Vinay Kanchan
Guest Article

When Sunil Chhetri scored for the cause of social media

Our guest author recalls Sunil Chhetri's impactful 2018 social media plea that demonstrated the power of authentic, direct communication.

Sunil Chhetri-the face of Indian football-has announced his retirement. India’s World Cup Qualifier against Kuwait, on June 6, will be the last time its captain and talisman, will be turning out in the blue jersey of the national team. 

That news is sure to give Indian fans the blues. 

And while his career on the pitch, has been truly spectacular and inspirational, my personal favourite memory of Chhetri, is a glowing example of leadership (and social media marketing), he rendered in 2018. Even if, the social media marketing case study bit, was probably not really his intention. 

During the Asian Cup Qualifiers, the audience turnouts for India’s games had been truly abysmal. Something, which surely affected the morale of players and rendered the whole concept of ‘home advantage’ meaningless. At that time, Chhetri did something unprecedented in Indian football, perhaps in all of Indian sports. He made a video, which contained a heartfelt request to the fans. 

It was India’s most retweeted post of 2018. 

On the day of the next game, at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai, Indian fans turned up in large numbers and in full-throated support of their team. 

It was truly a beautiful moment. 

Something, which left us, especially those in the branding business, with some principles to ponder, when it came to leveraging social media, even as the cheers kindled by that initiative refused to die down. 

Reach out directly

There used to be an era, where CEOs, Inventors, Creators, Leaders and the like, seldom reached out directly to the customer. A host of people operated between them and their audience. Communication was handed over to ‘specialists’, who created messages that spoke to millions at the same time. 

This is not that era! 

Like Chhetri, so brilliantly showed, this is the age of the truly personal connection. Audiences love to hear from the actual people behind the offering. They need to have the feeling, that this is a conversation. Not a one-sided diatribe. They need to feel like they will be heard, that their opinion and support could make a difference and that they can speak directly to the people who matter.

This is why so many public figures are so accessible these days. From Elon Musk to Indian political leaders, Taylor Swift to the Big B, all realize the importance of maintaining a ‘hotline’, with their followers. Staying a pole apart is never a wise strategy to win at the popularity polls. 

Be authentic

The reason why this post by Chhetri struck such a chord, was that it came from a place of truth. Spiritual angles despite, brands performing better when they adhere to their ‘Swadharma’-people could sense this was a real heartfelt plea. Chhetri even put up the facts upfront:

He admitted that Indian football standards were nowhere close to the European leagues. But he added that unless fans come out to support Indian players, this situation and the entire environment around domestic soccer, was unlikely to improve.

The stark reality of his appeal truly resonated. 

Gen Z, sometimes also called ‘The Instagram Generation’, and in many ways, the backbone of anything going viral, places a premium on the authentic. This is why even ‘amateur videos’, spread like wildfire, as long as there is an element of genuineness to them. Perhaps, in a world increasingly veering towards virtual reality, the rare and the real are becoming all the more coveted.

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, often mused how employees looked for authenticity in their leaders, more than any other quality. This same trait applies to brands as well. It is absolutely fine, even appealingly human, to admit to errors and shortcomings. Rather than deviously concocted cover-ups, this approach endears the company to the customer more. To use a play on words, being real, has some very real and prosperous brand effects. 

Create a climate for ‘assist enrolment’

Chhetri’s post went massively viral because, as any striker would appreciate, he had many people assisting his cause. Leaders in various online football groups, felt a compelling urge to ensure their followers saw this message. Its patriotic undertones, had people not interested in football, sharing it as well.

Virat Kohli had also famously retweeted this post, underlining the fact that India’s cricket captain (then), stood behind his footballing counterpart and friend. 

They all did so because they firmly believed this was a meaningful cause they could get behind. 

People are always looking to associate with causes greater than themselves. Man is a social animal. Woman? Even more so. The feeling of being part of ‘something bigger’ is very human, and often a great source of inspiration and engagement. The audience seeks some sort of meaning and direction in their lives. The endless scrolling which happens on social media is perhaps a nuanced manifestation of this mindset.

When someone provides the right opportunity to participate, the response often can be astounding. Mahatma Gandhi’s simple clarion call of “Do or Die”, cut through all dialogue and complexity, and gave his followers a ‘meme’ (long before the term existed), they could leverage to galvanize vast numbers on the ground. In a sense, though he was calling for a non-violent struggle, he supplied Indians with the right ammunition to kindle sparks. 

To conclude, as one of India’s most iconic sportspersons of recent times, gets set to walk into the sunset, there’s much to applaud in his story. His talent, his skills, his goals, will make most of the headlines. But the quiet dignity with which he led the Indian squad, and his humility in asking for support, will always shine through for me as inspiration beyond the pitch. 

Well played Sunil Chhetri!

(Our guest author, Vinay Kanchan is a brand storyteller, innovation catalyst, and the author of ‘Sportivity’, ‘Lessons from the Playground’ and ‘The Madness Starts at 9’)

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