Brand magnet: The rise and rise of Dhoni

By Savia Jane Pinto , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | September 19, 2008
Mahendra Singh Dhoni (MSD), the young cricket star, has reached the sky with brand endorsements. And from the look of it, he is far from finished. A look at why brands and MSD share such a successful marriage

What is & #BANNER1 & # it about Mahendra Singh Dhoni that attracts brands like moths to a flame? The cricket sensation and India's ODI captain is believed to be the most cool headed, consistent player in the Indian cricket team, and wherever he goes, brands follow. Today, Dhoni or 'Mahi', as he is fondly called, endorses some 17 brands. And if sources are to be believed, more deals are under way.

Dhoni's is a typical rags to riches story. In his younger days, Dhoni was a goalkeeper in his hometown's football team. It was when his football coach sent him for a local cricket match that his wicket keeping skills were noticed and he became a regular at the Commando cricket club. This was back in 1995.

Today, after having tasted multiple successes in the field of cricket, the 27 year old endorses brands such as Big Bazaar, Brylcreem (Godrej Sara Lee), Boost (Glaxo SmithKline Beecham), Dainik Bhaskar, Exide Industries, Godrej-Hershey's, Lafarge Cement, NDTV, Orient PSPO, Parle, Pepsi, Reebok, Royal Stage, Sonata, Siyaram's, TVS and Videocon.

Mahendra Singh DhoniOf his three and a half year career in international cricket, the cricketer has been a brand endorser for three years. Yes, Mahi seems to be a fit for almost every category, be it energy drinks or aerated colas, chips or cement, apparel or newspapers.

After his debut in international cricket in 2004, talent management company Gameplan began handling his brand endorsements in 2005. Earlier this year, Yudhajit Dutta, managing director, Mindscape Maestros, began handling Dhoni's endorsement deals.

According to industry estimates, Dhoni is worth Rs 4-5 crore per endorsement for one year. Dutta, his talent manager, says Dhoni has crossed all the earlier figures of per year deals and is currently one of the richest brand ambassadors; so, that figure could be outdated as well.

In a short span of time, the wicketkeeper-batsman has accomplished much to create a brand name for himself. But the real question is, how long will it all last? afaqs! spoke to several stalwarts in the field of branding, including those from the talent management side, brand consultants and creative directors, to know what they think of Brand Dhoni.

What lies beneath? Universal appeal

Manish Porwal

Jagdeep Kapoor

Sumanto Chattopadhyay

Rohit OhriHis small town beginnings and humility have held Dhoni in good stead. The fact that a boy from a small town has grown to attain such star status makes him role model material. "His appeal cuts across all age groups and demographics to speak to small towns as well as the metros," says Manish Aggarwal, business director, Insights, MindShare.

Manish Porwal, chief executive officer, Percept Talent Management, offers a different view. He says, "Although Dhoni cuts across all segments, he doesn't yet cut across all brands and yet address the top end of consumers, like Aamir Khan does." He adds, "And not all brands need to cut across all segments."

All the brands that Dhoni endorses are such that they either speak to the masses or the youth. Certain brands like Videocon project him in an aspirational manner, and certain others, like Brylcreem or Pepsi, portray him to be the boy next door.

Jagdeep Kapoor, CEO and MD, Samsika Marketing Consultants, says, "Any brand that wants to project itself as a fearless and leader brand will benefit from Dhoni's association." His fearless and calm attitude, when on field and when on screen, are attributes that put him high on a brand's wish list.

Dhoni's professional attitude and respect to commitment are commendable, too. Sumanto Chattopadhyay, executive creative director, South Asia, O&M, who has worked with Dhoni for Videocon and now LaFarge Cement, says, "Dhoni is someone who has done his homework well, and hence, all else follows."

Rohit Ohri, branch head, JWT Delhi (which works on Pepsi), says that Dhoni is the epitome of Youngistaan. His acting abilities have been commended, too, in comparison to other cricketing brand ambassadors. "Ajay Jadeja was one cricketer who was a good actor, too, but Dhoni can definitely give Bollywood actors a run for their money," says Ohri.

