Sometime last year, the brand managers of PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth approached several companies in India, to explore if they would be interested in tapping into the brand equity of the two badminton players. Most of them nearly scoffed in response.
"Both players will just be a 7-day wonder, lasting only as long as the Rio Olympics goes on.''
"We are not sure of their consistency and visibility.''
"Sindhu's two bronze medals at the 2013 and 2014 World championship were a one-off achievements.''
Baseline, the company that manages Sindhu and Srikanth, says the brands ranging from FMCG products to logistics to pain relievers in different cities in India, failed to read the potential of the two athletes. "While some were not interested, others made ridiculous commercial offers in single digit figures or low double digit figures,'' says Ramakrishnan R, Director, Baseline.
Rio made the corporates realise that a week is a long time in sport.
Rio made the corporates realise that a week is a long time in sport. Once Sindhu beat Japan's Nozomi Okuhara in the semi-final to set up a clash with Carolina Marin, she was all over the media and #GoldforSindhu began trending on social media. A medal-starved India had discovered a new star and Ramakrishnan found himself being being wooed by the same industrywallahs. While some subtly re-opened channels of communication by congratulating Team Sindhu, others having been forced to eat the humble pie, admitted that they did not realise she was a champion in the making.
"Corporates are reasonably short-sighted when it comes to backing sporting horses,'' says Harish Bijoor, brand consultant. "Corporate boardrooms are not good punters. They are shallow in their understanding of sport. They choose to run only after established stars, like they will now do after Sindhu.''
Visibility in the media is usually the only yardstick to gauge the brand potential of a filmstar or a sportsperson. The fact that a badminton match, even though telecast live on TV, does not usually last more than an hour, goes against it. Sports like gymnastics, despite Dipa Karmakar's exploits do not even figure on the radar. In comparison, a T20 game that goes on for three hours, is seen as better return on investment. When the game is all about attracting eyeballs today and the tense is present, not the future, the player from a lesser sporting religion loses out to a cricketer. To make a similar amount of money, a non-cricketer will need to do three times the number of endorsements that a cricketer signs up.
"During the times we played in the late 90s, we never saw this kind of a crowd or cheering for a badminton match. This is good for the game.''
Will India's embrace of 'Sindhutva' change that? Looking at the atmosphere of frenzy at the Gopichand academy in Hyderabad, where a large plasma screen had been put for a crowd of over a thousand to watch the final match, former shuttler Sudheer Babu said, "During the times we played in the late 90s, we never saw this kind of a crowd or cheering for a badminton match. This is good for the game.''
Sindhu and Srikanth were given the cold shoulder by the corporate world despite their coach Pullela Gopichand backing their abilities. "Watch out for Sindhu and Srikanth. They are going to be our world-beaters,'' he had told the branding team.
"We want to tap only those brands that mirror Sindhu's values. She is youthful, not artificial and has nerves of steel and enormous fighting spirit. She is only 21 yet so calm and composed,'' says Ramakrishnan. Her middle class roots position her perfectly to be associated with several consumer brands.
Brand communication specialist Prof Smitha Sarma Ranganathan says while cricketers are patted with endorsements for aggression on the field, Sindhu's grace is what makes her a legendary brand. "If brand equity is about goodwill, Sindhu's gesture to help Marin get up after the match, putting the racquet back in Marin's kit, is what signals the making of a legend to me,'' says Smitha.
The first two endorsements for Sindhu will be unveiled in September.
The first two endorsements for Sindhu will be unveiled in September. Despite the interest levels going up, Team Sindhu says it will not overburden her calendar or eat into her badminton time.
"My personal opinion is that I would rather 'underdo' than overdo the endorsement,'' says Gopichand. Till 2011, he used to have direct control over what endorsement his former student, Saina Nehwal chose. With more work on his plate, he then left it to brand managers but makes it clear that if a player chooses five brands and each one of them demands six days in a year for promotional activity and shoots, that means a good 30 days gone. "In our kind of a tight badminton calendar, it is impossible,'' says Gopi.
On the badminton circuit, Saina is the frontrunner who now endorses close to a dozen products. And despite the Saina versus Sindhu rivalry being built up by the media and her injury that has forced a temporary layoff, it is unlikely that her brands will desert her. At 26, Saina still has at least four years of badminton left in her and continues to inspire as a role model.
Meanwhile, Sindhu can sit pretty because the biggest brand in India, Rajinikanth has publicly admitted on Twitter to being the badminton star's fan. That takes Sindhu's brand equity a few notches higher, acquiring Kabali-esque proportions.