Jerry Clode
May 9, 2013

Indian Premier League evolves into platform brands can't ignore

The energy and story of the IPL is now building strong momentum. Brands need to raise their game too, treating the IPL as a strategic opportunity—not just a tactical no-brainer.

Jerry Clode
Jerry Clode

The atmosphere is electric, punctuated by waves of noise from the crowd packed into the 'home of cricket', Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. Television cameras zoom frantically between the action on the pitch and the two equally nervous female bosses of the competing teams. Preity Zinta, Bollywood actress and co-owner of the Punjab Kings desperately tries to hold her famed composure, while Nita Ambani, businesswomen and owner of the host team, the Mumbai Indians, cannot bear to lift her head to watch events. After a heart-stopping evening of constant ups and downs, the Punjab Kings can steal an unlikely victory from the home side by hitting a maximum 'six' score off the last ball of the match. Praveen Kumar, the would-be hero, makes a determined strike at the ball, but skies it high in the air and is caught by Mumbai’s favourite cricket son Sachin Tendulka. The crowd is delirious!

Just another unforgettable night of drama brought to you by the Indian Premier League.

Inaugurated in 2008, IPL is now in its sixth annual season and is cricket’s richest tournament. The journey to IPL6 has not been easy. The tournament faced considerable scepticism, was racked by a series of controversies and relocated to South Africa in 2009 due to security concerns. Despite challenges, IPL is quite unique within the world of professional sports leagues. Nine franchises located throughout India are allowed a limited number of international superstars on their player rosters. They bid for these stars in a high-profile auction before the two-month tournament commences. The inclusion of international players ensures IPL features the world’s best players, who reap a huge cheque for their services.

IPL is the embodiment and symbol of '20-20', a shortened, action-packed version of the traditional format of cricket that is usually played over a one- or five-day period. While purists hate it, fans love it, and the three-hour version has arguably reinvigorated interest in all facets of the game.

In a recent match, Jamaican superstar Chris Gayle hit a world record score of 175 in just 66 deliveries. It is the possibility of such dramatic scoring that makes the outcome almost always in doubt until the very last plays, ensuring IPL is full of spontaneous, heroic and action-packed moments.

Building on this excitement is new IPL6 title sponsor Pepsi, taking over the reins from DLF Limited, a local real estate conglomerate. Arguably a stronger fit at a brand level, Pepsi has seized the IPL as an ideal opportunity to further activate its aspirational 'Oh, Yes, Abhi' campaign, which literally translates as 'Oh, Yes, Go for It'. This has included innovative promotions at game venues, including a competition for fans to watch from the enviable vantage point of the Pepsi VIP box. In a similar way to how Gatorade has embedded itself to the culture of the National Football League in the US, Pepsi is taking strategic steps to embody the spontaneity of IPL—to the brand’s benefit.

From a cultural perspective, this year’s edition of IPL has been particularly marked for developing the idea of team fan culture—an emerging behaviour in India. Previously, the Indian national cricket team has stood alone as the dominant magnet of idolation and collectiveness. However, Pepsi has dared to poke some fun at the “we are all Indian” trope. In a recent TV ad, Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor breaks up a fight between two supporters of rival Northern teams, the Kolkatta Knights and Punjab Kings, reasoning that the Pepsi they are drinking is like the “common blood of Indians”. As the two fans reconcile, they realise Kapoor has swindled their Pepsi. He then yells cheekily back at them that he is actually a die-hard of another Northern rival, the Delhi Daredevils. In this way, IPL is injecting some fun energy into local rivalries in India, long lacking expression due to the all-encompassing notion of Indian nationalism.

Fans have been issued a further challenge by broadcast partner Sony Max. Fronting its campaign is Farah Khan, a famous choreographer and reality TV host known for her no-nonsense attitude. Khan sternly orders everyone to “stop just watching” (sirf dekhneka nahi) and practise a special Gangnam-style “Jumping Jhapak” dance to celebrate key moments in the game, such as maximum hits and dismissals. In one instance, a group of business executives are politely and lifelessly watching a game with their clients, when Khan burst in and orders them to loosen their ties, roughen up their hair and dance on the boardroom table. With a strong focus on the India’s swelling middle class, IPL is creating a local equivalent of “Saturday Night Football”—a common sporting occasion with incredible potential for marketers.

As the idea of fandom becomes more entrenched, sponsorship of individual teams in now becoming attractive to marketers. Hindustan Unilever has brought the 'Axe effect' to its sponsorship of the star-studded team Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). Fans who combine wearing the RCB team strip with Axe deodorant will find themselves 'weighed down' by the obsessive attention of beautiful women—making it impossible to write legibly, tie their shoes or play pool and X-box.

There is plenty to like about IPL for marketers in India. In a multi-communal market full of diversity, finding common platforms to engage consumers proves elusive. Nationalism and Bollywood have been perennial pillars, but IPL is gradually becoming a fresh common denominator to cut across regional and class differences.

IPL is importantly breaking new ground in terms of inclusiveness, presenting a modern and international version of India to the world. Women are a prominent part of IPL, as enthusiastic members of the crowd, as broadcasters and franchise owners—something that was not prominent in cricket traditionally. The involvement of foreign players and coaches is in sync with India’s increasing integration with the global economy. The language of IPL is proudly English, and Western cheerleaders share the limelight alongside more generously dressed Indian traditional dancers. There is also a strong philanthropic commitment by the competition’s franchises; the Mumbai Indians support disadvantaged children, and the Rajasthan Royals have joined the fight to eradicate cleft lip in their home state. The hierarchy that has traditionally defined the sport in India has given way to verdict by social media. Over 5 million tweets have been sent by so far to #IPL this year, scrutinising team selections and player performances.

Jerry Clode, formerly of Added Value, is the founder of House of Jezmo.

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