Dhoni recently won a lot of appreciation for the Pepsi Youngistaan ad, which showed him studying cricket pitches, bowler minds and the sport. At the end of the ad, Dhoni says that no matter what you study, what you need is the thirst to learn. Shortly after that, a local newspaper reported that Dhoni had enrolled at a college to complete his graduation. His acting skills were much appreciated even in the Videocon ad that featured both Dhoni and Shah Rukh Khan.

Another factor that cuts across is Dhoni's style statement. Whether it is his saffron locks, or later, his long locks held back with gel, or his most recent short crop, he's always making a statement, so much so that the youth make sure they've got the recent Dhoni look.

Kapoor of Samsika is of the opinion that it is Dhoni's originality that makes him stand out - be it the numerous hairstyles that he sports, or the bravado that he displays in his performance, or the calmness that he exhibits on field as captain.

Life cycle as brand ambassador
Anirban Das Blah, CEO, Globosport, strongly thinks that Dhoni has at least three good years ahead of him as a brand endorser. He asserts that Dhoni is the biggest athlete to emerge out of India.

Anirban Das

Harish BijoorOnly recently, Dhoni replaced Sachin Tendulkar as the brand ambassador for Pepsi's Youngistaan. According to media reports, Tendulkar's contract wasn't renewed because Pepsi officials felt that the cricketer could no longer address the cola brand's target audience - the youth. TVS is another brand that Tendulkar lost out on and Dhoni endorses.

Aggarwal of MindShare has a unique point to make here. He says, "As Dhoni is all over the place, there exists the possibility of the brand falling into the background and Dhoni emerging as a bigger brand. But despite that, most marketers will follow the policy of making hay while the sun shines."

Dhoni's prime moment of glory was the T20 World Cup win. "The T20 win clinched many more endorsements into Dhoni's kitty," confirms Aggarwal.

The fact that senior players such as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid did not give stellar performances at the T20 Cup also added to Dhoni's popularity and brand value. Aggarwal says that Dhoni's boy next door image, which most other top brand ambassadors don't have, works in his favour.

Kapoor thinks that Dhoni has many more years as an endorser for brands. "Dhoni, in his graph as a brand ambassador, is at the growing phase, and he will continue to grow for a long time to come," says an enthusiastic Kapoor.

Disagreeing completely with Kapoor is Harish Bijoor of Harish Bijoor Consults. "Dhoni represents the peak icon of the lowest common denominator sport - T20," he says. He calls T20 an LCD sport because the largest number of people watch it. Bijoor agrees that Brand Dhoni is saleable because of his style and persona. Also, his small town beginnings bring in a sense of identification among many consumers in many markets.

He's all over the place
When Blah says Dhoni's got time ahead of him as a brand ambassador, he also says that he has been overexposed and is spreading himself too thin. In this scenario, "Brand Dhoni will grow, but the brand he is endorsing will suffer", says Blah. He thinks that certain brands which Dhoni is endorsing are "terrible", and he needs to be consistent while selecting a brand with which he associates himself.

Bijoor is quick to add that Brand Dhoni is reaching a point of fatigue (or maturity, the way it is in a brand's life cycle) because he's all over the place. Ohri also agrees that though Dhoni is doing great for himself, he is spreading himself too thin. Since he has age on his side and has just started off with his cricketing career, he shouldn't be in too much of a hurry.

Most industry experts believe that Dhoni, in his short career span, has been endorsing brands blindly, often without much thought. They think that he needs to be selective about the brands he chooses.

Dhoni recently became the endorser for LaFarge cement. He is said to be building his house in Ranchi, and since LaFarge's primary market is Ranchi and the surrounding regions, Dhoni was chosen to be the brand ambassador. He was also appointed as brand ambassador for Mysore Sandal Soap in order to increase sales of the soap in the Northern market. However, that deal fell apart later. These seem to be rather unique endorsements for a cricketer.

Dutta refutes, explaining that Dhoni has, in fact, dropped a few brands that he feels won't establish a good brand fit with the personality of the sportsman.

All said and done, the last words belong to Jagdeep Kapoor: "I strongly feel that the day is not far when apart from representing global brands in India, Dhoni will soon endorse global brands in their global markets as well."