Press Release

Brands that score

8 April 2012

Unlike in the West, India continues to lack a well-grounded sports culture. Sport for all or sport for development remain ideals that India hasn’t yet embraced, and chances are, will not embrace in the near future. This makes sports branding in the country a somewhat fragmented and disorganised industry. The bigger players are focused on a handful of individual brands and properties and the industry hasn’t seen much exponential growth over the last decade. We divide the industry into two distinct constituents—individual brands and marketable properties. While the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and more recently Virat Kohli make up the first category, the second is made up of properties like the IPL and the Olympics.

The solo club

Individual sports icons in India, who command long-term and tangible corporate loyalty, are few and far between. While some like Tendulkar remain the timeless corporate favourite, Dhoni, Sehwag and Virat Kohli in cricket, Leander Paes in tennis, and Vishwanathan Anand in chess are other icons sponsors are confident of investing in. The cricketers, however, constitute the elite bracket and Kohli is the most recent addition to this upper echelon of the Indian sports hierarchy. Riding on the back of his superb 133 at Hobart and a further incredible 183 against Pakistan, Kohli, corporate India is confident, is the next superstar and one who is safe to invest in. His fee has leapfrogged to R3 crore in the past one month and with big brands like Pepsi, Flying Machine, Titan and TVS Motors already in his repertoire, Kohli is well poised to consolidate his position as one of India’s very top sport properties/brands.

Making it into the top bracket on the back of spectacular performances isn’t new and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, post the 2007 T-20 World Cup and more recently the 2011 World Cup, scaled unprecedented market heights, thanks to India’s victories and his own final heroics against Sri Lanka. He, together with Tendulkar, is India’s highest paid sports star and it is impossible not to find a smiling Dhoni on a flexi board in most Indian cities. The recent dip in form notwithstanding, Dhoni continues to earn the highest among India’s sportspersons in 2011-2012.

If Kohli is on the ascendancy based on his recent exploits, Tendulkar, now that the 100th hundred is out of the way, has only further consolidated his hold as the nation’s all-time favourite sports brand. Says Tushar Gokuldas, brand director of Adidas India, “Tendulkar is in many ways the face of Adidas in India. He has been the brand ambassador for Adidas for 15 years and a large share of our consumer market can be attributed to having him as brand ambassador. We have designed a whole range of sportswear around him and he has had major inputs in shaping the ST brand of sports apparel. It is a solid working relationship that is timeless.” Tushar is right, because Sachin’s brand appeal continues to remain unrivaled even after 23 years in international cricket. And if the euphoria around the 100th hundred is anything to go by, it can only improve in the immediate future. At the back of the 100th hundred, Adidas has launched a new pair of shoes to commemorate the achievement and are also considering an addition of a 100 hundred range to their existing array of ST products.

For Adidas, while Tendulkar the individual is crucial to their consumer share, the IPL is by far their single biggest mass sports property. Inspired by the philosophy of “take the best and leave the rest”, Adidas is associated with three leading IPL teams—Mumbai Indians, Pune Warriors and Delhi Daredevils. The visibility associated with the IPL, Gokuldas of Adidas asserts, “makes it the most awaited sports property in a year for Adidas in India”. Football leagues like the EPL and Serie A, besides competitions like the Euro and the World Cup, which have a decent traction among the urban Indian youth, are other lucrative properties the company is looking to invest in and the Olympics, with a number of Indians in contention for medals, constitute a nice add-on.

While Adidas is looking to celebrate the 100th hundred with the special Sachin footwear, the first corporate house to have thought of doing something special for the 100th hundred is Coca-Cola. Wasim Bashir, director of Coca-Cola India, puts it nicely, “We believe in giving people happiness and this achievement is a national release of happiness of unrivaled proportions. It fits in perfectly with our company philosophy. And, more importantly, this achievement can hardly happen again. It is like someone achieving the impossible target of a thousand home runs in Major League Baseball. It was tailor-made for us to think out-of-the-box and do something special.” Coca-Cola has launched a special 100/100 gold cans and is launching 100 individual cans commemorating the feat. Each will talk about one particular hundred and will include an interesting statistic related to that ton. The ones already launched have disappeared from the market in no time and it is almost certain that the consumers will lap up this special commemorative offering as well.

