Ashwini Gangal

Indian Olympians on the brand circuit

It is time for the Olympics. As the Indian athletes head for London 2012, we try and identify the future stars of the endorsement game.

Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
If the country's top sports editors have got their predictions right, the London Olympics could be the best ever for India. It could turn out to be special for the number of medals the athletes are expected to rope in - after all, India is sending its largest contingent ever.

When India broke its drought of an individual medal in the Olympics four years ago, a couple of names - apart from the star of the show, Abhinav Bindra - stood out. Names like Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar became household ones. But it was still cricket and tennis stars who got the bulk of the endorsement deals going around. This time, there seem to be quite a few medal hopes in various disciplines that - many hope - will come out of that shadow.

The list includes Yogeshwar Dutt (wrestling), Heena Sachdev (shooting), Krishna Punia (discus throw), Vikas Krishan (boxing), Gurmeet Singh (athletics) and Bombayala Devi (archery). However, the big five names (they got the maximum votes from the sports editors) are five-time world boxing champion, Mary Kom; the 17-year old nemesis of Korean archers, Deepika Kumari; CWG shooting hero Gagan Narang; blue-blooded shooter Ronjan Sodhi and the young, aggressive boxer, Shiva Thapa.

Brand-owners and celebrity managers would probably do well to keep a close watch on these players. If they get on to the medals board, the former will be waiting at the finishing line to sign them on. afaqs! Reporter analyses each of the contenders and what makes them favourites as future brand endorsers.

Story of your life

Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
Advertising is all about story-telling and brand marketers look for interesting stories that they can create around these brand endorsers. So the life of these players will make their stories more saleable and convincing.

Consider the potential rags-to-riches story that athletes like Deepika Kumari and Narsingh Pancham Yadav bring to the table. The daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver, Deepika comes from a poor family in Ranchi that had to compromise on the family budget in order to support her training. Deepika, who made her bows and arrows with bamboos and had mangoes for targets, stands for resilience, courage and a never-say-die attitude.

Similarly, Narsingh Pancham Yadav, a wrestler from UP, is the son of a milk distributor and his mother manages their farm in Varanasi. Any visualiser or brand strategist worth his salt would be able to see the marketing potential in such stories that a brand can successfully leverage.

Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
The human-interest angle is something brands can play up in their communication because this can help strike an emotional connect with the consumers. Jitender Dabas, executive vice president (planning), McCann Erickson, explains why consumers buy into the 'real hero' story. "Brands want to celebrate that heroism," he explains.

They do this by leveraging 'the plot', which could be one of several things: Being the first to win a particular medal could be one plot, a sensational comeback story could be another (the way Lance Armstrong did after battling cancer or the way Yuvraj Singh is likely to do soon). Being a hero in the face of adversity is another plot that a brand can use by spelling out how the person made it big against all odds, the 'small town guy making it big' is one more and a very young person winning big at the Olympics could be yet another.

"Every myth of the hero brings out a certain character and brands associate themselves with these characters," adds Dabas. It is not just the and-they-lived-happily-afterward-ending that works in the advertising circuit. For instance, Ronjan Sodhi's royal lineage can also make for an interesting story.

Appearance fee

The looks, the glamour quotient and the gender of the sportsperson play a very important role in the brand endorsement circuit. Which is probably why Vijender Singh performed better in the advertising circuit than his fellow Olympians or why tennis star Sania Mirza stayed high on the top charts in spite of her inconsistent performance. Apparently, at one point in time Mirza endorsed five brands at a fee of Rs. 1 crore even when her world ranking was lower than No 40.

In today's marketing era, presentation and packaging hold an important place and so the physical appearance of the athlete plays a significant role in attracting brands. Says M Darshan, chief executive officer, Machdar Motorsports, "Every sportsperson comes with a certain individual image. As against Saina Nehwal who is a more of an urban phenomenon, Mary Kom can synergise with and inspire rural people who've gone through tough times because she's got a similar story"

He feels she is an ideal match for 'mass brands' with the kind of wide reach that transcends class categories. These include both 'feminist brands' as well as so-called 'patriotic brands'. From Indian banks, women's health groups, sanitary napkins to home grown insurance brands, she can endorse them all because she stands for resilience, determination and woman-power. She also has the first mover advantage because this is the first time women's boxing has been included in the Olympics.

The glamour quotient is also a function of the off-field behaviour of the athlete - such as their presence and behaviour at social dos, events and shows. For instance, Ronjan Sodhi is known to live life king-size. Though he is not much of a looker, this ought to count in the world of brands - for high end ones at least.

