Love him or hate him, you can’t escape or deny the power of Shah Rukh “King” Khan. Over the last two decades, he has slowly morphed into a superstar and a magician of a marketer. As an actor and a brand, he has penetrated the lives of billions of people in South Asia and all over the world; sometimes as Raj, sometimes as Rahul, and more recently as Raees. Perhaps that is why, in spite of embodying more than 80 different avatars, he has become the most recognisable actor in the world.
Khan is an actor, but many would opine that he is a better marketer. It’s like a cricketer who joins the team because he was is an average bowler, but turns out to be a stellar batsman. However, with great popularity comes great criticism and Khan is indeed one of the most polarising celebrities to come out of Bollywood. People either love him or hate him; there is little room for anything else. However, while the naysayers may have a lot to say about his films, his acting, or his signature dialogue delivery, even his biggest critics admit that, as things stand, Khan’s monstrous success and popularity have little to do with acting. You need to be not only lucky, but also incredibly smart to be that successful for that long.
S.W.O.T – The SRK Way
Even before he became the undisputed king of marketing in Bollywood, Khan knew what worked for him and what didn’t. This could be because he briefly studied Mass Communication or because of his enterprising personality. Yet, Khan has always known where his strengths lie. True that he experimented here and there, but he is mostly stuck to what works for him. His personality and his chocolate hero image have solidified his status as a sweetheart for the young and old alike. He knows his art is not as refined as Amir Khan’s; that he will never have Hrithik Roshan’s looks, Salman Khan’s body or the novelty that any new face has on offer. However, perhaps the smartest thing Khan has done over the years is build a deep-rooted relationship with his audience. At a time when celebrities were considered ‘stars’ the common man could only look at from the other side of the screen, Khan became relatable to every man. One of the biggest reasons for his astounding success is the fact that he resonates with the public. And it’s not just about the dimples; since the beginning, his self-deprecating sense of humour, friendly relationship with the press and ability to take criticism have all made him ‘likeable’ and marketable. He is neither as unapproachable as Amir Khan, nor as controversial as Salman Khan and his passion to sell himself well makes him a dream to market.
He is the embodiment of a self-made Bollywood star; a true rags-to-riches story… the stuff of movies. Unlike many of his peers, he had no contacts, no relative in the industry, no one pulling strings and directing roles or auditions his way. In a country where millions of young boys, with no money or contacts, want to become a ‘hero’, Khan, who was one of them, became one. More importantly, throughout all these years he has remained committed to his fans. Be it coming out onto his balcony every day to wave at his fans, or making a movie dedicated entirely to them, even at 50, he still seems like a fauji at heart.
SRK – The Brand
When Khan decides to sell something, he does it unapologetically, no holds barred. Whether it is a film he is promoting, a show or a watch, when he gets behind something, he pulls out all the stops. He doesn’t sell the product, he sells his image. Take his promotional campaign for Ra.One. Regardless of the lukewarm reviews, the film did incredibly well at the box office. Honestly speaking, the film was mediocre at best, but Khan sold it like Mission Impossible meets Tron.
he marketing campaign for Ra.One started with more than 200 days left for the release, but that didn’t mean he was cutting corners; it just meant he intended to go harder. At the end, he spent an excess of 1.5 billion rupees on Ra.One, more than half of which was directed at marketing. However, as mentioned before, when he decides to sell something, he does it with everything in him. For Ra.One’s marketing campaign, it seemed like he called everyone on his contact list. A total of 25 local and international brands including Sony PlayStation, McDonald’s, Videocon, Nokia, Coke, Cinthol, Indian Grand Prix, ICC World Cup, ESPN Star partnered with him. Some called this level of merchandising nothing short of manic, but considering the average quality of the film and the extraordinary business it did, experts call it magic.
Take smart risks
Marketing pundits suggest that Khan has the Midas touch; everything he touches, turns into gold – be it a below-average film or a basic pan masala. However, while his persona is flamboyant and entertaining, there is method to his madness. It is normal for production houses to be conservative and spend money on distributing a film to more screens, rather than on marketing. This is perhaps why, more recently, Khan has mostly worked with his own money or generated it through partnerships. In an interview with Mint, he expressed his discomfort about working with someone else’s money. “You have to put your money where your mouth is. There is a huge amount of money in the market. I don’t work with that money. I work with my own money; I don’t borrow from the banks.” In 2002, he and wife, Gauri Khan, co-founded Red Chillies Entertainment, a company that has backed most of the films he has recently starred in. When it comes to marketing, most production houses prefer engaging in sure-shot marketing strategies, rather than taking risks on innovative marketing strategies. However, with his money in play, and his passion for trying something new, all bets are off. And looking at how consistently his brand power is growing, all his risks are paying off.
Call it false modesty or a humble-brag, Khan has always insisted that he not be given credit for his success as a marketer. Even though it is his name and money at stake, he understands the importance of not always giving in to his own ideas and of not rejecting other people’s ideas. “For years, I have sat down with some very smart and intelligent young people who come up with out-of-the-box ideas. I’m in a position — and I’m not trying to be modest here — to use those ideas and have the resources to build up on them. But I’m not the birth-giver to those ideas.” His clutter-breaking strategies have been the driving force behind the success of his brand. Be it the 200-day long, spam-like promotional campaign for Ra.One or the game and karaoke-app for Chennai Express; be it ‘Slam! The Tour’ for Happy New Year or plugging Dilwale into the 20-year anniversary of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, his marketing ways are a product of rigorous brainstorming, inclusive idea-swapping and an effective team to execute all plans.
Look for a new angle
As anyone, who sat through the three hour monstrosity (otherwise called Happy New Year), will testify, Khan and his co-stars really put their hearts into selling that film. Slam! The Tour was a dance tour conceived, executed and marketed entirely by Red Chillies Entertainment. The company is said to have made more than two billion rupees from the tour alone. Not bad for a three hour monstrosity. In addition to the dance tour, Red Chillies organised a reality dance show (borrowing from the film) called Dil Se Naachey Indiawaale. His production house then decided to give a new spin to SMS marketing by sending subscribed users the Happy New Year trailer via WhatsApp.
In conclusion, judging from the momentum of his success, there is no one in Bollywood who can rival the ways and wit of Khan as an entertainer and marketer. His impact was best put into words in 2009 by Michael Lynton, the then-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which produced Saawariya. In 2008, Khan’s Om Shanti Om and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya released on the same day, yet despite truly being an artistic piece of cinematic storytelling, Saawariya tanked, while Om Shanti Om became one of the biggest films that year. Speaking to The New York Times, Lynton shared his experience, “You don’t go up against Shah Rukh Khan, no matter how good your product is.”