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Sachin crosses over to Apollo Tyres from MRF: Betrayal or business?

Sachin Tendulkar signed up with tyre manufacturer, Apollo, earlier this week. In the normal course of business, a retired celebrity signing on a brand endorsement would hardly have made news. But India’s tallest cricketer carried the MRF brand name on his bat for well over a dozen years at the peak of his cricketing career and both the bat and the brand became synonymous with Sachin Tendulkar. His crossing over, therefore, to rival Apollo Tyres is seen by many to be a betrayal of sorts.

To be fair to Tendulkar, though the MRF brand name is etched in the minds of Indian fans as MRF-Genius, the power behind the most prolific bat in Indian cricket, he stopped endorsing the tyre brand way back in 2009. Sachin was by then in the evening of his cricketing years, and MRF who had also had Brian Lara and Steve Waugh as brand ambassadors, decided to look for younger talent. MRF went on to sign the current Indian captain, Virat Kohli and India’s hard-hitting opener Shikhar Dhawan. Sachin was therefore, kind of left high and dry. He had already been endorsing Adidas for some years for their apparel and shoes lines. Sachin extended that relationship to his bat too. So, this story is really almost 10 years old. But

fan memories are not easy to erase. Brand Sachin and Brand MRF were together for so long that even though they went their separate ways so many years ago, the association has not really faded in the minds of cricket diehards.

What most people do not know is that despite the high profile branding of the cricket bat, MRF actually never was in the sports equipment business. MRF has never manufactured cricket bats and all the so branded bats available at sports stores were obviously unauthorized. But the MRF brand gained significantly from its years of being the sponsor of Sachin’s bat. MRF retained its market leadership in the tyres business by a mile, and most industry watchers credit the goodness of the brand to the Sachin tie-up.

Sachin tying up with Apollo is therefore par for the course. For Apollo, it is good to have a legend on board, that too at a price that would surely be a small fraction that Sachin used to charge during his heydays. If well used, Apollo can well derive adequate value from Sachin. The older, now retired, Sachin is a different persona from the cricketer who enchanted a billion Indians with his bat. The new, current Sachin is more mellow, more mature. He is also the epitome of enduring success. He has that air today of ‘been-there-done-that’ and is no longer competition to the current lot of players. He is more relaxed, more at-ease with the world. His legend needs no explanation, needs no elaboration. Brand Sachin is no longer about performance on the field. It is about proven success, and as I said before, enduring success. Apollo has to leverage and highlight these

new dimensions of Brand Sachin in whatever creatives that are planned. It may also be prudent for Apollo to maximally use Sachin with their trade partners. Almost all of Apollo’s dealers and OE clients would be in the age group where they have been witness to the batting genius of Sachin Tendulkar. Hugging and kissing these trade partners would actually be the best use of Sachin as most of them would be his fans, and getting to share the same platform with him at a conference or dinner would be a big kick for any of them for sure.

A 2012 study by the Harvard Business School revealed that celebrity endorsements generate a 4 per cent increase in sales on average for brands. My own PhD research on Celebrities as Human Brands actually showed an up-tick of 14-17 per cent in brand sales in India by using a relevant brand endorsee. The 2013 book ‘Contemporary Ideas and Research in Marketing’ found that 85 per cent of consumers admitted that a celebrity endorsement upped their confidence in a brand, and 15 per cent said endorsements affected their purchasing decisions. In addition, a study released by NPD last year revealed that fans of a given celebrity are 50 per cent more likely to buy and use the products that celebrity does. Apollo should therefore look at swinging some of Sachin’s legion of die-hard fans to its brand.

Roger Federer set the cat amongst the pigeons earlier this summer when he walked on to the courts at Wimbledon wearing Uniqlo on his shirt. Federer had been a Nike endorsee for more than 20 years and the entire tennis world was stunned by Federer’s desertion. But, Federer continued to wear Nike shoes despite having switched the rest of his apparel to the Japanese clothier. Also, Nike still remains in control of the ‘RF’ tennis line that they specially co-created with Roger Federer. But, in moving to Uniqlo, Federer in his own way acknowledged that he was no longer in the ‘performance’ space and that his personal brand was headed into less taxing domains which were better symbolized by an easy-wear brand like Uniqlo. Actually, Federer is not alone in his quest for a more relaxed environment to his champion brand. Novak Djokovic, despite being the reigning Wimbledon champ, knows that he is slowly heading into the sunset. He too has traded Nike in the past year, in favour of a more mass brand, Lacoste. Nike, unfortunately, seems also to be falling out of favour with another tennis legend, Rafael Nadal. It is rumoured that once Nadal’s contract with Nike runs out in a few months, he will most likely sign up with Under Armour.

But the issues involved in the Federer/Djokovic/Nadal cases are more of current players buying retirement insurance. In the case of Sachin, he is already retired. To that extent, Apollo is basically investing in the goodness of his past, in the fond hope that his reservoirs of goodwill are still abundantly large. Methinks, the overhang of MRF is far too strong to be forgotten by Sachin fans. Apollo may find it fairly difficult to wean MRF away from Sachin. As a critic famously said, you can place a can of Heineken beer in the hands of James Bond, but to the viewer at large, Bond will continue to drink his martinis … stirred, not shaken!

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