Vinay Kanchan
Guest Article

Serious branding lessons from ‘The Joker’

There’s so much that marketers and brand custodians can borrow from Novak Djokovic’s exploits, says our guest author.

Throughout his career, Novak Djokovic has been known as ‘The Joker’. However, last Sunday, as he bagged a record extending 10th Australian Open, which is his record equalling 22nd Grand Slam title, the Serb laid serious claim to be crowned as the all-time ‘King of tennis’.

His journey has been inspirational - one that has celebrated a consistent level of excellence, maintained over an extraordinarily long period of time. It’s something that many market brands would surely aspire to emulate. There is much to learn from the exploits of this champion.

As brand custodians ponder what it will take to stay in their own market rallies for longer, whilst moving their opponents from side to side, they would be wise to learn from Djokovic’s example.

15-0: an origin can be overcome

There was something very interesting that Djokovic said, during his trophy acceptance speech at the Australian Open. Including his opponent Stefanos Tsitsipas (a Greek) in an observation, Djokovic remarked both came from countries that didn’t have any previous tradition or heritage in tennis. Yet, that didn’t stand in their way when it came to rising to the top of the tennis world.

In a sense, he reiterated the point that it didn’t matter where one came from. What mattered was the sense of purpose one had, and where they had fixed their gaze on.

This resonates much beyond the tennis court, and even in business boardrooms. Often, when entering a category, thanks to previous management thinking around core competencies and such, many tend to favour stretching out only in areas where one’s reputation has already been created. This restricts what an existing organisation can stretch into. It also biases perception against newcomers, because there are no credentials to borrow from.

However, the greatest innovations of late have come from brands that have entered as virtual greenhorns in categories, only to transform them. Think how Apple (then only in personal computing) changed the music, smartphone and watch business. Closer home, reflect on how Wipro, once associated with consumer products, pushed all the right buttons when it entered the IT industry.

Just as in tennis, it’s what one does on court that makes all the difference.

30-0: learn from imitating the best

Perhaps one of the reasons Djokovic got associated with ‘The Joker’ pseudonym, was that early in his career, he had a habit of mimicking many of his peers. This did cause for great moments of hilarity on court. His impressions of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, his one-time coach Boris Becker, and even (amazingly) Maria Sharapova, are worthy of checking out on YouTube.

But that also revealed a deeper insight. He had been studying them very closely. He had scrutinised in great detail, the minutiae of what they did on court, and eventually what made them successful. This kind of rigorous analysis, can only help one’s career go further.

Learning from what the best do, has been one of the best ways to become good at something. During the Renaissance, it was common practice for young hopefuls to learn the ropes by trying to replicate the work of the masters, when under their tutelage. This practice has carried through to the business and branding world too.

Often, new entrants try to do the same thing the torch-bearers in the domain do, at least to begin with. Many new brands in the e-commerce space, quickly made Flipkart’s ‘easy returns no questions asked’ policy, a part of their own offering. Every new ice cream parlour that opens up, knows it has to have to give its consumers mini samples to taste, because Naturals and Baskin-Robbins have been doing it for years.

Imitation might not just be the best form of flattery. It might also be helping flatten the difference between the market leader and the young upstart.

40-0: try and develop another market

Most tennis players who have chalked up massive Grand Slam totals, have typically leant very heavily on one particular tournament. Nadal has 13 French Opens in his tally. Pete Sampras won seven Wimbledon titles, and Martina Navratilova had nine of them. High proficiency on one surface did spectacularly fuel their journeys.

But in the case of Djokovic, he has seven titles on the grass of Wimbledon, and 10 on the hard courts of the Australian Open. This has helped him always have another reliable avenue to add to his tally consistently.

Much of marketing thought is centred on unwavering focus - an adherence to an almost cemented positioning. A delivery of a tightly communicated promise, a proposed alliance with a highly targeted set of consumers.

But paradigms are changing. In these times of market uncertainty, maybe creating another basket to borrow from makes sense. To cite an age-old case; although it has always been overtly communicated as an energy source for the growing needs of children, a lot of Parle-G sales also inspiringly come from blue-collar folks, who see it as the most economic square meal. Having the preference of that sizeable segment, has always helped the brand to take a giant sized bite out of the market.

Game Djokovic: losing situations can be turned around

One of the most inspiring and lasting legacies of Djokovic, will be how he showed no point or match was really lost, till the absolute final shot had been played. His incredible resilience, immense self-belief, amazing levels of stamina and retrieval, aided by his gargantuan staying power in points, allowed him to turn things around, even when all seemed lost.

The number of winners he has pulled off, from way behind the baseline, when the opponent seemed in complete control of the point, would be enough to base an entire OTT series around. Djokovic is a champion, because he refuses to succumb, no matter what.

It’s easy to do well when things are going one’s way. The true test of a person, company or brand, comes when matters take a downturn. That’s when one’s true nature and character come to the fore.

Usually, many brands quietly go into the night, as market and consumer trends begin to change. But some stand proud and resilient. They even manage to rebound back stronger from setbacks.

In 2015, an age-old staple in most Indian households - Maggi Noodles, faced a crisis. News reports cited some packets had been contaminated with lead and MSG. Almost overnight, its market share crashed to almost negligible numbers. It could have sounded the death knell for a once beloved brand. But Maggi refused to give up.

After a hiatus of a few months, the brand returned on social media with a #WeMissYouToo campaign that tapped into the rich emotional reservoir of love and nostalgic memories it had built over the years. And, Maggi rebounded back to the top, much like Djokovic often does.

Game, set, match, Djokovic: don’t be afraid to polarise

Probably his penchant for player imitations mentioned earlier, kind of rubbed some of his peers the wrong way initially. But Djokovic had his share of people who were against his antics early on. Then, even after he was among ‘the big 3’, spectators largely used to cheer his opponent, when he was up against either Federer or Nadal.

Even last year, he stirred up a hornet’s nest with his refusal to vaccinate himself, something which eventually denied him a shot at his favourite tournament, and one more Slam being added to his tally.

He also tried to form a rebel player’s league over the last few years. ‘The Joker’ has always done anything, but toed the line. That’s what, perhaps, makes him distinctly stand apart.

Brands try to maximise the profit of their parent companies. Conventionally, this is interpreted as more sales to more people. Which is often decoded as the brand can never afford to upset anyone.

But this is precisely where many get lost in the crowd, in trying to please everybody. Being willing to polarise opinion has always been a strong way to break the clutter. It shows the brand has a spine, something which is increasingly resonating with Gen Z folks.

YouTube influencers, from Jordan Peterson to Russell Brand, thrive on taking a directional - often antagonising to some - perspective on the world. This ensures their videos get regularly clicked on, even by those they seemingly offend.

Kindling strong emotions in people is what all brand’s attempt to do. When a brand serves up a strong opinion, an increased market return is often the pleasant result.

To conclude, Djokovic is undoubtedly, a unique brand on his own. One that epitomises an elite champion mentality. There’s so much that marketers and brand custodians can borrow from his exploits. So much to find inspiration in, given their own quests to emerge as the Kings of the marketplace. And, there’s no joking around in that.

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