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Virat Kohli: Endorsement Malfunction?

By Devesh Gupta , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Marketing | September 15, 2014
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The cricketer is going through a rough phase, both on and off the field. Can his 'brand career' withstand the setback?

Virat Kohli

When a batsman loses form, on and off the field, do the brands he endorses continue to bat for him? Well, here is the Virat Kohli Case Study.

Before we start, let's first take a look at his scoreboard, this quarter (July-September 2014) - Kohli scored only 134 runs in his last 10 Test Innings, a meagre 54 runs in his last four one-day international (ODI) games and 66 runs in a one-off T20 game. This includes only one half century. It has been, by far, one of the worst phases for this good-looking, talented cricketer.

Audiences attacking Vicks campaign led by Virat Kohli on social media

Adding to his woes this quarter, Kohli has been in the news for reasons that he would like to forget - a spat with English player Ben Stokes, dating Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma (who also happened to be in England during the matches), and for being rumoured to be chosen as the ambassador of Goa FC, an ISL franchise. The first casualty was Vicks. His poor performance on the pitch forced the brand to halt a campaign with Kohli that was attacked by angry netizens on social media.

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Brands Virat Kohli Endorses

Saurabh Uboweja

Darshan M

Now a look at his second career - Kohli endorses 13 brands which include Herbalife (2013), United Spirits (2013), TVS (2010), Adidas (2013), Oakley (2014), Boost (2012), Nestle Munch (2013), Pepsi (2011), Vicks (2014), Clear (2013), Mattel (2013) and MRF (2013). He was also spotted in a funky digital film (2013) for Cinthol Deo.

More recently, Kohli bagged some big endorsement deals like Adidas, which was estimated to be around Rs 10 crore per annum. Some experts went as far as to say he was well on his way to outperforming reigning brand king M S Dhoni. While that is a claim worth debating, the fact that the recent headlines were bound to catch up with his endorsement career is not.

Geetanjali Bhattacharji, CEO, marketing service audit, Spatial Access, sums it up in one simple question: "What does Virat really stand for? The marketer and Virat might claim 'dependability' but what happens when he fails?"

Mercurial show

Kohli's current form - or lack of it - indicates that being a sports ambassador, especially cricket, is a highly volatile occupation. This makes it risky for brands to bet on players like Kohli who are relatively new to the game compared to a Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar or MS Dhoni, who are not just veterans but have gone beyond the game. It basically means that their endorsement careers are 'performance-proof' - or in some way immune to their on-field failures.

Saurabh Uboweja, CEO, Brands of Desire, a brand consultancy, says, "The endorser has to be consistent to the core. In the case of Kohli, it is his batting that needed to be consistent. The moment you stop delivering the main product, people question the peripheral things too. A celeb-brand association is like an established brand partnering with a semi-established brand, so the relation is always risky and the established brand is at more risk."

No brand wants to let its fortunes be tied to the endorsers it hires. But unfortunately, that's exactly what tends to happen in many cases. Given this scenario, the more consistent the performance of the sportsperson, the more soundly the marketer in question can sleep.

Crisis management

When situations such as these arise, brands either halt or truncate their campaigns midway, stay away from the endorser till he is back on track or run endorser-free, neutral campaigns in the meanwhile. A brand is never obligated to run campaigns only with its endorser. And that decision is the prerogative of the brand manager.

In extreme cases involving scandals and scams - did someone say Tiger Woods - brands are forced to end the contract. Needless to say this affects sales. While in most cases, sales suffer, there is an exception to the rule - if public sentiment towards the endorser is favourable, a campaign featuring him can actually boost sales.

In some brand-endorser deals there are 'risks discounts', which means, if an endorser is not doing well, he discounts some percentage of the deal to the brand. This serves to insulate the brand from monetary damage. "An endorser is more like a part of the marketing plan and not someone on whom the entire plan depends," points out Uboweja, reminding us that there is always a way to tweak the deal and find a plan that's best for the brand.

But Darshan M, director, Spoment Ventures, has a different opinion. "There is no need to pull out a campaign because the brand ambassador is going through a rough phase. Performance in a game keeps changing. You win some and you lose some," he asserts, matter-of-factly.

He adds that a bad phase does not drastically affect a sportsperson's equity because fortunately or unfortunately, public memory is short. "A player can get a duck 10 times, but a century in the 11th match can set everything right," he says, adding, "A brand has to live with the good and bad days of the sportsperson. It is a calculated risk that a brand has to take and it cannot just take the assets and leave the liabilities."

The better act

A sportsperson's career is more mercurial than an actor's, they say, with more frequent ups and downs. Besides, one may argue that the amount of damage a series of flop movies does is not as bad as the amount of damage a series of bad matches does.

But, by and large, both kinds of celebs bring similar risks to the brands they endorse. Actors have a couple of advantages up their sleeve, though. Firstly, a scandal or news of an affair involving a co-actor can, in a twisted way, boost their image. Secondly, box office performance is not the only way to stay in the public eye - other hobbies/interests can well serve the same purpose. For instance, Akshay Kumar is known for his love for martial arts and adventure sports. Hit or flop, this image is consistent.

As far as popular expert opinion goes, brands that can take a celebrity and create 'engagement solutions' and 'events properties' that go beyond the TV commercial will be the winners. The idea must be bigger than the celeb on air... and the brand must be bigger than the star promoting it.

As for Kohli, the proverbial doomsday is still quite far. After all, he is the best T20 batsmen and third best ODI batsmen as per the ICC's rankings. And we wouldn't dare question his ability to bounce right back with a bang, would we?

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