Himanshu Arora
Guest Article

The enigma of Dhoni

Our guest author delves into the enigma of MS Dhoni, exploring how his unique blend of authenticity, leadership, and humility has made him a timeless brand.

One of the most amusing parts of being in marketing is that you look at the world with marketing-tinted glasses. Everything and everyone has a brand which can be neatly laid out in strategies, decks and boxes. I am sure most marketers agree. But something is different about the former Indian captain MS Dhoni – Brand Dhoni. And as you all know us marketers, we love different.

This IPL season made me zero in on what makes him an enigma to millions across the country.

Dhoni’s teammates revere him. His opponents watch him in awe. His fans worship him. In Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu, fans who wait to watch him bat call it “Thala darisanam”. Literally: a glimpse of the god-like leader. He might be from Ranchi, but for CSK fans, he is their thala from Chennai. Even his brand endorsements, like this TVS ad, showcase his presence as a Ranchi man that Tamil Nadu celebrates as their own.

The fan culture for Chennai Super Kings is so unique that you won’t find others cheering loudly when their team’s wicket falls. One of the loudest recorded crowd reactions during a CSK match? When a wicket fell, it was time for Dhoni to take strike. It doesn’t matter if CSK is the home team or away team. Ask Pat Cummins, who heard his home crowd give Dhoni a booming welcome during the SRH vs CSK match earlier this month. Such is his brand.

MS Dhoni: The brand anti-thesis

From a branding perspective, MS Dhoni is an anomaly. He does not fit into any of the neatly laid boxes marketers have spent years perfecting. This takes me back to a blank drawing board to understand who he is. 

Dhoni is as elusive as he is well known. His social media presence is sporadic at best. He is one of the biggest personalities in Indian cricket and his last Instagram post was almost a year ago. He posts glimpses of his personal life without much explanation, and you wouldn’t catch any brand endorsements on his page. He is simply himself, with blurry videos, etc. 

This, in an era where consumers’ attention span is limited, is interesting by itself. Brands and people compete to stay relevant, especially on social media by posting at least thrice a week. There are engagement rates, leads, impressions and all the marketing jargon. MS Dhoni is a brand, but he needs none of that to stay relevant. He lets his actions do the talking. His post from almost a year ago still gains traction after every IPL match.

One comment says, “42 years old, but still there is no one like him 6 6 6 😍 My Captain 💛💛” referring to CSK’s recent match against Mumbai Indians. His presence is brand enough. 

This doesn’t mean he is not active in the branding space. His career currently involves being active for 2-3 months of the year as one of the stalwarts of the Indian Premier League. During this time, he goes all out with his brand endorsements and advertisements. He is a regular face on TV, both in the game and during quick intervals.

Himanshu Arora, Co-Founder of Social Panga & The Yellow Shutter
Himanshu Arora, Co-Founder of Social Panga & The Yellow Shutter

This is what makes him interesting. Even when he is no longer a part of the Indian national team, his presence in the advertising space makes the fan journey more interesting. His advertisement for Oreo before the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup felt like he was sitting with families in their living room and discussing vehemently about the prospect of “nazar” on the Indian team. He is a familiar face, one that is always welcome on any television across the country.

If you ask someone who comes to mind when you say “Leader”, you will probably hear most people say his name. He is influential, his track record speaks for itself, and he is trustworthy, through and through. His thought leadership, however, is a complete mismatch from what you would expect from leaders, especially in the online space. He turns it on its head and makes it work in his favour: Less words, more action. And people trust him to get the job done without talking about it first. 

So, what’s his secret sauce?

India loves hard work. We love seeing hard work rewarded. That’s Dhoni’s secret. He works hard, he works smart, and he keeps his cool in pressure situations. That makes him reliable. He held the nation’s dreams on his shoulders for years before he retired. He delivered results time and time again. That makes him an icon. His leadership needs very few words. We see it in action when his team needs him the most. It makes us feel a part of something special. 

Many cricketers and leaders alike have waxed eloquently about how he handles pressure. His thought process is simple: Don’t focus on the result, focus on the process. His former teammate Dwaine Pretorious writes, “...he takes away the pressure of winning or losing the match and he focuses on the process. The process is something that is super important and allows MS to deal with pressure.” Just when we think he is invincible and that nothing gets to his icy cool exterior, we learn more about him. 

And Who is MS Dhoni? 

He is multi-faceted. He is serious when he needs to be, and a jokester on other occasions. His IPL ad campaigns are silly because he rarely takes himself seriously. He plays characters, sports theatrical hairstyles, and ensures that he gets a good laugh out of us. His Vivo IPL 2021 ad campaign saw him sport yellow hair and dance around in a neighbourhood full of IPL fans.

He plays a dual role as both grandfather and grandson in the most recent IPL ad for Jio Cinema. Personalities we see on TV easily become household names between people of all age groups, from grandmothers to toddlers who know exactly who the man in a spartan suit and long hair for the Snickers advertisement is. 

A dash of nostalgia

MS Dhoni’s power-hitting might be famous, but the things that go viral on social media are his small actions that show us what sort of a human being he is. He signs kids’ merchandise; pets stray dogs and is constantly attentive to his surroundings.

People don’t want to see glitz and glamour, or a perfect social media feed with just the right things everyone wants to hear. They want to see someone who is human, with shortcomings and positives, especially in an era where we are used to curated content. Where everything is structured, his diversion from the norm makes him refreshing. People trust him because he brings himself to the table and nothing else. 

The current median age of social media users in India is around 27. Most users are millennials and Gen Zs. All these people were kids when India won the ICC Men’s World T20 Cup in 2007, the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013 and the crowning jewel: The ICC Men’s ODI World Cup in 2011. Every single one of us remembers exactly where we were when Dhoni lofted a six-over long-on to win us the title.

Ravi Shastri’s commentary, “Dhoni finishes off in style! A magnificent strike into the crowd!” is not something any of us have forgotten. It formed a core memory for millions, myself included. Dhoni gave us something no social media campaign or brand strategy could do: A memory to cherish for the rest of our lives. Nostalgia is an incredible storytelling tool for brands, and he made one of the biggest dreams for cricket fans possible. That puts him firmly on a pedestal.

When former Australian cricketer Adam Gilchrist called Mahendra Singh Dhoni the “Absolute holy grail of cricket”, I disagreed. He is more than that. He has a rare mix of attributes that makes him one of the most influential people in our era, while consciously sidestepping the norms. He is a brand that has managed to stand the test of time and become something beyond aspirational: Timeless.

(Our guest author is Himanshu Arora, Co-Founder of Social Panga & The Yellow Shutter)

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