Monday, April 26, 2010

Is IPL losing its sheen?

The league tournament should aim to provide entertainment from the cricket pitch, not from I-T raids at its offices or television studios.

The third edition of the IPL tournament is in its last leg and the teams are fighting it out in the trying heat and dust. Batsmen are finding it easier to sweat bucketloads than to make runs. Teams seem to have some strange affinity for the number “12” as five teams seem to be stuck on this magical points figure. The stadia seem full, at least at Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. TRPs are soaring, IPL post-match party tickets are being sold at Rs 50,000 if rumours are to be believed. But things are not as hunky dory as they ought to be. The attention shifted slowly but surely from the cricket to franchisee ownerships, bribes, mudslinging and more, taking its toll on Shashi Tharoor. Reports have it that Lalit Modi will also be forced to quit. In short, whatever is happening with the induction of new teams is, to borrow a phrase as old as the game, “just not cricket”.

IPL a revolutionary brand

I have no doubt in my mind that IPL revolutionised the face of cricket in India definitely, and the world. It is an idea whose time had come, and whether the inspiration was Kerry Packer, the NBA, American baseball or the fact that twenty-twenty cricket was, like David Warner, just waiting to explode, the concept took off. It was brilliantly packaged, wonderfully promoted and successfully executed even if it was a bit ‘in your face' for my liking. But let's give Lalit Modi his due for creating a global brand in a very, very short period of time.

The western world tried to ignore this for some time, and then grudgingly had to accept even as its own players came running to be a part of it. Even if many of the global players sat on the bench like our software engineers of yesteryears, they did not seem to mind. The unique mix of Bollywood, team owners who cried in the stands, cheerleaders who had not the foggiest notion of who was playing, ageing cricketers who showed their younger counterparts a thing or two, whether it was the zooter or the mongoose bat, some outstanding emerging Indian talent, some close finishes, some breathtaking innings, some shocking bloomers, all contributed to the enormous success of the format.

Too much, too soon?

While JM Keynes said that in the long run we are all dead, Jack Welch said that while any fool can make money in the short run (and here I am paraphrasing) and any fool can make money in the long run, it needs true ability to make money in both, the long run and the short run. There is no denying the phenomenal success of IPL in the short life it has had so far. It has not only created a following (if not for the local teams) but managed to make people buy enormously expensive tickets and advertisers buy dubious advertising properties at fancy prices. Already the climate is being created for the advertising rates to touch an all-time high. For the next IPL, the Max mobiles and the Karbonn mobiles of the world are already licking their lips in anticipation, even if I am dreading what I am going to be in for soon.

Lalit Modi must easily be the most photographed and televised person in the country (Shah Rukh Khan, kindly excuse) as every newspaper, television channel and Web site seems to either love or hate him. No half measures with our man, are there? In fact, if we were to do a “share of voice” analysis, compare and contrast the coverage that Lalit Modi has with, say, a gentleman by the name of Manmohan Singh, who has the job of Prime Minister of the country, the latter would be a distant second. This, of course, is a commentary on the sad state of news coverage in this country that I shall come to later, but let's stay with the brand IPL and the current imbroglio it seems to have gotten itself into.

Trouble in God's own country

Kerala is an absolutely delightful place to visit and holiday in. But despite Shashi Tharoor's overt and often misplaced enthusiasm for the place as a business destination investors have been wary of going there, and I think it is irrelevant (at least for this author) to figure out the rightness or wrongness of perceptions about investing here. But there is no doubt in my mind that the latest investment by an IPL franchisee has put the cat amongst the pigeons.

It has all the ingredients of a media potboiler. A suave, sophisticated minister who tweets into trouble with the ease which the Indian team used to get into corners; a lady whom the media say is close to the (now former) minister and who has sweat equity in the company; owners who are not well known as some of the other franchisee owners; rumours that a current cricketer is part of the team; an allegation by the CEO that Lalit Modi offered him a bribe (which indiscreet utterance has already cost him his job); tweets from Lalit Modi about the uncertainty of the owners, allegations and counter allegations flying around, questions raised about the original franchisees … Thank God newspapers have only 16 pages!

One of my learned clients made a very interesting observation. He said that earlier in news capsules you had clearly demarcated time slots for different aspects - local news, international news, sports, entertainment and so on. But if you analyse today's telecast it is all about entertainment and sports, and if news does not entertain, it will not make it. Well, the IPL is certainly entertaining, and the franchisee confusion is certainly entertaining but what about the brand which had the possibility of being a future icon?

