Special: The faceless stars of IPL

By Sangeeta Tanwar , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Marketing | April 20, 2010
Despite stirring performances and being in the public eye, IPL's emerging stars don't get a look-in from marketers or brands, who tend to stick to 'safe' choices

Mention Ravindra Jadeja's name and you will be surprised at the number of people who can tell you about the controversy (he was banned from playing IPL 3 for approaching the Mumbai Indians team while under contract with Rajasthan Royals). People who you didn't know were cricket fans. Blame it on the cheerleaders or the celebrities gathered in and around dugouts of the warriors entering the arena called the IPL (Indian Premier League), but the event has whipped up a frenzy during prime time that is probably the envy of many a soap or reality show.

It is not about just glamour. As the city teams battle each other, their supporters animatedly discuss strategies that worked or didn't. Players who performed or didn't. Into its third year now, names like Yusuf Pathan, Murali Vijay, Suresh Raina, Manish Pandey, Rohit Sharma and Dinesh Karthik roll off tongues as TV screens in living rooms or bedrooms come alive with the images of instant heroes or villains in the shortest version of the game yet.

IPL is high on action, drama and glamour with 60 matches among eight teams played over 45 days. And this IPL has two new venues - the matches are being shown in multiplexes across the country and on Youtube.com. The third edition of the tournament is expected to garner revenue to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore, coupled with media and celebrity buzz.

Compare the TVRs (television ratings) of one-day internationals (ODIs) with the IPL and the latter scores high. When the Indian team plays ODIs in the country, the average TVRs tend to stay within the 3-4 band, unless it is an India-Australia tussle. However, the IPL matches grab TVRs of 5-6. Despite all this, there is one thing about the IPL that is surprising.

While all eyes are on the performers, brands seem to have developed a blind spot for many a potential endorser. When it comes to their brands, marketers stick to the tried and trusted Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar or a Yuvraj Singh. Even a retired player like Sourav Ganguly makes the cut. Why aren't marketers looking beyond - or don't they want to?

Celeb takes it all

Bollywood celebrities win the unquestioned faith and trust of Indian brands, hands down. According to the AdEx TAM report on Celebrity Endorsement 2009, film stars accounted for 80 per cent of celebrity endorsement on TV. In terms of ad volumes, female stars had the highest share at 43 per cent, followed by males at 37 per cent. Sportspersons came in third with 15 per cent share while television actors had a share of 2 per cent.

"Advertisers," points out Josy Paul, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO, "use all kinds of celebrities. From film stars to dogs, pugs and tiger cubs! Cricketers are popular too. So are small screen celebrities (television personalities) and socialites and leftover reality-show participants! Almost everybody is a celebrity today." They create instant familiarity and, depending on the stature and ranking of the celeb, brands achieve quick recognition and positive rub-off.

Nabankur Gupta, founder and chief executive officer, Nobby Brand Architects and Strategic Marketing, argues that celebrity endorsements take away from the equity of the brand itself. He is of the opinion that a celebrity should act as a model to carry forward the product. For instance, Lux has successfully extended the promise of beauty to a generation of stars right from Madhubala, Mala Sinha and Hema Malini to Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla and now to Kareena Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra and Katrina Kaif.

Film stars, it would appear, are miles ahead in the endorsement stakes and comparing them to sportspersons - barring a Tendulkar or a Dhoni - would be unfair. One of the reasons is the spotlight on performance. Explains Indranil Das Blah, vice-president, KWAN Entertainment & Marketing Solutions, a celebrity management firm, "In the case of sports persons, unlike cine stars, the attributes of a brand might take a backseat while performance takes precedence." A case in point is actor Akshay Kumar. A string of flops like Kambakth Ishq, Blue and Chandni Chowk to China did not affect his brand value - relatively speaking. But for cricket players, things work a bit differently. Loss of form and any sort of negative publicity can see fortunes of a player debilitating."

The money that sportspersons get is not that big. Just about Rs 250 crore goes to sports star endorsements annually, a lion's share of which is taken up by cricketers. But here, too, marketers and brands don't think beyond Dhoni, Tendulkar, Yuvraj, Rahul Dravid and Ganguly. Even Gautam Gambhir, who has been exceptionally well in all forms, is not exactly hot property.

Why do brands stop counting after five?

The most common reason for using celebrities is to break through the clutter and grab eyeballs. "In terms of brand strategy, the reason for using a celebrity could be a lack of good idea," says Blah of KWAN Entertainment & Marketing Solutions. This can be achieved by using proven cricketing stars such as Dhoni. "If you have reached a particular stage in your career as is the case with Tendulkar and Dhoni, ups and downs don't affect you," he adds.

A player's form plays a critical role when it comes to having him as the face of a brand. Old hands are trusted for their longevity and brand equity while younger guys are considered flashes in the pan. "The top four guys will collectively take a majority of the endorsements followed by the next 40. There is a fine line between the haves and the have-nots. Harbhajan Singh has been on this thin line. He is a great performer but not got enough brands," says Manish Porwal, managing director, Alchemist Talent Solution.

