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Continuing IPL amid pandemic not right, feel brand strategists as players test positive

Several brands now want to pull out of the IPL and asking BCCI to call off the tournament. However, given the kind of investment that's riding on IPL, the losses are likely to be huge if the tournament is called off or postponed

After two Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) players—Varun Chakravarthy and Sandeep Warrier—and two members from the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) contingent tested positive for Covid-19, several brand strategists are hoping that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would now finally call off the cricket tournament as continuing it would mean being insensitive to both the audience and the players.

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Though the affected teams have been isolated and BCCI postponed Monday’s evening match between KKR and Royal Challengers Bangalore, advertisers feel that it can't be business as usual when the country is gasping for oxygen. Several brands also don't see any sense in advertising now as supply chains and demand have been impacted due to curfews and lockdowns.

“The continuation of the IPL amid the pandemic is questionable now, given that the secure bio-bubbles have been breached. But even aside from this breach, the continuation points to a certain disregard for the suffering and misery millions of Indians are facing,” said Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and former Marketing Head of PepsiCo, Motorola & HP APAC.

Ambi Parameswaran

Ambi Parameswaran, a senior brand strategist, said, "It is indeed sad to hear about the infection of a few players. Hope they recover well. That said the IPL management needs to take a call on how bad is the breach in the bio-bubble and what they are doing about keeping the bio-bubble insulated. If there are doubts about this, it may be good to call IPL 2021 off at the midpoint; they could reconvene three months later and play the rest of the tournament. This is bound to disappoint the IPL fans but I am saying this only because the management has not been able to make the bio-bubble strategy work,” he said.

Anand Bhadkamkar

However, Anand Bhadkamkar, CEO of dentsu, said that it is still early to say if the IPL should be called off.

“We'll need to see because a lot of investment has gone into this. But definitely more precautions need to be taken. We just need to see how things are panning out in the next three to four days,” he said.

Speaking about the likely impact if IPL is called off, Bhadkamkar added, “The second wave is unprecedented. So from that aspect, if BCCI takes a call quickly it will be much better for brands and advertisers. If it's called off, brands will need to revisit or rejig. The broadcasters and everyone have invested quite a bit into this. So stopping it in between is definitely not good from a monetary perspective for those involved. But that's something which we need to see how things pan out.”

Several brands are banking on IPL for their marketing initiatives and many are already in the process of launching their IPL marketing campaigns. Calling off the tournament at this point in time will mean severe losses to the advertising industry.

Parameswaran said, “Advertisers will understand the issues involved since all of them are facing Covid-related challenges with their staff. But some may definitely invoke a ‘force majeure’ clause and seek some special privileges. For instance, if I had a series of 20 ads planned out for the entire duration of IPL, then stopping the campaign at ad no. 10 will be suboptimal. So individual brands will have their own take on this. Some may be relieved to pull out and save the money that can be better spent when things return to normal. Some may silently protest. Some not so silently. It will be a tough call for all brands.”

Lloyd Mathias

Mathias said calling off the IPL at this stage will hurt financially. “But remember the BCCI is a very rich body, and this financial loss is an insignificant price to pay in comparison to the larger catastrophe all around. Also, insurance may help cover part of the damages, suffered by the teams, the sponsors, and the broadcaster,” he said.

A senior media buyer from the industry said on the condition of anonymity that brands now want to pull out of the IPL and have asked BCCI to call off the tournament. “With the second wave surging and lockdowns in place, many brands do not have stocks in place. Our clients are pleading that they stop the IPL. But the BCCI also has its expenditures so they would like to continue,” she said.

“BCCI will have to clearly state what their plan is or how they're tackling this current breach. Meanwhile, brands definitely are evaluating this. It's a long tournament and one match is already getting postponed. This upsets the schedule that brands may have in mind for their campaigns,” Bhadkamkar said.

Another grouse against the IPL is that the ad campaigns of brands are quite insensitive and even tone-deaf to the grim situation around them. Instead of contributing to the country’s fight against Covid, many of these ads seem to belong to another world.

Hamsini Shivakumar

“Unlike during last year’s lockdown, when brands took a nationalistic and a compassionate stance for their consumers, we are seeing this time that most brands seem to have gone back to business as usual. Last year for some time, they didn't advertise and they were of the view that the correct position for brands to take is based on acts, not ads. But now it is that ‘We have to do what we have to do and we are in business. And the whole purpose of business is to sell products and make money,” said Hamsini Shivakumar, Co-Founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting.

Shivakumar says that in her professional circles, they have been speaking about brand tonality. “We have been speaking if brands should be doing the sort of IPL advertising as if there is no cognisance of Covid at all. There is one school of thought that says that brands should be more responsible and show continuity with the stance that they took last year,” she said.

“It would be wonderful if the IPL used its reach and financial muscle to amplify and help people. Teams, sponsors, cricket stars can come together and pledge part of their incomes to support this humanitarian disaster. This will help reduce the valid feeling of the IPL’s tone-deafness to the misery all around. For brands, the best thing to do in the present circumstances is to help with relief in any way possible – from financial, procuring much-needed medical supplies to using their media assets to amplify SOS and help messages,” added Mathias.

However, Bhadkamkar said many brands have started being sensitive or socially responsible. “They are supporting the communities or providing them aid. That's something that brands should not convert into marketing. Unfortunately, that's the thin line that brands also need to understand. Even we have been working with the brands to ensure that the messaging goes across because this is not the time for promoting. And we are looking at ways to work together as a community. While IPL is a commercial thing, it is also entertaining the people who are at home. That’s a huge positive aspect from that side,” he said.

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