Captain Cool will now surely be marketed left, right and centre, more so because the World Cup is going to be held in India next year..
Two hundred not out! What a fantastic number to see against his name on the scoreboard! I am sure that would gladden the heart of any Indian cricket fan. I am not sure how glad the Indian cricket fan is about a different 200 that will be near M. S. Dhoni's name and that is a not insignificant sum of Rs 200 crore that the charismatic Indian captain has signed for a sponsorship deal, which even surpasses the master blaster's earlier deal of Rs 180 crore.
Clearly, Indian cricket and sponsorship have come a long way and it is only fair that players who bring in the crowds and the eyeballs should reap the benefit of the tremendous passion that engulfs the game in this country. Unfortunately, I cannot but think of the “good old days” when cricketers played the game for the love of the game, and of people such as B. S. Chandrasekhar who was as great as they come, who used to go from place to place to play the Ranji Trophy by second-class train and who, incidentally, used to carry his shoes in a small cloth bag! How times have changed and thankfully, for the better! While I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the shrewd Indian captain, I would like to talk about what it means for advertisers and whether this is manna from heaven at all, as some of us would like to believe.
Come to celebrity country
Several years ago Marlboro ran a powerful campaign with the line “Come to Marlboro country”. I do not know if such a place exists like that, but there certainly exists a country for celebrities and that is our own motherland. A country that is starved of success seems to lap up celebrities the way Australians guzzle beer! But surely, it has to make sense for the advertiser and the savvy advertiser must strive hard not to get caught up in the magic of the moment and the heady feeling of signing on the Indian captain.
Let's get back to basics. Why do people sign on celebrities? They can instantly create awareness for your product, particularly a new one. Micromax, the new kid on the block, has suddenly surged in the awareness stakes by signing on Akshay Kumar. It is my personal view that the commercial featuring him as a chef is as bad as some of the actor's recent movies, but it seems to work for the brand, so who am I to complain?
Not very long ago, in 2003 to be precise, TVS Victor had launched its motorcycle with the endorsement of Sachin Tendulkar who had a dream World Cup till the final. Though Sachin was endorsing several brands at that time, he was most strongly associated with the Victor and victors we were till Saurav Ganguly elected to field and till Sachin skied McGrath in the final on that fateful day at Johannesburg! The competition's whisper campaign that it was odd that Sachin the brand ambassador cannot ride a motorcycle largely fell on deaf ears, for Sachin was the Rajinikanth of Indian cricket. He could do anything! What about Lux, the film star's soap from a Sridevi of my time to a Priyanka Chopra of your time? And what about Pepsi, Nike and a whole host of brands that have used and continued to use celebrities with amazing success? All of this is true, but it is perhaps easy to forget that all these are long-term strategies that brands have followed, not just a shot in the dark, hoping that things will somehow work.
Small town boy making it big time
No one can grudge Dhoni the small town boy's amazing success over the years. He has a cool head, even if he seems to have lost his famed locks. He has won India a T20 world cup which none of the fab four have been part of. He has been refused to be intimidated by the Ricky Pontings of the world and handled his opponents a lot more subtly than Saurav Ganguly. He had a lot of women swooning over him, which prompted his in-laws to hasten the wedding and seems to be out of major controversy till date at least. Shane Warne and Tiger Woods do not, thankfully, seem to be his role models. So the sponsor, when he signs on Dhoni, signs on a good, clean celebrity with no baggage. Clearly it is a no-brainer, right? Well, yes and no, and thereby hangs the tale!
The right to choose
Film stars or so the story goes, pick and choose the scripts they wish to work with when it comes to films. It's another story that despite all this choosing, the films they end up making are disasters. Celebrities, particularly those who have been signed on in record deals, may not have this luxury. I am sure Dhoni is going to be marketed left, right and centre over the next few months, especially given the fact that the World Cup is going to be held in India next year. So Dhoni may have a very limited say in the sort of brands he is going to endorse.
So what is likely to happen? Dhoni is currently endorsing 22 brands. Quick! Tell me, how many of these brands do you recall? And imagine the plight of poor consumers if he were to endorse another 18 more! How many of these will consumers remember and how many of these will they actually go out and buy? And in how many will there be a brand fit? One of the greatest challenges that brands face is the dilution of the celebrity's equity and the confusion in the consumer's mind when he/she endorses multiple brands. There was a time when Amitabh Bachchan was in every second commercial. I remember the joke which I heard in a seminar where a speaker said, “Companies usually have a Plan A and a Plan B. A Plan B is an alternative course of action that we are all familiar with.” But in India, companies have a Plan Big B that means when you have no other course of action you sign on Amitabh Bachchan!” I hope we do not get into a similar situation with M. S. Dhoni!
It's all in the strategy, silly!
One of the biggest successes in the Indian context has been the launch of Santro, the strange-looking car from Hyundai. I can say it with confidence as I used to have a Santro and used to heave a sigh of relief when I saw another Santro on the road, leading me to believe that I was not the only one who made the mistake! But Hyundai was an unknown company in India and their long-term use of Shah Rukh Khan has made a big difference to the company's and the brand's dominance over the years. No better way to connect with the Indian audience than by using a local celebrity, particularly a film star.
The initial commercials of a bemused Shah Rukh Khan being wooed by a Korean gentleman with the theme line “will he, won't he” made a big difference to the brand. The actor's love affair with the brand has continued over the years, he has roped in Priety Zinta and is now in love with the i10. Clearly, the celebrity has made a difference to the brand.
A crucial factor in having an actor is the ability of the actor to bring alive even mediocre scripts. The original Coke commercials with Aamir and the Parker pen commercials with Amitabh had good scripts, but the actors took them to a different level with their ability to emote. Dhoni may be a passable actor, but he cannot live the character, which will pose another challenge to our script writers. How many commercials are we going to have in which Dhoni plays himself?
It's World Cup time, folks!
The World Cup will be here in India even if the benign assassin Murali will not be there. As always, it will be preceded by enormous hype and a lot of pressure to market Dhoni. The brands which have signed him on already may have to continue, if it still makes sense to them. What about the whole host of new brands that will be targeted aggressively? My advice is simple. India has never won the World Cup at home. In fact, no home team ever has, not even Australia which had its worst record in 1992 when the Cup was held there. There will be too much pressure on the Indian team and Dhoni. Carrying the hopes of a billion people in what will be Sachin's final World Cup will not be easy. So what is my two-bit on the subject?
Let Dhoni play cricket, do not burden him with additional endorsements till the World Cup. Let him win the World Cup and sign on the world!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)