Ad man and cricket buff Piyush Pandey, executive chairperson and creative director, Ogilvy South Asia, believes that endorsement decisions are driven more by instinct and the personality fit that the celebrity has with the brand. Boys of today could become stars of tomorrow. "We used Tendulkar when he was 18 or 19 years old and not the iconic brand he is today for a commercial of Band Aid. The game has to be played not on conjecture but belief. Look at the guys such as Shikar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Yusuf Pathan - they might all become superstars in future," he says. Similarly, Paul of BBDO mentions using Saif Ali Khan for Grasim Gwalior Suiting in 1991 when he was completely unknown. It paid off brilliantly for the brand, and for Saif.

Name and recognition are two separate things when it comes to cricketers. This aspect puts even more pressure on the creative that sports fresh names. The face of the endorser - unless it is one of the big five - becomes immaterial - invisible even. In today's age of multi-coloured clothing, it is the uniform that matters. People recognise teams, then the individual. You have to put Yusuf Pathan in Rajasthan Royals' gear and superimpose his name to establish his identity. This is why it's not easy to get deals.

Can IPL create new ambassadors?

The feeling is that the IPL does not create stars - it creates entertainment and revenue. Blah of KWAN Entertainment & Marketing Solutions is of the view that IPL is not the best platform to measure the success of players as many of the players disappear after the tournament and are thus reduced to being the flavour of that season alone.

"Swapnil Asnodkar of Rajasthan Royals and Bodapati Sumanth of Deccan Chargers were brilliant in the first edition of the tournament but where are they today?" questions Blah. Some players just don't have the staying power.

Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, Integrated Brand-Comm has his take on the chances for promising young IPL stars. He calls the stars created by IPL "fringe" cricketers. They are good performers but not big celebrities just yet. All the popularity and recognition from the game presents them with the opportunity to make it big. It's only when these kids make it to the next level, that they get opportunities. Another constraint in using fresh talent is the 'presentability' of a few of performing stars. Sridhar suggests that sad-looking players cannot be looked upon as brand ambassadors - physical attractiveness matters. Return on investment is another key factor for things not working out in young cricketers' favour. It makes little sense to pay youngsters upwards of Rs 20 lakh for just performing well in IPL matches. Sridhar mentions that a few years back, when Sehwag started doing well, advertisers referred to him as Tendulkar, available at 90 per cent discount.

'Regional' is bigger

The IPL-makes-stars line of thought has its proponents, too. Raghu Iyer, chief marketing officer, Rajasthan Royals, says, "Look at Naman Ojha. Who knew him before IPL? But today he is a household name. Or take Jadeja. An under-19 player, he came into reckoning for the Indian national team after the last IPL and he has grabbed assignments from Adidas and Hero Honda."

Local brands who want to jump on the IPL bandwagon but lack the kind of money required to be present on this platform look at tapping local IPL stars. This explains Digicable's (the cable distribution company) association with Kings XI Punjab. The brand extensively uses 'affordable' IPL stars for on-ground promotions.

Another aspect of sponsorship when it comes to the IPL is that brands prefer to use a group of endorsers rather than individuals. It is the city team that is in the limelight, not a player. HDFC Standard Life just shot a commercial featuring Shane Warne and other players such as Yusuf Pathan, Asnodkar and Kamran Khan. Zandu Balm has Sehwag, Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan. Seagram's has Dhoni, Yuvraj, Robin Uthappa and Harbhajan sharing ad space.

There could be multiple reasons for using cricketers in groups in a single creative, explains Manish Porwal, managing director of Alchemist Talent Solutions. Brands are probably packing in more muscle power, easy access to a pool of stars, bringing out different brand attributes of a brand or products, avoiding putting all the eggs in a single basket and minimising the risk of the non-performance of a single player rubbing off on to the brand.

Everybody has a second chance

The endorsement decision, for long, has been decided by the brass of a corporate or a brand who then has to justify it to the rest of the 'stake-holders' including the audience. "It is natural that some of the decisions are 'safety' decisions and that is the reason iconic talent gets super-normal premium. Having said that, like any other mature market, there is enough segmentation across categories and brands now and niche talent gets endorsement opportunities. That is an emerging, even if not established, trend," adds Porwal. He stresses that undue premium is paid by India Inc to its iconic stars because they are safer choices.

There are brands like Reebok that seriously look at tournaments such as the Ranji Trophy and the IPL. Reebok has used Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan for store visits. "For a sports brand," says Subhinder Singh Prem, managing director, Reebok, "celebrity association is not about endorsements but about building relationships." The Reebok 'family' includes lesser-known names like Manish Pandey (RCB), Saurabh Tiwary (Mumbai Indians) and Harpreet Singh of the Rajasthan Royals. It's clear that the time for brands to look for new talent emerging from IPL is near. But the challenge lies elsewhere. In the words of Paul of BBDO - "Everyone is on the lookout for new talent. But nobody wants to be the first."

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