Is IPL Losing Its Sheen? Third Umpire on Branding


The third edition of the IPL tournament is in its last leg and the teams are fighting it out in the trying heat and dust. Batsmen are finding it easier to sweat bucketloads than to make runs. Teams seem to have some strange affinity for the number “12” as five teams seem to be stuck on this magical points figure. The stadia seem full, at least at Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. TRPs are soaring, IPL post-match party tickets are being sold at Rs 50,000 if rumours are to be believed. But things are not as hunky dory as they ought to be. The attention shifted slowly but surely from the cricket to franchisee ownerships, bribes, mudslinging and more, taking its toll on Shashi Tharoor. Reports have it that Lalit Modi will also be forced to quit. In short, whatever is happening with the induction of new teams is, to borrow a phrase as old as the game, “just not cricket”.

IPL a revolutionary brand

I have no doubt in my mind that IPL revolutionised the face of cricket in India definitely, and the world. It is an idea whose time had come, and whether the inspiration was Kerry Packer, the NBA, American baseball or the fact that twenty-twenty cricket was, like David Warner, just waiting to explode, the concept took off. It was brilliantly packaged, wonderfully promoted and successfully executed even if it was a bit ‘in your face’ for my liking. But let’s give Lalit Modi his due for creating a global brand in a very, very short period of time.

The western world tried to ignore this for some time, and then grudgingly had to accept even as its own players came running to be a part of it. Even if many of the global players sat on the bench like our software engineers of yesteryears, they did not seem to mind. The unique mix of Bollywood, team owners who cried in the stands, cheerleaders who had not the foggiest notion of who was playing, ageing cricketers who showed their younger counterparts a thing or two, whether it was the zooter or the mongoose bat, some outstanding emerging Indian talent, some close finishes, some breathtaking innings, some shocking bloomers, all contributed to the enormous success of the format.

Too much, too soon?

While JM Keynes said that in the long run we are all dead, Jack Welch said that while any fool can make money in the short run (and here I am paraphrasing) and any fool can make money in the long run, it needs true ability to make money in both, the long run and the short run. There is no denying the phenomenal success of IPL in the short life it has had so far. It has not only created a following (if not for the local teams) but managed to make people buy enormously expensive tickets and advertisers buy dubious advertising properties at fancy prices. Already the climate is being created for the advertising rates to touch an all-time high. For the next IPL, the Max mobiles and the Karbonn mobiles of the world are already licking their lips in anticipation, even if I am dreading what I am going to be in for soon.

Lalit Modi must easily be the most photographed and televised person in the country (Shah Rukh Khan, kindly excuse) as every newspaper, television channel and Web site seems to either love or hate him. No half measures with our man, are there? In fact, if we were to do a “share of voice” analysis, compare and contrast the coverage that Lalit Modi has with, say, a gentleman by the name of Manmohan Singh, who has the job of Prime Minister of the country, the latter would be a distant second. This, of course, is a commentary on the sad state of news coverage in this country that I shall come to later, but let’s stay with the brand IPL and the current imbroglio it seems to have gotten itself into.

Trouble in God’s own country

Kerala is an absolutely delightful place to visit and holiday in. But despite Shashi Tharoor’s overt and often misplaced enthusiasm for the place as a business destination investors have been wary of going there, and I think it is irrelevant (at least for this author) to figure out the rightness or wrongness of perceptions about investing here. But there is no doubt in my mind that the latest investment by an IPL franchisee has put the cat amongst the pigeons.

It has all the ingredients of a media potboiler. A suave, sophisticated minister who tweets into trouble with the ease which the Indian team used to get into corners; a lady whom the media say is close to the (now former) minister and who has sweat equity in the company; owners who are not well known as some of the other franchisee owners; rumours that a current cricketer is part of the team; an allegation by the CEO that Lalit Modi offered him a bribe (which indiscreet utterance has already cost him his job); tweets from Lalit Modi about the uncertainty of the owners, allegations and counter allegations flying around, questions raised about the original franchisees… Thank God newspapers have only 16 pages!

One of my learned clients made a very interesting observation. He said that earlier in news capsules you had clearly demarcated time slots for different aspects – local news, international news, sports, entertainment and so on. But if you analyse today’s telecast it is all about entertainment and sports, and if news does not entertain, it will not make it. Well, the IPL is certainly entertaining, and the franchisee confusion is certainly entertaining but what about the brand which had the possibility of being a future icon?

Controversy is king

A few years ago I was teaching some international students from the UK who were visiting IIM, Bangalore. I showed them the Fair and Lovely air hostess commercial, telling them it had been controversial and had to be pulled off air. They were very excited as controversies, they said, kept the brand in the news and were valued in the UK. It was interesting too to read the views of a few advertisers today, who said that controversy is good for the IPL brand. Sadly, I disagree. It is true that brands reflect the personality of their owners. Kingfisher represents the “king of good times” and what better exponent of the good times than Vijay Mallya. But that example is different as it is a pretty good beer, has the right image and as long as the weather in India remains as salubrious as it is (!) the brand will fare brilliantly.

IPL is a different kettle of fish. Lalit Modi is someone whom you either love or hate. Without the benefit of formal market research, I can only say that he seems to have rubbed an enormous number of people the wrong way, and he is the IPL brand, for many of us at least. And while being in the news is great, I am not sure whether making the headlines with a tax raid on your offices is great publicity for your brand.

Circumspection is the key

Lalit Modi runs the risk of being caught on an uncovered wicket on the day after overnight rain. His brand is under scrutiny. He should try to bat like Jack Hobbs or Geoffrey Boycott with his eye on the ball. Sadly, he is batting like Robin Uthappa. I am sure he has the confidence to handle anything, after all, Indian businessmen think they can handle anything, including the law. But he should spare a thought for the brand that he has built so quickly, and a brand that is the envy of the world. Brands are difficult to build and easy to dent. They are like fine pieces of crystal that need careful handling, love and affection even.

It is the time for objectivity, for Lalit Modi. Time to tweet less and time to think more. A time not to fight someone else’s political battles, but a time to remember the things that made IPL a phenomenal success and go back to the basics. It is about entertainment in the sports field, not in media rooms and television studios. It is again a time to look at the consumer. Lalit Modi would do well to remember that there are a lot of people who would wish him to fail and he must prove them wrong, not only for his own sake but for the sake of the brand that he has singlehandedly built.

Will he? Won’t he? Only time will tell.






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