Controversy is king

A few years ago I was teaching some international students from the UK who were visiting IIM, Bangalore. I showed them the Fair and Lovely air hostess commercial, telling them it had been controversial and had to be pulled off air. They were very excited as controversies, they said, kept the brand in the news and were valued in the UK. It was interesting too to read the views of a few advertisers today, who said that controversy is good for the IPL brand. Sadly, I disagree. It is true that brands reflect the personality of their owners. Kingfisher represents the “king of good times” and what better exponent of the good times than Vijay Mallya. But that example is different as it is a pretty good beer, has the right image and as long as the weather in India remains as salubrious as it is (!) the brand will fare brilliantly.

IPL is a different kettle of fish. Lalit Modi is someone whom you either love or hate. Without the benefit of formal market research, I can only say that he seems to have rubbed an enormous number of people the wrong way, and he is the IPL brand, for many of us at least. And while being in the news is great, I am not sure whether making the headlines with a tax raid on your offices is great publicity for your brand.

Circumspection is the key

Lalit Modi runs the risk of being caught on an uncovered wicket on the day after overnight rain. His brand is under scrutiny. He should try to bat like Jack Hobbs or Geoffrey Boycott with his eye on the ball. Sadly, he is batting like Robin Uthappa. I am sure he has the confidence to handle anything, after all, Indian businessmen think they can handle anything, including the law. But he should spare a thought for the brand that he has built so quickly, and a brand that is the envy of the world. Brands are difficult to build and easy to dent. They are like fine pieces of crystal that need careful handling, love and affection even.

It is the time for objectivity, for Lalit Modi. Time to tweet less and time to think more. A time not to fight someone else's political battles, but a time to remember the things that made IPL a phenomenal success and go back to the basics. It is about entertainment in the sports field, not in media rooms and television studios. It is again a time to look at the consumer. Lalit Modi would do well to remember that there are a lot of people who would wish him to fail and he must prove them wrong, not only for his own sake but for the sake of the brand that he has singlehandedly built.

Will he? Won't he? Only time will tell.

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)

Image Source : Starbozz

Friday, April 9, 2010

Are you teasing your customer?

The moment brands irritate consumers, they will get into serious trouble. Brands such as Karbonn and MRF are riding on the IPL bandwagon. But there isn't any method in the madness, sadly.

One of the most entertaining commercials I have seen over the years is for Rolo, a brand of confectionery. The commercial opens in a zoo where a little boy is watching a baby elephant. He has a sweet in his hand and beckons the elephant, ostensibly with the intention of giving it the sweet. When it comes close to him, he pops it into his own mouth, mocking the poor elephant in the process. The film cuts to several years later where there is a young man wearing a sweater similar to that of the young boy's shown in the commercial and there is a procession of elephants which our young man is watching with interest. Suddenly one of the elephants in the procession turns around and thumps the young man on the head. Clearly the young elephant has not forgotten being tormented several years ago and the voiceover goes on to say “Think twice what you do with your last Rolo”.

Of course, the commercial demonstrates the ‘memory of an elephant' as a creative thought but more importantly it shows the need for marketers and brand managers to be careful with their consumers and not tease them or needle them unnecessarily. So what's the connection, must be the question uppermost in your mind. That's because as we get into the business end of the IPL (is there any other end?) cricket season, I feel that the organisers, the sponsors and the television channels should spare a thought for the poor customer sitting at the other end of the television screen who is being constantly harassed, bombarded and insulted. And who knows how long she is going to be patient? I say ‘she' deliberately as perhaps one of the real achievements of the IPL has been its ability to get women to come and watch not only in the stadia but also in living rooms. I think the point to be made is that while IPL has put India on the global sports marketing map and shown the world a thing or two it is certainly throwing up certain distressing signs and early warning signals that marketers must be alert to.

Properties and all that jazz

Marketers are constantly looking for properties that their brands can own and at times it is easier to buy some properties from media and try and make the most of them. The IPL has demonstrated a tremendous ability to make things sound larger than life, and “first ever' and “best ever” are terms that seem commonplace here. Let me explain. T20 cricket is all about fours and sixes and never mind about the poor bowlers who in any case are being paid to get slaughtered. The pitches are deader than mortuaries in government hospitals while the boundary ropes are being made shorter and shorter and at times rival the length of the cheerleader's skirts! So more sixes are scored in a T20 game than in a season of test cricket and not surprisingly sixes are a hot media property called the “DLF Maximum” And we have commentators who are better served being at the WWE so much do they rave and rant once the ball clears the short ropes!

