Vinay Kanchan
Guest Article

How soccer kicked its way into public consciousness

And what's in it for marketers.

The under 17 FIFA World Cup takes place in India this October. It is by far the most consequential footballing event to be hosted by us, certainly in recent decades and perhaps of all time. Some might say, like the ISL claimed when it launched, that it will herald a soccer revolution in our country. But this 'revolution' has been underway for quite some time now.

How soccer kicked its way into public consciousness

Vinay KanchanYoung kids all across the land, especially in the metros, have embraced the beautiful game with a kind of frenzy that is absolutely fascinating. The rise in soccer academies, an increased number of people playing football on grounds and beaches, the packed 5-a-side turf grounds in the evenings, and an incessant chatter on social media virtually on a daily basis around the world's favourite sport, all perhaps indicate that the tide is already in favour of 'jogo bonito'.

Just like any team's success is down to myriad reasons, here are a few catalysts I have noticed over the years that have inspired young folk to drop the bat and be stumped by the love of threading a ball between two posts.

When India went clubbing

The post-liberalised times of the nineties heralded the advent of satellite television in India. With it came regular telecasts from the European soccer leagues; those of England, Spain, Italy, and Germany. While the previous generation's romance with the game was largely based around the World Cup held once every four years, the club level infatuation promised a regular weekend fix. It gave new converts a constant and consistent schedule to follow where their relationship with the sport would only deepen.

This relationship was indeed a curious one, perhaps symptomatic of how a new generation had embraced a life without and beyond borders. There was nothing regional or national about it. Few, even today, can name the complete Indian starting eleven, but they will rattle off that of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United, replete with the names of those on the bench. Ten years ago, I remember noticing a group of young players on the beach, who only started playing after they had finished singing the Arsenal anthem. Something strange and fascinating was afoot. Just like the allure of your weekend club getaway, the dalliance with this new passion was proving to be just as intoxicating.

Catering to dwindling attention spans

The young are, almost by definition, restless. Add to that the fact, here was India's first true internet generation; the one which saw each moment as being a choice between multiple windows of activity being open at the same time. They simply wanted to get on with things, hated pauses and sought a high adrenaline rush out of life. Soccer ticked all those fronts.

It was a one and a half hour (two, given half time and analysis) dose of pure entertainment, where the action never stopped. There was no opportunity for 'irritating' advertising and brand messages to intrude in between (at least not overtly). The focus of the commentators could not be about anything, other than what was immediately transpiring. Finally there lay the elusive promise of purging all pent up emotions and feelings, when their favourite team scored. 'GOAL!!!' was fast becoming the favourite four letter word for this group... well, almost.

Getting into the fabric of their existence

Shakespeare once mused, 'apparel oft proclaims the man'. In today's day and time, this could be rephrased as clothes are the visual signatures of a revolution. It was here that the new football movement in the country really took on some interesting and vibrant colours. The cultural landscape began to sport a new fashion statement, one which showed an individual's allegiance to a club; young Indians truly took to the football jersey.

Often, it is those small, almost irrational aspects, which cause consumers to adopt new things. In football, myriad factors from the ring of a famous player's name to the story behind the club have been known to attract people. But few things touch the heart as an eye catching football jersey, quite literally. Glance across a crowded urban mall these days and one is certain to spot scores of them. Jerseys help young people belong to those 'cool' groups (say fans of Chelsea or Bayern Munich). Jerseys help people stand apart and that idea appeals to even those who don't follow the game. This is perhaps where football really got to spin its yarn around a doting new generation.

Getting cricket caught in the slips

Just like in the branded marketplace, a new societal idea can sometimes take root (no reference to Joe here), if it contextualizes itself in an interesting manner against the dominant player. Case in point, Apple first began as a challenger brand, addressing a niche in the personal computer market. Its existence was predicated on its difference from IBM, the resident giant. IBM was cold, impersonal, colossal, and made for the masses; Apple, by contrast, celebrated individuality. Needless to say, over the years this strategy of sharp differentiation from the norm, bore fruit.

India is a country where cricket is a religion and by far the number one passion. That will still be the case in the near future. But soccer did succeed because it spoke to a niche of young people who wanted to explore another sport. While soccer did not take cricket head on in an organised manner, this juxtaposition happened in the minds of this new generation. Everything football celebrated, they found lacking in cricket; true global appeal, quicker resolution, faster action, less 'tamasha' and so on (call it the effect of a 'jaundiced eye').

Interestingly this group, while comparatively small, also constituted opinion leaders and that helped the movement gather further momentum. If cricket was the 'norm' and choice of their parents, they wanted to rebel against that choice and make their own. This generation wanted their foot on the ball when it came to life.

To conclude, as marketers, it is important to be cognizant of this change in preference which is underway. To be fair, many brands have already begun touching upon such narratives. But this wave might grow to 'Tsunami like proportions' faster than anticipated. When any person uses 'we' in the context of his favourite club (as in 'we won yesterday'), I am still mildly amused. But there's nothing funny in turning a blind eye to this revolution of the foot which is taking place. Ignore it, and your brand might get tackled en route to its goals.

(The author is an independent creative thinking trainer and brand ideation consultant. He has written two books, 'Lessons from the Playground' and 'The Madness Starts at 9'. He is also the patron saint of Juhu Beach United, a footballing organisation which celebrates 'the unfit, out of breath, working professional of today'.)