There have been market rumors over the last few days that cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar is switching his loyalties from long-standing sponsor MRF to Apollo Tyres.
To be fair, it is not as if Sachin is dumping MRF to sign-up with a direct competitor in the tyres space. The Sachin-MRF relationship actually ended in September 2009 after more than a decade (13-years to be exact) of the batting maestro sporting the ‘MRF-Genius’ logo on his bat. At that time, Sachin Tendulkar moved on from MRF to Adidas. He had already been an endorsee of Adidas for their line of apparel and shoes. In 2009, Tendulkar started to use an Adidas branded bat too.
News of the shift from MRF to a new sponsor had made news even back then. After all, Sachin had carried the MRF bat while scoring thousands of runs, while accumulating his many many international centuries against the likes of Glen McGrath, Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Chaminda Vaas, and Shane Warne. The MRF branding was the most visible and prominent part of the batting genius’s persona as he stroked his way to fame and fortune on television screens in millions of homes of avid cricket fans. Almost 10 years ago, when during the Sri Lanka series Tendulkar shifted loyalties away from MRF, his handlers World Sports Group (WSG) were hard put to explain why the batting sensation and his long-standing sponsor had parted ways. The most plausible explanation was that Sachin was getting close to his ‘best-before’ date and the famed bat was no longer as productive and prolific as it used to be. So, MRF moved on to younger sensations Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan. And, Sachin was left with no choice but to sign-up with Adidas.
The signing up of Sachin by Apollo Tyres should therefore not really be seen as any kind of betrayal of MRF. But the fact is that Sachin and the owners of the Madras Rubber Factory (MRF) had such an impactful innings together that a whole generation of Indians grew up wanting to own an MRF bat. The interesting twist in the tail, however, is that MRF never has actually had a line of cricket bats! They are tyre manufacturers and the only genuine MRF bats ever made were those specially made for their brand ambassador Sachin (which is not to say that MRF branded bats were freely sold at sports outlets all across India, with MRF having nothing to do with them). The MRF bat has over the years also been wielded by West Indian batting genius Brian Lara and Australian captain Steve Waugh.
An Economic Times report today quotes industry sources to say that the Sachin-Apollo deal has been signed for a 5-years period and is valued at Rs. 15-20 crore. But the pink paper did not have an official confirmation on the figures from SRT Sports Management, the agency that now handles the Sachin Tendulkar brand. For their part, for Apollo, using an endorsee is actually new experience as a brand. The farthest that Apollo has ever gone in the realm of sports is a tie-up with Manchester United in 2013, and much earlier in 2007, a tie-up with Mahesh Bhupathi for promotion of tennis. For a period of time, Apollo also supported budding tennis player Yuki Bhambri who unfortunately fizzled out after much initial promise. The signing up of Sachin Tendulkar, even if it is during his retirement phase, is therefore still significant news for Apollo Tyres.
The moot question is why would Sachin Tendulkar sign-up with Apollo after such a visible and long innings with MRF? Perhaps some of the answers lie in a similar exchange of brands by Roger Federer who dumped Nike after a 20-years long association to tie-up with Japanese fashion brand, Uniqlo surprising industry watchers and fans alike (https://www.campaignindia.in/article/blog-mercenary-or-strategist-federers-choice-of-uniqlo-over-nike/446147). In the case of Federer, now in his sunset years as a tennis champion, the move from Nike to Uniqlo was a strategically planned shift from a ‘performance’ brand to a larger ‘everyday fashion’ positioning. Also, the Uniqlo endorsement signed at an eye-popping USD 300 million for 10-years will remain valid even when Federer retires in the next few years. So, for Federer, in a manner of speaking, the Uniqlo deal helped elongate the longevity of Brand Federer.
In the case of Sachin, he has already been retired for quite a few years now. The most important motivation for Apollo, most likely, was the opportunity to pick the God of Cricket at a fraction of the price they would have paid for him during his cricketing days. Despite having hung up his boots (and bat!), Sachin still has immense goodwill with a whole generation of Indians, currently perhaps in their 30s, 40s and 50s who saw Sachin play at the peak of his career. That residual goodwill is perhaps what Apollo is trying to encash on as most of these fans would also be owners of some or the other motor vehicle.
Which really leaves us with the ethical question on whether Sachin is right in now peddling Apollo after selling MRF for so many years. The answer may perhaps lie in what advertising guru, David Ogilvy once wrote in his autobiography, ‘Ogilvy in Advertising’, “Testimonials by celebrities are below average in their ability to change brand preference. Viewers guess the celebrity has been bought, and they are right. Viewers have a way of remembering the celebrity while forgetting the product”. Not everyone may agree. But then it has been proved over and over again that celebrity endorsees are largely mercenary and are prone to be swayed by the highest bidder. In the Sachin-MRF case, the two divorced many years ago. It is just that Brand Sachin has re-married!
(Sandeep Goyal is a PhD in Human Brands. He closely watches everything and anything to do with celebrities’ relationships with brands.)