Who is greater - Sachin Tendulkar or Don Bradman? I have never watched the great Don Bradman bat, live, poor me, born as I was in 1952, four years after the great man walked away, bat under his arm at the Oval, after being bowled by Eric Hollies for a duck (his eyes misted over perhaps by the tremendous reception), so I am least qualified to comment on the relative merits of either or “compare and contrast” as we were taught to in school. There is, however, no doubt that Sachin Tendulkar's 200 ‘not out' in a one-day international (ODI) has given Indians something to cheer about even if opinion is divided on Pranab Mukherjee's Budget which followed immediately after.
Sunil Gavaskar has promptly thrown his hat into the ring by saying Sachin is the greatest the game has produced, Don or no Don. David Frith, a celebrated writer of the game, on the other hand, whilst lauding Sachin's phenomenal achievements, says “Sorry India, the Don is better”. Let me present my two bits on the subject. Sachin is easily the greatest player that we have had the good fortune to see, live, and am I glad that I have watched him not only take on Shane Warne, Shoaib Akhtar, Brett Lee, Dale Steyn and Glenn McGrath, but also take them all to the cleaners. Having said that, I believe comparisons are odious. Bradman never wore a helmet, played on uncovered pitches, faced bodyline, did not have the super-compressed powerhouses (read bats) that today's batsmen use or had the ropes pulled in to allow sixes to be hit at will. So let's not get into the futile controversy of who is the greatest but let us just celebrate our own maestro and remind ourselves that a couple of years ago some were baying for his blood.
So let me just stay with Sachin the brand and the endorser of a million (okay, hundred) products, the man who has shown the way to sponsorship to a host of less talented sportsmen for over twenty years, the man who has earned crores of rupees and will continue to earn crores more as long as he wishes to earn them. How can brands capitalise on the aura around the man, use it and yet not get sucked into it? What should the strategy for ‘brand Sachin' be now that its valuation is at an ‘all-time' high?
Surrounded by men with feet of clay
The sports world has its own share of celebrities from different sports and from different parts of the world, many of whom probably earn a lot more than Sachin Tendulkar, given the popularity of the respective sports in the countries that they live in. Whilst the sporting prowess and the consequent ability of these people to make news and make money were hardly in question, there was another side to these great sportsmen: They all had feet of clay, to put it mildly. They had roving eyes, their marriages were as fragile as the Indian batting line-up had been in the past, their fingers were ever ready to send raunchy text messages, they indulged in scraps at bars, had the ability to resist anything but temptation … what colourful lives some of these celebrities have led! But while that makes for titillating reading to all of us, it has certainly given the sponsors quite a few sleepless nights. With every Tiger Woods joke doing the round on the Internet, Accenture must have squirmed just a little more. And this is perhaps the greatest advantage with Sachin Tendulkar, who has a squeaky clean, almost boring reputation, for which I am sure sponsors are willing to pay a premium. If there has been the slightest discordant note it has been the tax imbroglio involving his Ferrari and my personal quibble is he switched camps from MRF which picked him up as a fresh-faced kid, to Adidas. But who am I to crib?
Tendulkar power: just go get it!
I have been watching the sojourn of Tendulkar as a model and as an endorser over the years. Of course, he has been a very saleable commodity and has been cheerfully and freely used by his admirers. Was a time when he was the only batsman doing well whilst all around him the Indian team was collapsing like nine pins and Amul cheekily wrote an ad that read “Tendu ten don't” with a picture of a defiant little champion along with images of ten other desolate Indians. But then Tendulkar has always been in the news and for the right reasons.
The earliest commercial of Sachin Tendulkar that I can remember is for Pepsi, where a baby-faced Sachin and his school batting partner Vinod Kambli indulge in acrobatics to get the only remaining bottle of Pepsi after a round of strenuous practice, only to have it taken by the captain Azhar who cheekily says “Relax boys, have a Pepsi” while both have flabbergasted looks on their faces. Sachin grew in stature, became more mature even if his voice was a bit squeaky. One of the best fits for Sachin that I could remember was for Visa the credit card. Visa was looking for a young, middle-class Indian who had nothing but the ability to make it to the top, as that was the message it wished to convey to young India.
And which better role model than the young cricketer who came from a lower middle-class family, set Shivaji Park alight, broke records and later bowlers' backs to become the finest player that India had ever produced? The commercial was a hit. I remember the commercial being played during the tournament at Sharjhah were Sachin set the stadium and the whole of India alight with his once-in-a-life time ‘desert storm' when he beat Australia single-handed. I remember the client getting hundreds of calls that night for Visa credit cards. With every four that was being hit and with every exposure of the commercial, the wires were getting burned at the Visa call centre as everyone wanted Visa Power.
A true victor
Another landmark commercial for brand Sachin has been for TVS Victor that was launched just before the cricket World Cup in 2003 in South Africa. Sachin dazzled as he took on team after team and attack after attack with breathtaking freshness. India fell at the final hurdle but Sachin was the true victor, and TVS went on record to say that the choice of Sachin as their brand ambassador was one of the prime reasons for the brand's successful launch.
Yes, Sachin has delivered and not only on the cricket field but at the cash register as well. Other brands such as Boost have used Sachin as the ‘secret of their energy'. There have been scores of others, the more recallable ones being MRF and Adidas. Yes, the Sachin juggernaut has rolled on, taking several brands with it and I have only talked about a few because of constraints of space. Sachin is at the very moment at the very pinnacle of his prowess, and has a record that no one can hope to achieve, not even Ricky Ponting (who is suddenly realising that he will have a lot more catching up to do). So that brings me to the million dollar question: Here is the most saleable commodity India has, a jewel in our crown and the envy of the world. But being the brand he has always been, he has, naturally, a price tag, so will you or won't you sign on the legend?
Make the most of the moment
It is quite likely that the marketing machinery will get into high speed as the maestro's prices skyrocket. While one cannot put a price on his phenomenal ability, using him has been and will always be a business decision. Ultimately every celebrity decision is one of cost versus benefit. Consider that. Emotional decisions rarely work. I think it is time for brands to realise that they have to go beyond Sachin's presence and aura which will definitely help awareness.
But what next? The future will belong to any brand that captures the essence of the great man. And what is that essence? It is the ability to constantly reinvent himself. It is the enthusiasm of a child for the game, which enables him to dive full length to stop the ball after playing for 20 years. Brands constantly struggle to remain young, attractive and relevant to newer audiences. They should take a lesson or two from the ageless master. Let's hope that some brand, any brand, will capture the true essence of Sachin and achieve a brand fit that has not happened so far, in his case, at least. Someone has to write a memorable script that embodies the true Sachin, for what brand Sachin has been missing over the years has been a breakthrough script. Now that he has scored 200 in an ODI, it is perhaps time that the script too makes a dramatic entry.
And despite all the debate about who is the best, something tells me Sir Don Bradman would have approved of the successor to the mantle of the greatest batsman of all time.
(The writer is the CEO of brand-comm and the author of ‘Googly - Branding on Indian Turf'.)Ramanujam Sridhar
Image Source : 3BP