Sachin has finally announced his retiremen t! To the stunned disbelief of ardent fans, who naively believed he would conquer forever. To rising panic in many others who are scrambling for passes or tickets even as we speak, so that they don’t miss his last Test. ‘That too at Wankhede!’ To countless plaudits and paeans from his peers. To saccharine regret from our media, the same ones who never failed to bay for his blood after every flop.
Between BCCI’s extravagant promises of turning the farewell into a veritable spectacle, to media houses cashing in on this windfall, to brands he has endorsed (and most likely even those he does not) trying to piggyback the moment and squeeze it dry for all it’s worth, Sachin’s retirement has become that unexpected Diwali bonus.
The financial media is currently awash with pseudo-intellectual speculation on ‘Brand Sachin’ and how his retirement will impact his current or future endorsements. So we learn that a few have demurred from renewing their endorsement deals, some more are full of apologetic whimpers about how ‘He is not youthful enough’. And then there are those who have staunchly decided to stand by him, and also made their ‘support’ public.
The larger questions remain: Did any brand use Sachin well? Does any brand truly manage to capture Sachin’s essence or vice versa? Was Brand Sachin even managed well? What is the relevance of a Brand Ambassador in the marketing mix? Do we have the term ‘Brand Ambassador’ confused with Celebrity Branding? Suffer a popular soap one evening if you can or just catch the next cricketing event on TV; you will see less cricket and more ads, with celebs selling everything from chips, soaps, consumer durables, thanda tel, biscuits to tourism destinations et al. Barring a select few, most of these ads just have the celebrity mouthing some inanities in an utterly unconvincing manner and smiling their ‘patent’, ‘well researched’ smiles. No one remembers the ad, the lines, jingles or the product.
Why does this happen? Behind the scenes is a Catch 22 situation that most marketers face. They employ Brand Ambassadors to get their products noticed. Then they spend a lot of money so that they can ‘reach out to all’ with the ad, since a celebrity ‘can’. (“After having shelved out the astronomical amounts, it better be all”.) Then between the brand marketing team, the advertising agency and global teams, research, the celebrity’s talent management team, etc., they shoot themselves in the leg hashing out a khichdi script that is neither here nor there. The end product is communication that is so dumbed down that it looks like any of the other ads the star is endorsing.
Used wisely, a celebrity can take the brand places. Common people trust stars. Especially in India. They ape them, adopt their values and are very happy to buy products that are ‘recommended’ by their favourite stars. But to make communication truly effective, the ‘chosen one’ must match the brand personality. The marketing team needs to remember that they are using the celebrity to strengthen their own promotional strategies and not vice versa. In the end, the star and the communication must cement the customer-product/service relationship. And let’s not forget the real hero or heroine is ALWAYS the product.
Internationally there are several instances of sportspersons or stars enjoying an omnipresence that goes much beyond their actual body of work. (The Beckhams spring to mind here.) Endorsement deals that sometimes rake in more moolah than their actual contract in sports or the film industry are not unheard of. These are the new gen, canny breed of stars. Very savvy. Very smart. They work hard to create an individual identity, their own brand. And it is not by accident that they far outlive their actual careers in the public memory.
The good news is that India is not without its own whiz kids here. Indian celebrities are slowly waking up to the fact that they need to create a brand that they can market to not just India, but the world. The opportunities are tremendous. And there is no talk of retirement here.
The challenge is to figure out how brands too can ride this success story along with them without compromising their own life cycle and growth curve. Because after all, call us a romantic for saying this, but a Sachin should not be so easily replaceable. Not in cricket. And definitely not as a Brand Ambassador.