasty retreat, given the huge cost of entry. Nirav Modi managed to build a drawbridge to enter the US and European markets. So, in a sense, he did manage to achieve a miracle, from pure branding terms.”
However, the unfortunate part in this miracle story, feels Ambi, was the fact that it was all achieved with money that Modi probably never had, or money that he never intended to return.
“I don’t think as a brand they stand a chance for a comeback unless they are exonerated of the crime. All the more so because you are in a category where trust is of utmost importance. A brand of Jewellery must inspire trust in you, that they will not cheat you. We are dealing with a high-onvalue and high-on-emotion purchase, I don’t think we can be casual about this.”
Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett
“Personally I feel being a citizen of this country, such brands and companies should be banned, I will never encourage anyone to entertain such scamsters by buying their products or services, even if we don’t have options around, but as we all know it’s a buyer’s market and we have loads of options available for a consumer, so why not do our bit and treat him for what he has done to the nation.”
Co-founder, Taproot Dentsu
“Usually celebrities are vulnerable for attack in such cases, it is not like a company has gone under, performed badly or it is a case of negligence, like Coca Cola or Cadbury, where both the celebrities, Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan stood by the brands and helped them salvage their image. In the case of Nirav Modi, it appears like a willful act of fraud similar to the Vijay Mallya and Harshad Mehta cases. Him coming clean looks unlikely as of now, what can the celebrity do there? As far as regaining public trust is concerned, it can’t happen unless the law of the land finds Nirav Modi blameless. Then there can be some kind of a PR exercise to come out of it or the brand will have to be acquired by a completely different company and be rebranded, but then they won’t want to keep any connection with the original brand.”
CCO, Contract Advertising
From a brand point of view, brand Nirav Modi is in tatters. It has also affected the Narendra Modi brand. This is because he came to power riding on the back of the ‘good governance’ promise. As it turns out, the banking system has been hit by problem after problem even as the culprits continue to get away. Lastly, confidence in the banking system is at a new low, which is a serious issue. How the government moves to restore it will be interesting.
Founding Partner, Pitchfork Partners
A celebrity contract with a brand already has protection for the celebrities. Agencies do thorough research before they sign a celebrity with the brand. Honestly, nobody would have expected Nirav Modi or Gitanjali to be in the situation that they are in, a month ago. In terms of lessons, the checks and balances and the protection for the celebrities already exist. The only thing that we can perhaps learn from this is to be slightly more careful about the brands that you endorse. Having said that, two months ago, if Nirav Modi wanted to sign a celebrity, every agency would have said yes.
INDRANIL DAS BLAH
Founding Partner, KWAN & CEO, Mumbai City FC
Full page ads, multiple celebrity faces, glitzy showrooms are all signs that the company is either well-heeled or is running a Ponzi scheme. So the signs were all there for some years. The entire Indian jewellery business has been seeing absurd growth and multiple celebrity endorsements. We don’t know if all of them are also Nirav Modis waiting to implode.
AMBI M G PARAMESWARAN
Brand Strategist & Founder, Brand-Building.com
There lies a very important lesson and message for the innumerable startups in India. Brands are not just about the external trappings and façade and how it “appears”. It is what goes behind building brands – the brand purpose and the value system of the business - that determines how sustainable the brand’s reputation will be.
Founder, Brand Eagle Consulting
ScamChe! Scams happen. This is one such. In one quick day, the entire credibility of the jewellery and gems trade in India was wiped out. And that to me is serious in this Nirav Modi fiasco. Not everyone in this trade functions in this way, yet, the image of the entire business is tainted. I think the gems and jewellery industry needs to treat this as a crisis and manage the crisis. This is not about Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi or Gitanjali Gems and Gili alone. It is about an entire industry put into turmoil. The industry needs to rebrand for sure!
Brand Expert & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults iNc.
One common thread that has been linking all these brands together is their use of some of the most popular faces in the country, be it actors or cricketers. High blitz marketing campaigns and enlisting A-listers as the face of the brand have helped brands garner consumer attention.
