Every four years, we as a country ask this question: Why can’t we win medals at the Olympics? Why do we, as a country, do well only in cricket? Is cricket the reason that we don’t do well in Olympics? Why can’t corporates put in as much money here as they put in cricket?
Eventually the clamour dies down and we carry on enjoying cricket and thankfully now, a variety of sports beyond cricket. Hockey has seen a revival, kabaddi is being watched and badminton gets people to stadiums. Even Formula 1 got people excited and drove them to the racetrack.
The fact is, India loves sports as a whole more than cricket. Cricketers are used by brands because they are recognised. Constant TV coverage makes them well-known and that makes it easy for brands to use them.
No corporate participation?
Corporates and brands are investing in sportspersons beyond cricket and that is a wonderful thing. Take Olympic Gold Quest, the not for profit organisation that has been working with some of the most promising athletes of India, giving them support, training, nutrition and kits.
PV Sindhu, the Rio Olympics Silver medallist is a part of Olympic Gold Quest. OGQ is the power behind five Olympic Gold medals, two Silver and three Bronze over the years. Jindals have invested big in sports with JSW Sports and this year at Rio they scored a Bronze with Sakshi Malik in wrestling.
There are many corporates including the biggest names like Tata that are involved with athletes beyond cricket. This is an interesting conundrum. Indians, on occasions when the athletes competed, have cheered, rooted for them and made them a part of their lives. Yet the broader marketing communication has not seen too many non-cricket celebrities being used as the face of brands.
Brands have not been indulgent
There has been an Abhinav Bindra that was signed on by Samsung after his Gold medal in 2008. Saina Nehwal is the face of Savlon, Iodex and Fortune cooking oil, but this is where it stops. For each of the three brands, she is cast as the super performing athlete.
Why have brands shied away from using non-cricket athletes as brand endorsers? The simplistic answer may lie in the fact that these players are still high performing athletes and not the stars that the public wants to mimic. The other reason may be that these athletes are backed by organisations and brands that are not in consumer spaces. OGQ has no products to sell. Mittal Champions Trust had no battle of market share to fight; JSW Sports works towards making the corporate a better neighbour.
It’s easy to rope in a filmstar
Mainstream brands in India are too focussed on either filmstars or cricket personalities. When Nike, the partner of OGQ, did the Da Da Ding communication to celebrate the athletes of India, it used Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone as the lead and not the 10 athletes who should have been the face of the brand.
Celebrities are used by the brands to gain quick awareness, but Nike as a brand has been all about sports and the brand would have done better showcasing the women athletes.
Now consider how BMW signs up Sachin Tendulkar as the face of the brand and then gifts the BMW to medal winners at Rio. Clearly in BMW’s scheme of things, Sachin is a better salesperson for a marquee car and BMW is better off gaining some fame by just gifting the cars to the winners. What if BMW had signed up any of the three or all three Olympics medallists as the faces that drive the brand in India?
Brands take the easy way out
Nike’s Da Da Ding is just a small part of the problem. Brands believe that the easiest way to gain a million plus views on a video is by using a celebrity. In India, there are only two kind of celebrities: film actors and cricket players. Sachin sells BMW; Kareena (Kapoor Khan) sells Jaguar. Maybe both have limited impact on the final purchase decision.
This year we had a filmstar and a cricketer as the brand ambassador for Olympics. The public hue and cry and rejection of the two choices is a clear indicator that consumers want to look beyond conventional stars.
It’s time the sports authorities broke the mould. Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang, Saina Nehwal, Vijender Singh, Yogeshwar Dutt and Karnam Malleswari are perfectly capable of firing public imagination. It’s time our brands looked beyond the usual celebrities. The consumers are ready; it’s time the brands shed their resistance.
The author is CSO & managing partner, Bang in the Middle