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Who comes first: brand or star?

June 15, 2006 12:55 IST

The mother of all brands in India is cricket. The game as well as its players are well known and by extension the brands that support the game too have become household names -- Samsung, LG, Pepsi -- and with many more adding to this brimming basket.

What was a British legacy has now become a national mania. Former cricketer, Javagal Srinath attributes this to the "television revolution in 1983 as well as the Indian team winning the World Cup. So both culminated into a real explosion of cricket in India."

Chairman, SKA Advisors, Sunil K Alagh, begs to differ. He said, "I don't think cricket is a brand. Cricket is a commodity. I mean it's the people in it who are the brands." Even though, cricket's associations with brands can be a little indirect, as is the case with the MRF Pace Foundation. Here MRF is brand, which has setup a foundation to train future generations of cricketers. In an ironic situation here, the players coming out of this Foundation are products of a brand!

But brands associate with big names and well known faces. The bigger the brand, the more well known the face is likely to be. Sachin Tendulkar is one of cricket's best names and an product that he lends his identity to gets instant recognition. The converse truth applies as well - that Sachin Tendulkar is synonymous with cricket - both the game and the person could easily be marketed as a brand or commodity. The areas of distinction overlap considerably.

Srinath said, "I think it is the game which really decides, the spectators decide on the nature of the game. Now it's not the guys with charisma who really make the difference, I think it's the nature of the game, the quality of the game which produces a lot of top class players. So I would probably beg to differ to say that yes they bring some sort of value, no doubt about it. But I think the intensity of the game definitely brings the crowds to the stadium."

On the other hand, had Sachin Tendulkar been a hockey player, he might have not had it so good in India, where cricket gets major brand endorsements and more media coverage than any other sport. Alagh said, "At one stage it was all hockey, and cricket was not as prominent as it is today."

But hockey can get there and become a recognisable and more importantly, a saleable commodity, if there is a will to push it as well and as much as cricket. All this, ofcourse, ties up neatly if a player is also a consistent and keen performer.

Alagh reiterates, "It (hockey's success) won't happen overnight. You need to begin first by branding them. In India, unfortunately you will have to begin by branding them in the names of companies. If you take the Premium League in UK, they have got Manchester City, Manchester United,  Liverpool. So whoever stays in Liverpool, they pay their fee, the club becomes rich, they are able to attract players and they play the game."

Keeping that in mind, the latest experiment in Indian hockey has been a bold move. They have got regional teams battling it out at the Premier Hockey League. But Alagh suggests, "At this stage of the game, what went wrong was to call the teams 'Hyderabad Blues' or 'Chennai Blues' because they have gone one step ahead, which does not bring in funding.

"So the way I would do it is, maybe pick up Pepsi or Coke or xyz companies initially, so you get a base for finance, then you start seeing how much money starts flowing in - in terms of players, in trying to get viewers, in getting television rights and then move on to calling teams 'Hyderabad Warrior' or 'Sher-e-Punjab' or whatever. That's how I would do this." Also picking up sportspeople who have the glamour quotient helps.

Good looks will lure brands and so will intelligent marketing. How you market a sport matters, for depending on those objectives, a cricket match or a football game can be plugged. Alagh explained, "You can be in cricket, you can be in football and you can be a purist, in which case you are doing it for yourself. Perhaps, you are doing it for your country, which is fine. Once you say that's my objective, the whole system of marketing such an event becomes very different. If you say no, my job is to make the sport popular, to bring crowds into the stadium and to generate funds, then you have to go down to the average viewer and ask him what does he want."

The flip side is that the very brands that sports stars endorse could be flawed. Worms in Cadburys bars, pesticide in Coke being two obvious examples. Here the responsibility lies with the brands to acknowledge the flaws and not attempt to cover it up. Sports people only bring in emotional value that can be attached to those brands, especially in the minds of the cricket-loving public.

Pegging brands to their performance may not always be a good idea. Alagh told CNBC-TV18 why it's a bad idea, "What happens is that when the consumer watches a bad performance, you are affecting your brand. So try and build on the image of the player so it doesn't matter whether he scores a duck in one inning or he scores hundred in another inning, it doesn't have a direct repercussion to your brand immediately."

Brand building has its own pitfalls. Young and new players can be hyped up way too much and then they face the enormous expectation of the public. If they are just average Joes, then both the player and the brand could be in trouble. But if done adroitly, the correct impression can be planted in people's minds.

Srinath agrees, "The right platform has to be created for launching a new player. I think the World Cup is probably the most ideal platform for any cricket team to launch a new player. I can recall the example of Inzamam-ul-Haq in the 1992 World Cup. He was unheard of, straight from district cricket and Imran Khan said that I am introducing a new cricketer into the world of cricket - Inzamam-ul-Haq and he is as good as Sachin."

"Now that positioning of Inzamam-ul-Haq in the minds of other teams was so well done by Imran Khan, because he compared Inzamam-ul-Haq with Sachin. So the whole cricketing world, stood up to look at who is this Inzamam-ul-Haq and what he is all about? An instant brand building was done."

For more on management strategies and learning curve stories, click here
Manali Rohinesh, Moneycontrol.com