Big IPL wins and the understated charm of Dhoni helped CSK score.
It’s a brand that was pushed to the wilderness for 24 months. In spite of being banned for two years, when Chennai Super Kings (CSK) got back to the Indian Premier League 11—the 2018 season—it was a joyous moment for the players, owners, broadcasters and Tamil Nadu fans. However, with political parties getting shrill about the Centre not setting up the Cauvery water board, many fringe elements wanted the IPL matches in Chennai to be cancelled and the government caved in. After the initial match in Chennai, which saw a full house with an ecstatic crowd, the home matches had to be shifted to Pune.
The die-hard fans of CSK wanted to go to Pune, and they were thrilled when the CSK management sprung into action and organised the special ‘Whistle Podu Express’ train to Pune for 1,000 fans. Their food and stay were taken care of. “It was entirely an initiative by CSK fans and we decided to take it forward,” says Kasi Viswanathan, the CEO of CSK. “Shifting to Pune was a logistical nightmare. We managed it, and in spite of ticket sales starting late and the ground being at a distance from the Pune city, we managed a very good crowd for the first match itself. Both the Maharashtra Cricket Association and Pune city administration were very supportive. As the matches were going to be played in Chennai, the original concentration was on spinners. Then we had to transform into a batters’ side,” he says.
That CSK emerged triumphant and lifted the cup for the third time is history.
Looking back, what is surprising is that despite so much mud having been flung at N Srinivasan, the MD of India Cements, which was then the franchisee owner, the team, the captain MS Dhoni and CSK as a brand have remained strong. The team’s popularity appears to have only grown during the missing years. Dhoni, from Jharkhand, has become an honorary Tamil and a true hero. Love and admiration for Dhoni is not restricted to the state. “He is a superstar and a super brand today. Wherever we played, we saw a sea of yellow (CSK colour). Even in Mumbai we saw more people wearing yellow jerseys than blue. We felt the entire country wanted CSK and Dhoni to win,” says Viswanathan.
IPL, as per the latest edition of the brand valuation report of the London-headquartered valuation company Brand Finance, is worth $5.3 billion. With a brand value of $65 million and winning the 2018 season title, CSK has been ranked as the most valuable IPL franchise brand, unseating Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR).
CSK’s #WhistlePodu topped the 2018 Twitter IPL emoji index by a mile, coming in 175% ahead of the next team. It has 12 million followers on Facebook, beyond 4 million on Twitter, and more than a million views on Instagram. According to details shared by Facebook, CSK and MS Dhoni were the most talked about terms this IPL. Thala (Dhoni) and WhistlePodu have been described as the most loved part of the contest, as observed on Facebook. CSK now has the kind of fan following here and abroad that no other team has witnessed so far.
The IPL final got a record viewership on both digital and TV, as per figures released by the broadcaster Star. The final, which was aired live on 17 channels across eight different languages, powered the network’s growth by 34%, with 52.9 million average impressions. The matches with CSK playing registered the highest viewership.
CSK’s consistent good performance on the field, winning the IPL three times (in 2010, 2011 and 2018) and the Champions League Twenty20 twice (2010 and 2014), and making it to the maximum number of playoffs and winning the maximum number of play awards, had not faded from public memory in two years. The management kept up its spirits, the game and the brand alive by continuing to sponsor sports activities. Says Rakesh Singh, executive president, India Cements, “One of the reasons for CSK remaining as the most popular brand across India is we keep doing things to keep the fans engaged. We want CSK to be part of everyone’s life—students, youth, corporate executives, senior citizens.” CSK, at the ground level, has been conducting Junior Super Kings (JSK) since 2013. By 2017, the JSK tournament had covered students across 152 teams in 11 districts, including Chennai. In 2016, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association launched the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) with India Cements as the principal sponsor. TNPL succeeded in showcasing the talent of budding cricketers at the district level.
“We were coming back after two years. We had to think about commercial aspects as well. Aircel, our major sponsor, no longer existed. Gulf Oil had said they will return to us when CSK is back and they did. We opened sponsorships in September 2017 and closed the same month. People put money only if they believe in something,” says Singh. “We launched a special consumer offer through dealers in select districts in Tamil Nadu. Sales picked up the same day. Our logo on the T-shirts the team was wearing has assured us an all-India presence.”
CSK has been low-key and not flashy from the very first season in 2008. It had no cheerleaders or celebrity endorsements. What it had was Dhoni. Under him, CSK established themselves as serious cricket players who gave consistent performance. Srinivasan says it best, “It is difficult for me to define when CSK had become a brand, but people recognised it. We set out to do something exciting and present it well. The fundamental thought was that we should provide good cricket to the people of Chennai. That theme has clicked in the case of CSK. You don’t set out to build a brand; you start out to give a good product and put all the ingredients into it. There is a good chance that the product will become a good brand. A brand is intangible. It is a perception in a customer’s mind of the attributes of a product.”