Brands aiming for an easy acceptance in the market look for the quick-fix route. The use of a celebrity of high repute is one such quick-fix. Brands in the segment of high-value offerings and luxury find the celebrity an easy prize to hitch their brand-wagons to.
What bolstered brand Nirav Modi was that the involvement of celebrities with the brand was not just confined to advertising. “International celebrities were wearing his brand at prestigious international events. This is more impactful and influential than celebrities wearing your brand in advertisements. Not just that, his brand was sold at renowned auction houses (Sotheby’s and Christie’s). All this adds a lot of credibility to the brand. These are significant influencers, and consumers would see these as indicators of quality and credibility. Indeed, consumers would assume that such reputed individuals and organizations would only associate themselves with brands that came with the assurance of quality,” explains Mitra.
Who is Nirav Modi?
Nirav Modi, the man at the centre of the Rs 11,400 crore banking fraud at Punjab National Bank (PNB), is a third generation diamantaire. He joined Gitanjali Gems Ltd, the family business of his maternal uncle, Mehul Choksi- one of the accused in the ongoing CBI investigation, at the age of 19. His initial years in the family business would then lay the foundation for Modi’s own namesake jewellery business, which he launched in 2010. Jeweller to the stars, brand Nirav Modi has styled celebrities like Kate Winslet and Priyanka Chopra. Last year, Priyanka Chopra was announced as the face of the brand. The brand’s ‘Say Yes’ campaign, featuring Chopra and Bollywood actor, Sidharth Malhotra was rolled out right after that. Some of Nirav Modi’s previous campaigns have featured Hollywood personalities like Lisa Haydon as well as supermodels Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Andreea Diaconu. Currently, the brand has its retail presence in Mumbai, New Delhi, New York, London and Macau, with one boutique in each city and three boutiques in Hong Kong.
Established in 1986 by Mehul Choksi (current Chairman and Managing Director), Gitanjali Gems is one of the largest integrated diamond and jewellery manufacturers and retailers in India. In 1994, the company commenced retail sales though their associate company Gili India Ltd. By 2016, Gitanjali’s network of stores, shop-in-shops, and franchise outlets were spread across 200 cities and 3,000 points of sale in India. At the peak of the company’s success, various Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif, Bipasha Basu, Kangana Ranaut and Kareena Kapoor were associated with its various brands.
Prominent brands housed by the Group include:
• Gili • Nakshatra • Sangini • Asmi • D’Damas • Nizam • Parineeta
This also raises the question - should celebrities be held accountable in any way? According to Indranil Das Blah, Founding Partner, KWAN and CEO, Mumbai City FC, celebrities cannot be held responsible because they are paid to lend their image and their likeness to a brand. He says, “It’s up to the brand to get people to buy their products. There are various marketing tactics that you can use, including spending on Outdoor, TV and getting celebrities.” It must be mentioned that not just Modi, but brands under Choksi, particularly Nakshatra, Asmi and Gili also used popular stars, such as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Kangana Ranaut and Bipasha Basu, amongst others, to build visibility and recognition.
He adds, “The fact is that when a brand signs a celebrity, it’s a contract based on checks and balances. One of the clauses in every celebrity endorsement contract is that if the company has defaulted on statutory laws, is facing a bankruptcy suit or is found doing something illegal by the court of law, the celebrity will immediately terminate the contract and there will be financial consequences. So, all celebrities are protected that way.”
Taking this debate forward, Harish Bijoor, Brand Expert & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. says, “I seriously do believe that scams of this kind do the reverse to the celebrity who endorses them. In the case of the PNB scam, there is negative publicity for Virat Kohli, the brand endorser. In the case of Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi, negative strokes have been attributed to Priyanka Chopra, and a host of stars. I strongly believe that Virat Kohli must now sue PNB for the harm done to his clean brand persona as a brand-endorser due to this scam. Priyanka Chopra, and every star whose name has endorsed any of these brands that have gone turtle, must now sue the brand for brand-endorser harm.”