The olympic dream

While such ideas are fascinating, the market as a whole can do with a well grounded sports culture among the nation’s youth. One of the country’s leading sports managers, WSG’s Vinod Naidu, best known for being Tendulkar’s mate and manager for the past 14 years, has some impressive ideas to mainstream brand Olympics in India. “There should be an Olympics period in schools. Only then can there be a strong connect with the leading sports spectacle,” he feels.

What has been of interest in recent months is the entry of new brands into the Olympics fold in India. Amul has already signed up as the lead sponsor of the Indian Olympics contingent and is planning to launch a massive marketing campaign centering the games. Amul ads, always of interest because of their sense of humour and wit, will enrich the Indian Olympics experience come July.

It is in the context of the Olympics that other Indian athletes can be built into tangible sports brands. We well remember what an Olympic medal can do; it had catapulted Abhinav Bindra into becoming the nation’s most loved sports icon following his gold medal at Beijing. The 2008 Olympics was much more than a sporting spectacle, not just because India’s performance was its best ever at the Games, but also because it heralded the promise of a new beginning for Indian sports. Bindra was not an aberration. His performance was followed by near-podium finishes in badminton, tennis and archery and the gains have been consolidated since. Just when it was turning out to be a tale of so near yet so far in China, Vijender Singh (bronze in boxing, 75 kg) and Sushil Kumar (bronze in wrestling, 66 kg freestyle), ensured that the Indian Tricolour went up twice more at Beijing. Their achievements turned them into national celebrities overnight. If the media catharsis that followed was any indication, for the first time, Olympic sports, apart from hockey, were at the centrestage of what could be termed as national consciousness. Corporate India immediately took notice and Bindra and Vijender Singh suddenly made it to our drawing rooms a lot more times.

Looking forward to London, a common chord across all corporate houses is that “this is India’s best chance and there are a lot many athletes than ever before who are in medal contention”. Gagan Narang and Abhinav Bindra in the 10-metre air rifle; Ronjan Sodhi in double trap; Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi (likely) in mixed doubles; Leander Paes (and whoever he partners) in doubles; Vikas Krishan and Jai Bhagwan in boxing; Saina Nehwal in badminton; Deepika Kumari in archery—the list of real medal contenders isn’t a footnote anymore. Indian hockey, too, is on an upswing and the Olympic qualifiers in Delhi were extremely well attended. That the Olympic qualification event or more generally Indian hockey continues to be a good investment option for corporate India was evident when Sahara, one of the biggest supporters of Indian sport, doubled its sponsorship amount for Indian hockey. Hero, another big supporter of Indian sport, picked up the title sponsorship for the Olympic qualifiers in Delhi.

Sahara, with support for 94 Indian Olympic athletes, is investing big into the Olympics. Abhijit Sarkar, head of corporate communications for Sahara, details their Olympic involvement: “As many as 94 Indian athletes are supported by the Sahara India Pariwar. We have always stood by them and now that Indian Olympic sport is on a high, it is only natural that we will do all we can to facilitate their preparations and help them realise their Olympic dream. Importantly, we have backed these athletes for a long time now and feel the support is surely going to give the country dividends at London 2012.”

Relatively lesser known Olympic sports, too, have found corporate backing and this has helped Indian athletes significantly. The Tatas, who have an Olympic history going back to the 1920s, have invested heavily in athletes like Deepika Kumari, who has a very good chance of creating history for India in women’s archery at London 2012. In what is deemed an “attempt to make a difference”, the Tatas are only following the path craved out by Dorabji Tata, the first/founding president of the Indian Olympic Association in 1927.

No analysis of India’s Olympic environment is complete without mentioning Olympic Gold Quest and Mittal Champions Trust. It is well known that Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) has already put together the best possible package to help athletes in their pursuit of the elusive gold medal in London. For the shooters, who stand a great chance to win medals, OGQ has enlisted the support of well known masseur Kassenova Kacehoba of Kazakhstan, who is expected to address shooters’ complaints of back and shoulder stiffness.

