Shreyas Kulkarni

Inside CEAT's aspiration to become synonymous with cricket

The tyre company's MD and CEO, and CMO speak on its IPL association, advertising for the upcoming cricket World Cup, and whether it needs brand building.

For a company that started its innings in India over 70 years ago, and in FY23 scored an annual consolidated revenue of Rs 11,263 crore – a 21% growth from FY22 – CEAT is hardly an unrecognisable brand. It is well-settled à la a classical test match innings from Rahul Dravid.

This cricket allegory is apt seeing the tyre company’s passion for cricket. “10 years from now, people should associate only CEAT with cricket,” states MD and CEO Arnab Banerjee.

Tracing the origins of CEAT’s love for cricket is to go down many a rabbit hole, but the more recent and popular journey is to the year 1995 that launched the CEAT Cricket Ratings, the first-ever rating to recognise and reward the best performers on an annual basis.

Fans, for decades, came to a debate armed with facts (read ratings) to prove their favourite cricketer as the better over the other’s pick.

Today (21 August 2023), CEAT is hosting the 25th anniversary of the annual event that not only celebrates the best of players, but also rewards former cricketers for their services to the game. The rankings were briefly halted in 2019 because of the Coronavirus pandemic, and have recently returned to life.

However, they come to life at a time when social media use is at extreme levels; people can whip up facts or photographs or videos anytime they want putting the relevancy of such ratings into question.

Banerjee disagrees with the Ratings being only about data and says that everyone (cricketers, former cricketers, and fans) looks forward to the annual event in Mumbai. “It's about extending the brand's association with cricket towards our target customers.”

He also nods to former cricketer Sunil Gavaskar’s continued association with the property from day one as a testament to its credibility.

Another challenge for the CEAT Cricket Ratings is that rival MRF Tyres endorses the official International Cricket Council (ICC) cricket rankings. Banerjee, however, remains unconcerned. “The ICC rating has been around for quite some time, but it's just a rating, and there's no amplification or correlation with that.”

Inside CEAT's aspiration to become synonymous with cricket

CEAT’s love affair with cricket

Fans from the 90s and early-to-mid 2000s might adoringly remember the CEAT Cricket Ratings, but cricket fans of the last 10-15 years will recall the tyre brand as the official sponsor of the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) ‘Strategic Timeout’.

Then there is the hard-to-miss blue of the brand’s sticker on the bats of India’s leading cricketers like Rohit Sharma, Harmanpreet Kaur, Shreyas Iyer, and Shubman Gill. CEAT has also invested in cricket gear that it supplies to its endorsers.

“We scan these players regularly… and we look at consistency. It is very important to make the right pick because they are long-term associations. We have not associated with any player for less than two or three years,” states Banerjee when asked about how the company chooses a cricketer.

The company looks at a player’s consistent performance not only during the IPL, it has its eyes on tournaments like the Cooch Behar Trophy, and the Ranji Trophy.

“We are very data-driven, if one looks at different formats, one generally gets it right.”

However, is a player’s performance the only deciding factor? What about their off-the-pitch personality? “Off the field personality can be a detractor,” quips Banerjee and states, "First and foremost is the performance."

And while the company keeps an eye out for consistent performance, MD and CEO Banerjee is clear the company will never have too many players on its roster. “We want to focus on quality. There could be a churn once in a while, but four will never become eight or nine, it may become three to five.”

CEAT’s relationship with cricket has matured over the years, from the Ratings to in-stadia presence to bat stickers, but recently, it took a surprising turn in the form of branded content.

The tyre company in June 2023 announced former Australian cricketer as a brand ambassador and a four-episode show ‘CEAT Timeout’ where he is in conversation with Gavaskar.

It is an attempt from the brand to keep itself relevant to the audience, admits Lakshmi Narayanan B, chief marketing officer, CEAT. "The Indian audience is changing, the consumers are changing and if you notice the storyline, it's also very contemporary to today’s generation," he says.

Making itself synonymous with cricket in a decade is no mean feat and Banerjee knows it when he says, “We have to beat inflation in media costs and that's why it's important to occupy the right properties.”

The need, the MD and CEO says, is to be salient. The Strategic Timeout is big and “it's sort of synonymous with CEAT now. We would be on the lookout for such properties,” he remarks.

Cricket is CEAT’s only choice, but this does not mean there is no room for some “adventure” as the CMO puts it. “We are kind of moving more into the space where we can even invest in adventure sports. You will find us connecting directly with our audience, be it people who are riding bikes or four-wheelers."

Driving through the Cricket World Cup

Along with the IPL, the quadrennial cricket World Cup is a highlight for brands like CEAT to push their relationship with the sport.

“You can expect us to be present at the World Cup,” says Narayanan. He does not divulge any details on the ad rates or deals the brand has struck, but says CEAT's advertising through the event “will be television led,” and that communication will be from a product standpoint.

He acknowledges the fragmented media space courtesy of a “fair amount of audience on digital as well, like OTT”, and that the company will be there on digital too.

CEAT’s advertising powerplay outside of cricket

It is easy to assume CEAT’s advertising revolves around cricket and cricketers. This assumption holds merit but is not entirely true. The company has doled out ads starring cricketers, film stars, and with no famous people in it too. Each delivered some form of return on investment (ROI), but does CMO Narayanan have a favourite?

He does not reveal it. Instead, he explains that when the company wants a faster cut-through, say during IPL advertising, “you tend to use more of celebs.”

When it comes to two-wheeler advertising, “the story is far more relevant for the audience than anything else,” he says.

CEAT’s 2021 campaign with actor Aamir Khan ran afoul many, and we are told the actor, once his contract ended with the company, is no longer associated with it. He joined the company as a brand ambassador in 2020.

WPP-owned advertising agency Ogilvy is CEAT’s creative partner since the company’s rebranding exercise in 2007. The two are one of those illustrative examples of long-standing client-agency relationships that stands apart in today’s world of project work.

Also Read: As food delivery brands go bonkers over speed, CEAT cautions against rash riding

Narayanan credits the agency as someone who understands the brand and “acts as powerful brand custodian” because CEAT is very keen that someone who understands the brand better “can kind of also contemporise it at different points in time and also take different turns right at the end of the day… So, it works for us very well.”

Brand building, why?

With so much going for the brand and a legacy spanning several decades, one wonders if it still needs to invest in brand building. Says Narayanan, “It is extremely relevant.”

The Indian market, he says, is evolving with customers “travelling a lot, buying more vehicles, moving into the SUV world, more high-powered bikes coming in, tyres are all the more relevant.” He also points to the “emerging market of electric vehicles” to reaffirm the need for brand building.

CEAT’s advertising is often targeted at retail consumers but its real target group ought to be the showrooms, garages, and mechanics. The CMO calls these folks the “power influencers”.

The company has a separate program to connect with them on the ground level. “It is more about educating them on different kinds of products that we have across different platforms.”

When asked how the company’s investment in cricket and IPL, and general advertising affects its power influencers, Narayanan says, “For them (power influencers), it's very important for the consumer to kind of walk in with a brand in mind, and advertising needs to do that. Channel partners are more than happy to pitch in the right product and put in the right solution for the consumer.”

cover image source: Rediff

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