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Saina Nehwal: Acing the brand endorsement scene

By Sohini Sen , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing | August 31, 2015
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The reigning badminton champion recently signed an endorsement deal worth Rs. 25 crore with celebrity management firm IOS Sports. On the brand circuit, she has become the highest paid sportsperson, outside of cricket. A look at the categories she has endorsed so far and the ones she can, in the days ahead.

That cricketers and movie stars command hefty endorsement fees is a given. It is seldom that we see brands associating with non-actors and sportspersons outside of cricket. So, when badminton champion Saina Nehwal signed an endorsement deal worth Rs. 25 crore, with IOS Sports and Entertainment, she hit a smash shot.

Saina Nehwal in Kellogg's TVC

Saina Nehwal in Iodex TVC

Saina Nehwal in Fortune Oil TVC

IOS already handles other Olympic medal winners such as boxers Vijender Singh, MC Mary Kom and wrestler Sushil Kumar, along with cricketer Suresh Raina, shooters Gagan Narang, Heena Sidhu and archer Deepika Kumari.

Prior to this, Nehwal was known to command Rs. 75 lakh a year, per brand endorsement - a fee far lower than what she deserved, as per industry observers. Nehwal consolidated her position in the endorsement scene with her recent re-entry into the top spot in women's singles, in the latest rankings of the Badminton World Federation (BWF). The deal with IOS gives her an opportunity to tie up with brands for endorsements and public appearances for two years.

Saina Nehwal in Top Ramen TVC

Saina Nehwal in NECC TVC

Darshan M

Nehwal is not just the current World No.1, but also the first Indian to win a medal in badminton at the Olympics (Bronze in London, 2012). Her list of firsts includes - being the first Indian after Prakash Padukone and the first Indian woman to become World No. 1, the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championship and also the first Indian to win a Super Series tournament.

She was, until now, considered to be an under-valued sportsperson. "She is getting her due now and has already got several brands under her belt. She has already overtaken the second-rung cricketers and is the highest paid sportsperson outside cricket. Is there gender at play? No. The fact is that this is prevalent not just in sports, but also in Bollywood, music and fashion. And is not going to change overnight," points out Darshan M, director, Spoment Media.

The Big Deal

Nehwal had earlier signed a three-year deal, worth Rs. 40 crore, with Rhiti Sports Management which, unfortunately, fell through. In 2013, she signed up with KWAN Entertainment and Marketing Solutions for a year. However, her endorsement rates finally surpassed those demanded by racquet wielder Sania Mirza and boxing champ Mary Kom only this year. Mirza reportedly charges Rs. 60-75 lakh per year.

Sharda Agarwal

Indranil Das Blah

Darshan informs that this has not just to do with her new-found World No. 1 status. "Brands are looking for celebrities and sportspersons who are more visible on the world stage. As such, people world over know about Saina. Badminton, as compared to boxing, is more viewer-friendly, popular and not seen as a dangerous sport. That mass appeal is what works in her favour," he says.

According to Marketgate's co-founder, Sharda Agarwal, Nehwal's performance justifies the fees. "There have been other non-cricketing sportspeople known around the world, but their persona is different. For example, chess is seen as a niche and far less exciting. Badminton is a spectator sport. So, the endorsement deals are not just about the achievements, but also about the sports' popularity," Agarwal explains.

As per Indranil Das Blah, COO, KWAN, and former VP, sports, Globosports, who used to handle Nehwal's endorsement deals till last year, the fee demanded by Nehwal is too high. "She will probably get paid around Rs. 1.5 crore per brand. But, her calendar is usually booked through the year, leaving around four days for the brand. In that case, it is a steep price. I think it would be justified if she demanded Rs. 1-1.25 crore," he states.

Mass Appeal

The popular opinion is that Nehwal's personality is well-suited for mass, sports and lifestyle-related brands and categories.

Blah says that Nehwal enjoys a stronger connect with the masses because people perceive hers to be a 'rags to riches' story. "She has worked her way up and there is no one who doesn't know about her today. On the other hand, certain people are not very comfortable in front of the camera. Their screen presence is not as dazzling, which is probably why I feel she is more suited for a mass brand, than a luxury brand," he observes.

Nehwal, he thinks, will be a good fit for the telecom, FMCG, health and wellness sectors, as well as for big-reach companies such as HUL and Airtel.

The luxury brand endorsement deals are considered to be the forte of sportspersons like Virat Kohli and Sania Mirza. Mirza's charismatic off-screen persona has often been used by brands such as Tata Tea, TVS Scooty, Deutsche Bank and movie channel PIX.

In comparison, Nehwal has tied up with brands such as Indian Overseas Bank, Kellogg's, Iodex, NECC, Fortune Oil, Bajaj No Marks, Vaseline, Herbalife, Yonex, Fitbit and Sahara.

Saji Abraham

Sudip Ghose

Saji Abraham, executive director, Lowe & Partners, opines that more than the brand fit, PR is what works. "What is important is how brands weave their story around the celebrity. Dhoni endorses everything from steel bars to innerwear, because tailor-made stories can make any brand a good fit. For example, if Lux (traditionally endorsed only by film stars) tried to tie up with Nehwal and present it as a new definition of beauty, it will work. But, if it tries to substitute her for a film star, comparisons will be made and it may backfire," he explains.

Sudip Ghose, vice president, marketing, VIP Industries, disagrees. A brand fit, he believes, is a staple in any celebrity endorsement.

"A cooking oil brand may not be as great a fit, but a pain balm will be. Considering that sportspersons travel a lot for tournaments, even a luggage brand can be a good fit. However, it depends on which brand I am looking to market. If I talk about VIP or Skybags, I will look for a celebrity with a mass appeal, while for Carlton Luggage, I will think of someone with glamour and elegance," he elaborates.

Agarwal is certain that Nehwal's best bets would be fitness brands, malted beverages and sports drinks, brands in the achievement space and banks or financial institutions which portray stability. She cites the example of chess champ Vishwanathan Anand endorsing NIIT - a good fit considering the TG for both the game and the computer training brand is niche, intellectual or slightly evolved people.

Can Nehwal bag as many endorsement deals as, say, Deepika Padukone? According to VIP's Ghose, the dynamics in films and sports endorsements are different; the latter being a more risky affair.

He explains, "Taking a sportsperson is risky and brands would like to play it safe with film stars. That said, a brand is likely to go for established film stars who already have a huge fan following. However, in sports, brands tend to get attracted to younger, rising stars still to reach their fullest potential, like Kohli, Mirza and Nehwal."

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