Post the epoch-making win Down Under, there has been much conversation on whether brand managers and ad agencies will queue up to sign on Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Shardul Thakur, Hanuma Vihari, Mohammed Siraj, Washington Sundar, Navdeep Saini and T. Natarajan.
Their heroics with the bat and ball put to shade many older players in the team. Each of them displayed great grit and determination in very adverse playing conditions; each of them came across as plucky and feisty despite sledging and bodyline bowling; each of them played the hero on the 22-yards, frustrating the mighty Australians and leaving them in tears and tatters.
Brands, surely would be delighted to have these effervescent and brave youngsters to endorse their brands? After all, these are the true heroes of New India.
Unfortunately, my view, based on past experience, is that despite the stellar performances, prospects for brand ambassadorships look dim, and remote. Let me explain.
At the beginning of 2019, the Indian Institute of Human Brands (IIHB), a think-tank that I helm, ran small research to gauge the relative popularity of five young cricketers: Prithvi Shaw, Jasprit Bumrah, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and Kuldeep Yadav. This baseline research was intended to help marketers choose perhaps one of these emerging stars as a brand ambassador for their brand in 2019. I tabulated the feedback in a blog titled, ‘2019 is going to be a PANTASTIC year’. And the piece turned out to be almost prophetic.
Wicket-keeper Rishabh Rajendra Pant had made his Test debut against England in August 2018 with a six to get off the mark, the first-ever Indian batsman to do so. His maiden Test century against England made him the first Indian wicket-keeper to score a hundred in England. In December 2018, during the first Test against Australia, he took eleven catches, the most by a wicket-keeper for India in a Test. In January 2019, during the fourth Test against Australia, Pant became the first wicket-keeper for India to score a century in a Test match in Australia.
In the research feedback, back then, Pant led on Trustworthy and Innovative. Scores on Prestigious were low for all the five players, but even there Pant was in the lead. Pant was ahead of the rest again on Stylish and Daring. Pant was also seen to be Likeable, Fun, Charming and Worth More. Pant, helped by all the hype and hoopla about his youth and good looks, and all the euphoria surrounding him in media, ended 2019 with three new endorsements: Boost, Cadbury Fuse and Himalaya Men’s – he already had SG and Adidas in the bag. Which was nothing short of ‘pantastic’. As predicted by me in the blog, however, none of the other four researched players got any significant brands to endorse despite their on-field successes.
The situation currently, post the Australia triumph is really no different. Rishabh Pant has just got signed by JSW. But that is no surprise. He, as it is, is a Delhi Capitals player, and that franchise is now owned by JSW. Shubman Gill has apparently been offered sponsorship of his bat by Harsh Goenka of Ceat. Shardul Thakur was featured a year ago in a campaign for Tata Power. The company may want to use him again, given his enhanced visibility, and new found fame.
But for most of these young heroes, the biggest challenge will be retaining their place in the Test side. For now Gill, Pant, Siraj, Sundar and Thakur are in the squad, but maybe only one or two of them will eventually find their way in the playing Eleven. For brands to pick, and back, youngsters as brand endorsers, there first must be certainty around the player being a permanent member of the team. Prithvi Pankaj Shaw, was the captain of the national under-19 cricket team. In November 2013, Shaw established a new record of 546 runs from 330 balls playing for Rizvi Springfield in a Harris Shield match, the highest ever score in Indian schools cricket. Shaw made his Test debut against the West Indies in October 2018, scoring a maiden Test century, the youngest Indian to do so at age 18 years and 329 days. He was said to be in the consideration set of many brands: but he has been more out, than in the Indian team. Hence, despite all his prowess and promise, no brands have signed him on.
Out of the Australian victory heroes, Pant and Gill have the best chances, going forward. They are both swashbuckling batsmen. And advertisers have historically hired batsmen over bowlers – India’s No. 1 bowler Jasprit Bumrah, and India’s leading spinner, former vice-captain R. Ashwin have had no real takers for endorsements. Bowlers have never really been favourites with marketers and ad agencies. Kapil Dev was the only real exception, but then he was much much more of a superstar – an all-rounder and a World Cup-winning captain. Anil Kumble, despite his fantastic records, and despite being an Indian captain, was overlooked by brand owners.
Past trends show that in cricket, ‘captain-takes-all’ has been the norm over the years. Most of the endorsements in their times were cornered by captains Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni when they helmed Team India (Kumble being the exception, as mentioned above). Captain Virat Kohli today has more than 25 brand endorsements with no No. 2 in close range. Sure, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawn and even Hardik Pandya have done some ads but they pale in comparison to the harvest of the captains of the era.
So is it all lost for the newer generation wonder kids? Well, yes and no. As I said earlier, if Rishabh Pant and Shubman Gill show consistency and continued success, then they have reasonable opportunities ahead. For the others, they may as well enjoy and savour all the media mileage they are being accorded currently and put the clippings in their personal scrap books. Advertising contracts are not within easy reach. It takes much more to get advertisers excited. They may tweet some nice messages about the young colts, but signing ambassadors is too strategic and long term. On that ‘tried, tested, trusted’ is the formula. And, that dear readers, is the truth of the matter.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal is an advertising & media veteran. He loves his cricket and looks at the game through varied lenses.