Of brands, stars, switch hits

Ramanujam Sridhar | Updated on March 09, 2011

Crickter Robin Utappa during the Auditions of Pepsi Change the Game 11, it is a life time oppurtinity for 11 talanted Youngistaanis to watch all India matches LIVE during the Cricket World Cup 2011 in Hyderabad on Sunday. Photo: M Subhash   -  THE HINDU

Cricket has given rise to a body of advertising featuring its fêted personalities who may not be as good on screen as they are on the pitch.

So what did you think of my ‘two for the price of one' column (or is it columns) that appeared a few weeks ago? Like all sensible authors I took your stony silence for raucous and enthusiastic approval and decided magnanimously that you deserve more of the same. So here goes!

Is the celebrity a brand or a product?

Why do brands seek celebrities? They do that because celebrities stand for something; they are different from the herd and create instant awareness for their products. And that is not all. This is cricket World Cup time and each time your celebrity scores a four, snatches a wicket or pulls off a sensational catch, you are preening.

Unfortunately in the Indian context there is another imponderable reality for sponsors. They have absolutely no control over what the celebrity does. Of course, while they may not have to worry too much about their celebrity getting into a controversy (unless, of course, they have signed on the spin king), they have a larger headache, and let me try to address this.

The biggest problem is that celebrities do not have control over their own destinies and lives but belong to sports management companies to whom they are mere ‘products' to be managed, packaged and sold aggressively for a profit - brand and celebrity fit be damned.

With Dhoni endorsing no less than 25 brands that I can recall and Sachin (or his sports management company) trying hard not to be left behind we have the current captain and the former captain featuring as brand ambassadors of more brands than they really should be endorsing. Of course, the celebrity management companies are probably laughing all the way to the bank, but are the sponsors really happy or looking over their shoulder at every new brand endorsement their own celebrity is so cheerfully signing?

Cost benefit

Ideally all good management decisions are cost benefit analyses with the benefits far outweighing the costs. However, in the case of celebrities, companies and decision-makers seem to have conveniently forgotten this as they seem to be bowled over by the celebrity's spell. Celebrity management firms are businesspeople, after all, and realise that now is the time to make hay. What are some of the other consequences of signing on cricketers? While they are great on the field and can captivate you with bat and ball, in front of the camera they are like Atherton was in front of McGrath. Or to those not following cricket, “they cannot act to save their lives”. Neither do they reject scripts which ostensibly suck. Throw in the inability of the cricketer or his manager to differentiate between a script and a score card and you have films that are as pedestrian as the current Australian spinners.

I would blame some of these problems on lazy strategists and lazier creative directors aided and abetted by safe clients. How can you be fired for signing on Dhoni? All of this reminds me of the Dell ad which was a rejoinder to the IBM line of no one gets fired for buying IBM with the rejoinder “But did they get promoted?” This is the time to take a risk, to push the envelope, do something different and not follow the herd.

The exception

Lest I be completely misunderstood, let me quickly clarify. The truth, dear friend, is not that I hate celebrities, but that I love advertising. And there is no advertising that proves my point of view better than the current lot of Pepsi World Cup commercials. But while you build up your thirst, I just want to ask you a question which is probably worth answering after this World Cup.

How many celebrities will be able to match with the brands they endorse, after thousands of seconds and millions of rupees being spent on various brands, many of whom have mediocre advertising?

Use your heads, my friends, otherwise you will find yourselves with lighter wallets!

Helicopter shot or switch hit? Take your pick!

Pepsi is one brand that has swigged cricket to the last drop and some of its best TV commercials have been around the game that often captivates and yet frustrates. In 1996 when Coke was the official sponsor of the World Cup, Pepsi did a guerrilla marketing campaign and came up with the campaign “Nothing official about it” featuring the likes of a (then) baby-faced Sachin Tendulkar, the dashing Vinod Kambli (where on earth is he), the West Indian fast bowler and captain Courtney Walsh, the English speedster Dominic Cork and the legendary umpire Dickie Bird. This was a landmark campaign and people still remember it. See, advertising actually works!

In 1999 when the World Cup was held in England, Pepsi was the official sponsor despite all its previous cracks at the status! But then all is fair in sponsorships and cricket, right? Let's move on to the present World Cup and the current lot of Pepsi commercials. Incidentally, do you like them?

Cricket in the air

I think there has been a significant change in the way the game is viewed today in India. It has captivated our attention and with the media getting on to the game and scams in that order, there is hardly any scope for anyone to say “ Yeh dil mange more”.

Cricket seems to be coming out of our ears and even housewives seem to be familiar with the nuances of the game - thanks to T20 and the IPL. It is this passion and the familiarity with cricketing jargon that is behind the latest Pepsi World Cup campaign featuring cricketers and their ilk. In addition to the grotesque (to me, at least) body painting commercials featuring at least one of our not-so-athletic cricketers, there is one featuring some of their trademark shots and gestures which continues to get high visibility in the media and most certainly in the big screens on stadia that I am going to talk about.

Billy oh Billy!

How was Pepsi to know that Billy Bowden would be India's favourite umpire? Let's ignore the sarcasm and stay with Billy's crooked finger that has been behind the agony of many famous cricket greats. The commercial features Billy eating Indian food and having the temerity to ask for a spoon! Imagine the cheek of the man! The group sitting next to him speaks in a dialect way beyond my limited powers of comprehension, but the gestures tell the story and he is taught how to raise his finger. He learns reluctantly after tasting a Pepsi and promptly raises it in the ground. Of course, lessons learnt under duress like these don't stay with you as our ancient wisdom will tell you and when he had to raise his finger at Bangalore he didn't, to the patent glee of Ian Bell and complete annoyance of M. S. Dhoni who, I'm sure, was thinking of anything but helicopter shots at that time and wondering if he should transport the erring umpire in a helicopter to New Zealand, preferably to an earthquake-affected area.

Dhoni's own commercial featuring his own trademark “helicopter shot” is another in the series. It is interesting but perhaps I prefer the shot to the commercial, like a true cricket lover. Then we have Veeru's Upper Cut. This is a better film perhaps because it has a lively Ranbir Kapoor energising a bemused cricketer who is wondering what all the fuss is about. But when the need presents itself he promptly executes an “Upper Cut”. Then we have Dilshan who is arguably the most wooden of the lot when it comes to histrionic ability doing the “Pallu Scoop” (what a name!) for us and finally KP doing the “Switch Hit” practised with watermelons and fine-tuned by Pepsi. Bhajji may not be getting too many wickets right now but he too bowls a “doosra” for Pepsi. There is no denying the fact that these commercials (and I hope I haven't missed any) are interesting, topical and even funny on occasion. I love the fact that they have been created for the World Cup and tickle the fancy of the cricket lover and intrigue the casual watcher of the game. Of course, the commercials have all been conceptualised in earthy Hindi in some dialects that hardened Tamilians such as me don't really understand, but who cares about people like me!

So here is my question to you? Is your celebrity merely holding his bat or doing something which is unique, identifiable with him and your brand?

May the World Cup have more India wins and may Billy Bowden put his crooked finger up more often when India appeals!

The author is CEO of brandcomm. His blog Third Umpire on Branding is at www.ramanujamsridhar.

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Published on March 09, 2011
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