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Rising sports stars have a new fan base in brands

Be it Hima Das today or Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom when they were rising, brands are getting on board young and rising athletes as brand ambassadors. analyses the benefits and flipside of associating with new faces

Brands, for the longest time, have been fascinated with cricket players. Many have been riding on the rising popularity of cricketers since the time Sunil Gavaskar appeared in Thumps Up’s ad in 1985.

Things are changing in the last decade and brands are now not averse to placing bets on rising athletes and sportspersons from other sports.

Brands, in the last few years, have been reaching out to popular names in kabaddi, hockey, gymnastic, sprint running, tennis, boxing and other sports to resonate themselves with the quality of the sport stars.

Hima Das, an Indian track sensation endorsing for Adidas, Smriti Mandhana, a popular name of the Indian women cricket team representing Alcon as brand ambassador, are some of the trending endorsements.

Samit Sinha

Speaking on brands choosing rising athletes as their face, Samit Sinha, Founder and Managing Partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, said, “The first reason could be the cost. Cricket stars in particular tend to be quite expensive, which only big brands with large marketing budgets can afford. There are many emerging sports and pretty recognisable faces that tend to be more cost-effective and also give brands a familiar face in terms of quality or performance.”

Pranesh Misra

Pranesh Misra, Chairman and MD, Brandscapes Worldwide, agreed on the point of cost-effectiveness, “It gets difficult for many brands to make cricketers their brand face as the price of associating with them is high. Brands today are also interested in success and recognition from any sports.”

Kalyan Kumar

Kalyan Kumar, founder and CEO, Social Catalyzers, said, “Brands are always looking for something new and other sports have given something beyond cricket. These are happy emerging trends which certain brands can find meaningful to latch on to, both from a wider audience base growing around these, to agendas of being ‘brands of purpose’. These athletes actually stand out for having staked themselves to categories not as cool as cricket, and have persevered in their choice of passion and excelled at it. Their stories make for a lot of 'against all odds’. Most importantly, they don’t cost much, at least not yet, and is a great bet on the future and depth of a face.”

Apart from their individual views, the experts unanimously agreed that one important reason of endorsing athletes or sports stars is because brands want to come through as those that encourage multiple sports and secondly such endorsements give a good amount of visibility and rub-offs.

According to Sinha, big or small brands, by endorsing sportspersons apart from cricket, are trying to break the clutter of mainstream endorsements. “Brands who want to show themselves as a little different, endorse faces of other sports apart from cricket,” he said.

Are athlete-led endorsements category-agnostic?

Do brands believe the product category should resonate with the brand face? If yes, how well you believe Hima Das serves as the brand of Adidas or Mary Kom with BSNL.

Sinha answered, “Brands have different perspectives. Some resonate with their product qualities and others find some other reasons where these celebs fit in.”

In the case of Hima Das, the association is very direct with Adidas as she has done very well in the international arena in athletics and the brand stands for sports and athleticism. Mary Kom is known for two things — first as a boxer and second as a role model for women. She is a poster girl for women empowerment. By making Mary Kom the face of BSNL, the brand resonates with the power of the sports person. Secondly, the brand here is cut through as a good corporate citizen who is helping the cause of women.

According to Misra, there are some brands that resonate and some that don’t. “I think more professional companies are asking themselves if the celebrity face they have roped in for the brand resonates with the brand purpose or not. Such companies don’t select celebs for the sake of visibility. Hima Das is a contextual fit for Adidas as the sportsperson completely resonates with the purpose of the brand. Adidas’s story line, ‘Impossible is nothing’, replicates the win of the 19-year-old ‘Dhing Express’ who has deleted the impossibilities of her life and achieved success worldwide. However, Mary Kom being the brand face of BSNL has no resonation with the brand purpose and motto. Brands that are relatively going low on brand awareness or entering the market for the first time ride on big celebrity endorsements. This eventually gives a lift in brand awareness,” he said.

“Brands have always been sensitive to 'resonation'. But toeing the line on the resonation angle, it’s only becoming more and more important to do so beyond a face. Even with these newer faces, brands have to work out 'how' to leverage them than just a face and how it might sit in their communication architecture. Hima surely does fit any sports/fitness brand. Sports brands have many layers/products etc., so Hima could be a great choice for many right now if they have 'purpose' layering that needs/intent. Mary Kom is another iconic 'against all odds' story and a big hero. I think she gives BSNL that layer too. Not sure how well they are telling that story yet, but she could do well for them,” said Kumar.

How does the falling fortune of athletes on the field impact brands?

“It is always dangerous for brands to associate with any particular sports celebrity for a longer period because they do have dips and peaks in their popularity. Very few celebrities manage to sustain their popularity for a longer period. Also when celebrities get controversies in real life, they get a lot of negative publicity, which is not good for the brand. Hence, brands should not solely depend on one celebrity for brand marketing,” Sinha said.

“A celebrity’s popularity and un-popularity rubs off to the brand. The celebrity’s image gets transferred to the brand,” he adds.

According to Misra, “Brands move with the movement that happens in a sportsperson’s life. If it’s positive they stick to the endorsement, if it goes negative they back off. The brands also do not take long.”

“As much as some brands would love to stand by their ambassadors, it’s first business. Now apart from controversies, when brands have no option but to disassociate, ups and downs are a hard place for a brand's perspective. A lot of hedging on all of this happens when deals are struck and the contracts vary. At the end of the day, it’s a bet, you win some or some of it at least, and of course, the party may not last long,” Kumar said.

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