Opinion

Why Brand Dhoni has become iconic

Aishwarya Ramasundaram/Deepak Dayanithy | Updated on October 02, 2020 Published on October 01, 2020

It has been constructed through Dhoni’s breakthrough performances and his millennial identity

The reverberating chants of “Dhoni” from tens of thousands of fans filled the MA Chidambaram stadium in Chennai in 2018 as Mahendra Singh Dhoni walked onto the ground. It was just a another practice day, and the tumultuous cheers was the affectionate greeting extended by fans to their captain. But what is it about Brand Dhoni that has made him iconic? Why do only some brands go on to become iconic while others do not?

Iconic brands are symbol-intensive, distinctive and, at the same time, relatable. They start off as a cult brand, associated with a specific target segment and product category, but go on to cast their influence over wider segments and product categories to forge a deep bond with culture. Doughlas Holt, author of How Brands Become Icons, says that brands become iconic when they represent myths.

 

As humans, we love myths. With uncomplicated stories, riveting characters, and resonant plots, myths help us make sense of the world and ideals to live by. Icons gather power when through them, customers experience the powerful myths the brand represents. As the demand for myth grows, brands begin to compete in the myth market, rather than in the product market, and the winner becomes iconic.

Dhoni’s journey was a metaphorical representation of the everyday struggles of the average Indian. His success in the cricket field represented a light at the end of the tunnel for those who persevered. His simple and unassuming nature made the myth more relatable.

 

According to Holt, successful iconic brands demonstrate five important characteristics: The ability to target national contradictions, creating myths that lead culture, speaking with a rebel’s voice, drawing on political authority to rebuild the myth, and drawing on cultural knowledge. Let us analyze each of them.

First, the brand does not embody just any myth but one that address intense anxieties and desires of society, and help resolve tensions between individual and societal ideologies. Many Indian youngsters give up their dreams to make conservative and prudent life choices. A talent in music, dance or sport often feels pressured to choose engineering or software development.

 

Dhoni’s resolve to be good at what he does has shown that one can rise above the confines of society and excel. A disastrous 2007 ODI World Cup and public anger did not deter a young Dhoni from leading India to triumph in the inaugural World T20 World Cup. His story is a message of hope and inspiration to thousands of youngsters who hear society’s “you can’t” way too often.

The second unique characteristic of iconic brands is that they do not imitate pop culture, but lead the trend. The charisma of the brand nudges the audience to think differently about themselves. Dhoni created a niche for himself in his approach towards the game and captaincy. He added ‘cool under pressure’ to the ‘hard-hitting’ style which had marked his initial international career.

 

He earned the title of a finisher by taking seemingly lost causes to nail-biting victories. His winning six in the 2011 World Cup final is an indelible example. His astute reading of the game, always living in the present, an attention to process over outcome, and controlling the controllables marked his distinctive leadership.

In tense situations, just a vision of him walking calmly across the field was enough to evoke a sense of calmness and confidence over the team and viewers. Over the years, he has built himself a unique brand persona of fire and ice.

 

The third characteristic of an iconic brand is that it does not merely mirror the thoughts and emotions of its customers, but speaks as a rebel in doing things unconventionally. Having Joginder Sharma bowl the last over of the 2007 T20 world cup, his on-field non-verbal communication, announcing his retirements without much ado all defined the ‘Mahi’ way.

Rather than eschewing risk under intense scrutiny of a billion experts, Dhoni engaged with it whole-heartedly. Under pressure, he made risky choices and owned his decisions. A fraction of a second hesitation before effecting a stumping or relay throwing the stumps down offer illustrations of his method being innovative, fair, cool and effective rather than classical.

The fourth characteristic of an iconic brand is its ability to rebuild a myth and re-incarnate as the original myth loses value. When Dhoni stepped down from ODI and Test captaincies he broke wicket-keeping records and hammered overdue centuries. His timely decisions to step down opened up space for incoming young talent and carved the way for the next generation of leadership in Indian cricket. To him is also credited the revival of the CSK brand with the IPL victory in 2018 after the team’s two-year forced hiatus. On all these occasions, Dhoni let his cricket do the talking and rejuvenated the ‘Mahi’ myth.

Finally, icons are known for drawing from cultural knowledge. Dhoni has filled the shoes of a superstar and gone on to become ‘Thala’, a title reserved for a leader whom the Tamil people can relate to. Despite being from a Hindi heartland, his association with CSK has helped the franchise represent the Tamil culture to the world. His ownership of Chennayin, the city’s soccer club, has strengthened his Tamil connect.

His style represents pride in one’s actions and making the nation better in whatever possible way. In India, where patriotism is often expressed through cricket and cinema, Dhoni’s appealing multi-cultural identity has brought the country together and become a voice for all Indians to the world. His association with the Indian Army and performing the honorary tasks with pride also brought alive the nationalistic sentiments among his supporters.

 

With these five characteristics, Dhoni has helped put images, feelings, and sounds to the barely perceptible desires of the Indian. Rather than conventional brand building, Dhoni’s iconic value has been constructed through his breakthrough performances and millennial identity. While we will no longer see Dhoni, the cricketer donning the blue cap for the country, the ideals which Dhoni stands for — persistence, simplicity, responsibility, cool-headedness and patriotism — will continue to live beyond his playing days.

And, as a consumer, every time we watch a CSK match or use a product endorsed by Dhoni, we subconsciously re-enact the myth that Dhoni stands for, the idea of a common man who can achieve anything if he sets his mind to it.

Aishwarya is Assistant Professor, Marketing, and Deepak is Associate Professor, Strategy, at IIM Kozhikode

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Published on October 01, 2020
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