The Biggest Name on the Indian Music Scene Is ... Unilever?

MTV Promotes Pop Star Created by Package-Goods Giant to Build Axe Brand

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MUMBAI, India -- Silky Kumar is the latest pop star to take India by storm. Despite criticism about his startling lack of talent, MTV featured his cheesy "Scent of Desire" music video and named him "Buzzworthy Artist of the Month" on its Hindi-language music channel. Bollywood film roles and record deals are rolling his way, girls flock to his MySpace profile and the video is a hit on YouTube.
The fictional heartthrob Silky Kumar was created by Unilever to promote Axe in India.
The fictional heartthrob Silky Kumar was created by Unilever to promote Axe in India.

Not bad for someone who isn't real.

The fictional heartthrob was created by Unilever to promote Axe in India and eventually in other Asian markets such as the Philippines. (The company originally planned to build the campaign around a fake Taiwanese boy band but decided Bollywood pop culture had more regional appeal.)

Axe isn't a new brand in Asia, but Unilever has revamped it with livelier fragrances such as Vice and Denim, bolder packaging and marketing that revolves around the Silky character. Created with MTV and Axe's agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the idea is to tie in with Unilever's longtime positioning of Axe as a confidence-building brand for young guys via its "Axe Effect" on women.

The making of a babe magnet
The Kumar stunt turned that theme into a fun product demonstration by transforming a regular Indian guy with little talent and plenty of shortcomings into a star and a babe magnet, thanks to the new Axe formula.

Besides airing the garish video, MTV hyped Mr. Kumar with interviews, behind-the-scenes vignettes, photos and blog updates from a mock Asian tour. In on-air chats, Mr. Kumar's supposed friends expressed surprise at his sudden fame. He headlined MTV news bulletins and was the topic of on-air banter among the channel's VJs.

The publicity created buzz among Indian music fans and media. Even The Times of India fell for the ruse and gave the pop star a glowing write-up.

The truth came out when MTV in September broke a "news story" about the secret behind Mr. Kumar's mysterious sex appeal: He had stolen Axe's new formula. In a "press conference," an Axe spokesman showed security footage of Mr. Kumar sneaking into a Unilever laboratory. A 30-minute MTV mockumentary detailed the star's rise and fall.

Indians immediately speculated on blogs and online community sites about Unilever's involvement in Mr. Kumar's meteoric rise. "It was always quite clear that MTV was up to something, but viewers didn't know what it was until the press conference," said Carl Zuzarte, Singapore-based head of content and creative for Viacom Brand Solutions and MTV in Southeast Asia. "They didn't feel tricked though; they know we like to have fun."
A scene from the 'Scent of Desire' music video.
A scene from the 'Scent of Desire' music video.

The truth hasn't hurt
A few fans may still be confused about Mr. Kumar's legitimacy as an artist. But whether everyone gets the joke or not, the brand connection hasn't hurt his celebrity status.

Srman Jain, the actor who plays Mr. Kumar, is mobbed by autograph-seeking fans when he ventures out in public. A group of fans recently performed Mr. Kumar's signature dance routine for him at a Pizza Hut outlet in New Dehli, and he has at least one offer to star in a Bollywood film.

"Axe has a history of great 30-second spots, so we didn't want to do another one," said Bartle Bogle's Jacob Wright, Singapore-based engagement planning director, Asia/Pacific. "Instead we used unconventional methods to engage Axe's target audience, the often elusive demographic of 15- to 25-year-old men. Creating a pop star from scratch was an ambitious task, and we stirred up consumer debate."
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