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Brand Dhoni remains unbeatable despite slow fadeout

By Dhruv Munjal
August 25, 2020 08:30 IST
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Dhoni presently endorses a healthy 25 brands, and found himself in fifth place on the Forbes India Celebrity 100 list last year, with earnings worth almost Rs 136 crore.

How much of that is set to change, given that Dhoni has chosen to call time on his international career?

It is, perhaps, testament to his sterling, teflon-like popularity that between January and November last year, Mahendra Singh Dhoni endorsed more brands than Virat Kohli.

According to a report by AdEx India and Tam Media Research, which was released in January, Dhoni was the face of 44 brands during the period, as opposed to Kohli’s 43.

 

This may seem somewhat normal, but it’s not: a washed-up, semi-retired Dhoni should never have, ideally at least, been able to challenge the commercial might of prime Kohli, Indian cricket’s perennial poster boy.

Like all things Dhoni, there was a strategy behind this.

The former Indian skipper deliberately lowered his endorsement fee to remain visible, says Sandeep Goyal, founder, Mogae Media and chief mentor at the Indian Institute of Human Brands.

Industry estimates say that Dhoni has been charging Rs 1 crore to Rs 2 crore a day as endorsement fee for the past couple of years -- he demanded five times that amount in his pomp.

But more than that, Goyal reckons that Dhoni’s stellar success as an endorser has been down to him being viewed as a trustworthy face, a characteristic that is central to any successful brand campaign.

“He’s always come across as humble and sincere. Moreover, his son-of-the-soil image has always resonated with the audience,” says Goyal.

How much of that is set to change, given that Dhoni has chosen to call time on his international career?

Considering that he was, in effect, already retired -- his last game for India was against New Zealand in July 2019 -- many believe that Dhoni’s prospects in the endorsement space look unchanged for now. After all, despite his waning powers on the field, the 39-year-old’s stock continues to be high.

Dhoni presently endorses a healthy 25 brands, and found himself in fifth place on the Forbes India Celebrity 100 list last year, with earnings worth almost Rs 136 crore.

Duff & Phelps placed him at No 9 in its celebrity brand valuation study for 2019. Dhoni’s value was pegged at $41.2 million (Rs 310 crore), up from $26.9 million (Rs 202 crore) the previous year.

It obviously helps that Dhoni is still captain of the Chennai Super Kings (CSK), and remains a heavyweight draw in the context of the Indian Premier League, which is set to take off belatedly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) next month.

“He’s still playing a huge part in cricket’s most active format,” says brand expert Harish Bijoor. “To an extent, his brand aura will continue to remain intact.”

But he is quick to add a caveat: much will depend on Dhoni, the batsman, and how CSK perform in the IPL. “The cricketing aspect of things is more important than ever for Dhoni now,” adds Bijoor.

When Dhoni first emerged as the flamboyant, long-haired star of Indian cricket, he was hailed as a breath of fresh air, a departure from the conservatism that had defined the tenure of Sachin Tendulkar as the sport’s preeminent personality before him.

“Tendulkar was seen as a middle-class boy who had made it big. Dhoni was similar, but he perfected that image,” says Goyal.

Some of the early brands that came calling were Mysore Sandal Soap, TVS, Pepsi, Videocon -- a memorable advert with Shah Rukh Khan springs to mind -- and Boost.

In subsequent years, he tied up with brands that reflected his own persona. Snickers picked him because he embodied the fun factor its marketeers were after.

Similarly, Dream11, the fantasy cricket platform, was entirely based on traits that were vintage Dhoni: canniness, strategy and risk.

“Tendulkar pretty much had a monopoly when it came to endorsements. Dhoni was surrounded by more competition, so he did well to keep reinventing himself,” says a brand guru who asked not to be named.

In some ways, Dhoni was the bridge between the cautious traditionalism of Tendulkar and the bold self-expressiveness of Kohli.

“Dhoni bettered what Tendulkar did. And now Kohli is bettering that,” feels Bijoor.

One of the reasons, perhaps, why Dhoni -- diminished visibility aside -- no longer attracts the big brands. Apart from a few household names, his current portfolio includes Netmeds, redBus, Cars24 and Indigo Paints.

To remain relevant once he gives up the game for good, Dhoni will have to shed his calm, stoic demeanour, says Goyal. He may have to become more accessible to the general public -- something that is evidently at odds with his overly discreet personal life.

“Tendulkar has taken the slow fade-out approach. He makes it a point to be seen more and interact with his fans. Dhoni, similarly, will have to adapt,” explains Goyal.

The thing one that Dhoni will always have on his side are the countless memories he has created, the acme of which was that famed strike into the Mumbai night sky that won India the World Cup nine years ago -- a snapshot of such gargantuan significance that it’s still fresh in the minds of countless fans.

“What he does now purely in terms of cricket is extremely important,” says Bijoor. “But keeping fresh the memories he made in India colours will be equally vital.”

Photograph: BCCI.

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Dhruv Munjal in New Delhi
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