Desi, yet global ipl

If the Olympics are still a while away, in the more immediate context, however, the sports market is keenly focused on India’s only desi yet global sports brand, the IPL. In its fifth season, it can very well be the make or break year for the IPL. With the Indian team not doing well in the second half of 2011, the tournament comes at a time when the public perception of cricket isn’t overwhelmingly positive. This is both a challenge and a worry. A challenge because the IPL might well have carved out a niche of its own with its own loyal band of supporters and might not be dependent on the way India performs on the international stage. In other words, the constituency of the IPL watcher may well turn out to be independent of the international cricket viewer and the tournament can help remove the negativity surrounding Indian cricket in the coming weeks. With most global cricket icons in India plying their trade at the IPL, it will be of interest to see if the crowds embrace the tournament in the same way they did in 2008 and 2010.

Rajiv Shukla, chairman of what now is the BCCI’s biggest and most lucrative property, is positive. “IPL season 5 will be bigger and better. We will ensure the fans have a great experience across all venues. We are aware that the nine franchises, the host broadcaster and the sponsors constitute the life blood of the tournament and will do all we can to satisfy them all. The support we have received from our sponsors has been tremendous and I am confident that the brand will only get better in the years to come.”

While Shukla has reasons to be positive, his share of worries lie with half of the nine franchises struggling to break even. Kochi has seen the franchise fold up because of their inability to pay; Kings XI Punjab and Rajasthan Royals are faced with a financial crunch, forcing them to look at stake dilution, and KKR continues to bank much on Shahrukh Khan’s personal charisma. Only the Mumbai Indians and the Chennai Super Kings, thanks largely to Tendulkar and Dhoni’s legion of loyal fans and also the well-oiled Reliance machinery, are on a firm footing.

Sushanto Roy, owner of the Pune Warriors, articulates the dilemma nicely: “Season 5 is a huge year for brand IPL. We are all waiting to see how the coming weeks unfold. Suddenly there is a noise centering the tournament post the Asia Cup and with the last two months being only Test and one-day cricket, I am confident fans will strongly support good T-20 cricket on home soil. It is important for the brand that they do so.”

If the crowds don’t embrace the tournament in ways they have in the past and if television ratings show a dip in the days ahead, it will constitute a huge worry for corporate houses looking to invest in the IPL pie. This will mean that ‘nationalism’ continues to be a key element in influencing the Indian sports watcher and prove that there is a direct co-relation between India’s performance and the sports industry in India.

This co-relation, which continues to be strong, was, however, questioned by Star’s acquisition of Indian cricket rights for the next six years for R40 crore a match. This is a sizeable increase from what Nimbus paid BCCI. This deal is interesting for several reasons. First, India’s performance has been on a downward spiral over the past one year. Second, with Rahul Dravid already retired and Laxman not far away, the biggest icons who dominated Indian cricket will soon be making way for newer stars. Sachin, too, isn’t expected to be around for long. Finally, Olympic sports are on an upswing and there are murmurs if cricket finally will have some competition. But this deal puts all speculation to rest, demonstrating yet again that cricket remains the number one brand and still the safest bet for big-ticket investments.

So what does the future hold for the Indian sports market? More pertinently, can we make predictions about the future trajectory of sports branding in India? The answer is both yes and no. As far as individual brands are concerned, it is safe to assume that they will continue to command mass loyalties. The Indian public can never ever have enough of a Tendulkar or a Dhoni and will forever stand behind these much loved icons. This explains why UK’s leading memorabilia makers, Autographs of the World, founded by former BBC sports commentator Hamilton Bland was in India recently to launch a fascinating range of limited edition Sachin Tendulkar memorabilia. Bland values the 2,800 total pieces at close to 4.2 million pounds. He has already started receiving orders from the Indian diaspora in the Middle East and the US and is confident of selling out the entire range in six months. “The coverage in the UK press was indicative of how big the achievement is and we are delighted to be associated with Tendulkar. It is only just that Tendulkar is the first Indian sportsman to have a dedicated range of sports memorabilia,” says Bland. Also, new-age entrepreneurs operating in the digital mobile space are also coming up with interesting ideas in the segment. Voice blogs and mobile video content are two such contributions that Seven3Rockers, the company which owns the IPL’s digital rights, has come up with. “The traction we have received from subscribers suggests there’s tremendous potential in the market. It is upon us to be able to satisfy the consumer. We are working on news of fan engagement and want to make the fan experience far more rewarding,” says Jatin Ahluwalia of Seven3 Rockers.

With the IPL season 5 just a few days old and the Indian contingent poised to make the London Olympics their own, we might well see the Indian sports market getting ready to welcome more and more global players in the coming days.

Source: Financial Express

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