Besides appearance and persona, from a brand marketing perspective, a large part of an athlete's aura is his or her ability to communicate well in English. Premium brands tend to be skewed towards the polished lot.

The sport itself

The glamour quotient of the sportsperson is not solely dependent on individual attributes. It's got a lot to do with the genre of sports as well. "Boxing, for instance, is perceived as more glamorous than shooting," says Indranil Das Blah chief operating officer, KWAN Entertainment and Marketing Solutions.

Depending on the category that the brand operates in, the genre of the sport becomes important. For instance some brands may gravitate more towards 'softer' sports like swimming or 'precision sports' like shooting over 'violent' games like wrestling or boxing. Ex-Olympian Hakimuddin Habibullah (the former swimmer who is a sports consultant now) says, "Sports like rifle shooting, wrestling and boxing may be viewed as having a streak of violence"

The genre of the sport also creates a background for the sportsperson. There's an evident divide between the shooters and the boxers or wrestlers. Shooters invariably hail from affluent families as opposed to boxers or wrestlers who are more often than not from less privileged rural homes.

Neerav Tomar, managing director and chief executive officer, IOS (Infinity Optimal Solutions) Sports and Entertainment, says, "Shooting is like golf - the equipment is expensive and is almost always imported. Boxers, very often, come from poorer backgrounds. Wealthy urban families normally don't want their children to get into such hard-core, physically demanding games" And it is not true just in India. Globally, too, boxers come from humbler backgrounds compared to the rest of the athletes.

Another related factor is the popularity level of the discipline. Athletes belonging to 'media-friendly' sports like badminton have an obvious edge over other less entertaining games like chess or rifle shooting when it comes to bagging endorsement deals. If the sport is visible in the media only during the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, then the longevity of the athlete's brand value tends to drop and they find it hard to sustain their brand potential over time.

"The sport should have 'activation potential' or windows of opportunity by being visible in the media or on screen. Brands can then monetise these," says an independent brand consultant. One other important aspect that makes an athlete more brand-friendly is the impact-level or inspiration power of his or her sport. This means that the likelihood of audiences taking up that sport after watching it is more. Experts call this the ability of a sport or athlete to inspire mass participation. If the sport itself has a very small consumer or participation base, so will the ambassador from that sport.

Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
Niche, 'low impact' sports, may or may not generate consumer participation depending upon the sport itself even though the athlete may strike a chord. "So while the consumers may like Mary Kom the person, they may not relate to the sport she represents. People may be able to reciprocate by relating to her at a psychological level but not with her sport. So from the point of view of impact, her influence won't go to the next level," cautions Habibullah.

Local vs National

Endearing as it is, the human interest touch is not all a brand ought to look at. One other important factor is the kind of reach or influence the athlete can have. One way of looking at it would be slot them according to the socio-economic class they represent.

Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
Going by that logic, Deepika Kumari and Shiva Thapa look like ideal ambassadors for tier 2 and 3 towns or rural zones, given their roots. But there's more to it than just social strata. Geography plays an equally important role. Athletes like Deepika and Shiva have a strong regional pull, especially in Jharkhand and the North East, respectively. These are the main buckets where their sport (boxing) has developed in India.

Says Cajetan Vaz, an independent brand consultant, "Sportspersons like these would not be attractive propositions for large national brands. Regional brands, however, might find them affordable and relevant to their home state and consumers." So though he comes from a well to do family, Ronjan Sodhi's brand potential for a national brand may be limited but he may be a very viable ambassador for a brand targeted at hardcore Punjabi households.

Indian Olympians on the brand circuit
"While rural audiences may find it easy to relate to athletes with similar roots, it is the relevance of the ambassador that counts more than rich versus poor, premium versus popular or mass versus class," says Jagdeep Kapoor, managing director, Samsika Marketing Consultants.

It finally boils down to the performance on the day. August could turn out be a busy month for both athletes and brand managers as the dust of the Olympics settles and the winners are announced. Save this issue to see if any of the above predictions come true.

Based on additional interviews with: Akash Goswami, Times Now; Bobilli Vijaykumar, The Times of India; Digvijay Singh Deo, CNN-IBN; Harish Bijoor, Harish Bijoor Consults; Manisha Malhotra, Mittal Champions Trust; Mikhail Vaswani, Neo Cricket; Sandeep Dwivedi, Indian Express; Sanjeev Karan Samyal, Hindustan Times Mumbai; Sonali Chander, sports consultant; Suman Srivastava, Marketing Unplugged; Suraja Kishore, Publicis Ambience; Thomas Abraham, and Vijay Tagore, DNA.

By Ashwini Gangal with inputs from Anushree Bhattacharyya and Shibani Gharat

Have news to share? Write to us