However, Bijoor also points out that the opposite scenario also holds true. “Normally, celebs do harm to the brands they endorse when they do something nasty to their personas, like the alleged shooting of a chinkara or allegedly being in possession of weapons. In such cases, brands are quick to drop celebs from their brand-endorsement portfolio,” says Bijoor.
In fact, the role of celebrities in endorsing brands and their responsibilities have been spoken about a lot in the recent past, with the issue also being raised in the Parliament. On its part, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has come up with a set of guidelines that instructs celebrities to do the necessary due diligence before signing the contract. However, the reality is that one cannot expect a film star to scrutinise the financial books of the brand they endorse, and as seen in the Nirav Modi case, even the auditors and bankers did not know what was happening (or were possible co-conspirers).
What will now be interesting to watch is how celebrities’ approach to endorsements change and the safeguards they insist on, going forward, in the light of a growing number of such cases.
THE WAY FORWARD
While this is not a case of one-size-fits-all, experts say it is better to be wary and suspicious of any brand that grows big, seemingly overnight. On his part, Jaideep Shergill, Founding Partner, Pitchfork Partners, raises the point that events of such magnitude cannot come to pass without collusion from all concerned stakeholders. He says, “The blame must lie with several stakeholders. This includes the media, which laps up anything that appears successful without questioning veracity; the consumers, who do not ask tough questions before buying from brands; and even agencies, which manage dubious brands and take no ethical stand, so long as their fees are paid. We can’t pretend to be several degrees removed from the problems of our clients. It impacts us, no doubt.”
Looking at similar incidents in the past, IT services company, Satyam also went through a similar crisis. However, government intervention led to the setting up of a team to look into the core interests of the company, which finally led to its sale to Tech Mahindra. Even at an international level, luxury brands like Gucci and Burberry have gone through near-death experiences, but figured out a way to rise out of the mess.
Talking about the resurgence of two Indian Premier League teams that were suspended from the league for two years for betting activities, Blah says, “If you look at Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Rajasthan Royals (RR), when the controversy happened, people thought it was all over for the two teams. Today, however, CSK has come back and has closed all sponsorships even before IPL, and people are excited about the CSK brand again. Although it might be difficult for brands in the non-sporting space to make a comeback, one can never say never. Sometimes, a brand never dies, but it’s different for corporate brands. If a corporate brand is tainted, it’s difficult to resuscitate them.”
Brands need to realise that once they achieve scale, they have a duty towards the industry, as well as the society. Scams have a far wider repercussion, going beyond just the involved party. In this case, it is possible that Modi’s actions will impact the entire industry, which will come under scrutiny by the authorities and the financial system. Experts also observe that since Nirav Modi was a recognized brand even outside India, the developments could tarnish Brand India too, as it is not the Nirav Modi brand alone, but an entire ecosystem whose checks and balances system has failed to deliver.
As things stand today, one wonders whether brand Nirav Modi will be able to rise like a phoenix. Experts however, have a split opinion on this. While some believe that an eminent degree of re-branding is the need of the hour as public memory is short, others say that it will be difficult for the brand Nirav Modi to regain its trust and reputation, given that the persona and the brand name are the same. The damage to Modi’s personal brand could have a long-term impact on his product’s brand. The brand’s clientele includes people who are cautious of their public image and could therefore be wary of associating with his brand in the future. Furthermore, with Nirav Modi’s scandal being one of financial impropriety and not of brand mismanagement, the revival of the brand might be an uphill task. Experts weigh in that for the brand to survive, it may have to undergo a complete change of management and perhaps even a rebranding. A sincere display of intent to change along with concrete action on the ground could be the way forward.
However, the reality is in a country like ours, where avenues for corruption still exist, the temptation for entrepreneurs to ride the wave of overnight success could be hard to resist. The key is the practice of self-regulation to build a business with longevity and the focus should be towards building a brand that enjoys long-term trust.
As Parameswaran concludes, “Marketers need to be aware that you cannot build a brand on a foundation laid with quicksand. That too, borrowed quicksand.”
(With inputs from Neeta Nair & Christina Moniz)