And then there are the catches called the “Karbonn Kamaal Catch” which takes the cake. A fielder holds a catch which a schoolgirl would normally hold with her eyes closed before the commentator nearly has a heart attack waxing eloquent about the Karbon Kamaal Catch which could also be a Citi moment of success - another branded property from a bank that has redefined success in recent times. Nor is that all. There is another blot on the landscape in the form of an MRF blimp which is being heralded as the greatest technological innovation after the space shuttle and then there are strategic time-outs (all branded) and tons of commercials, creepy crawlers in the frames, a commercial being shown on the big screen in between balls, Akshay Kumar flying around the kitchen playing tennis and a completely bewildered and irritated consumer who doesn't know what on earth is hitting her.

Advertising makes the world go around

Mind you, I am a great fan of advertising (after all, the industry has fed and clothed me for three decades now) but surely there has to be a method in the madness. Isn't this a bit of overkill? Are these advertisers watching these commercials when they come on air or listening to what people have to say about them? I would urge them to come into my living room when a few of my friends are watching the match with me. They would cringe and immediately pull their commercials off air. Some of these brands are big – why are they trivialising themselves? Take MRF, one of the brands I truly admire. A brand which has consistently stayed with cricket, a brand with a heritage, a brand that has done so much for the game in the country, a brand that has legends endorsing it … It got the enthralling serial Bodyline into the country nearly two decades ago and persisted with cricket and has built its equity over the years. Yet, I feel sorry for the brand. If only the people in MRF would listen to the inane stuff that is being said while their blimp is being shown, they would quickly jump ship and start endorsing ice hockey. Television is not the “theatre of the mind” as radio is for the viewer to imagine what is being said. I am seeing the telecast, for God's sake! Why are you insulting my intelligence?

Why brands need to be careful

Today brands live and try to grow in a crowded marketplace. They are often trying to outshout each other and create awareness for themselves. While awareness is all fine, I think the ambience in which brands present themselves to their consumers is extremely important too. Brands have a personality and every appearance must reflect that personality. Are the brands as loud, grating and in-your-face as they are made out to be by their presence in IPL? And how can brands that are in different stages of their life adopt the same strategy? A new brand such as Karbonn that wishes to establish itself needs to perhaps shout to get attention, but should not the Citis of the world and the MRFs do something more subtle and sophisticated? In fact, it would be very interesting if the large spenders did an objective evaluation after this exposure as to what consumers think of their brands. Yes, a lot more people might be aware of the brand, but what would the values associated with the brand be?

Hype vs substance

The IPL is an entertainment extravaganza and there is a kaleidoscope of colour, sound, lights, celebrity and, on occasion, skin on display. Of course, in the middle of all this is cricket, in between strategic time-outs of course. So it is easy to get carried away. It is like watching a “first day first show” of a Rajnikant movie. There is constant excitement - rupee notes are being thrown on the screen, people are whistling, shouting and clapping. The atmosphere has to be seen to be believed. Yet, how do you evaluate the movie? Can you, at all? I think the IPL is in a similar situation. There is so much hype and hoopla around it that brands can lose their way or what is worse, lose their character. More importantly, every brand is trying to dumb itself down and talk the language of the lowest common denominator and that is bothering me as a consumer.

I think we need to remember one thing. The Indian consumer is not yet cynical. He believes the advertising that he sees and trusts in celebrities. He believes what he reads in the newspaper and what he sees on TV, He thinks the expert is objective, perhaps with a slight India bias. But what one is seeing in the IPL is the world of hyperbole. Everything is exaggerated, amplified and made larger than life. It is easy for brands to succumb to the heady potion that the IPL is dishing out. But concerns remain. If brands lose credibility then all that they have been doing for years might just become diluted.

Yes, these are challenging times, but also times of great opportunity. But as always one needs to be anchored in the basics. The basics are simple. Business is about brands and brands are about consumers. The moment brands irritate consumers, they are going to be in serious trouble. I am on the verge of getting irritated. Are you?

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)