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Has adland done justice to India’s sports queens?

PV Sindhu competing against He Bing Jiao of China   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Over the years, there have been quite a few commercials and ad campaigns featuring India’s female athletes. Arguably the most noticed among them was one that dazzled us in 2016 — a piece of work for Nike by agency Wieden + Kennedy that had the nation going ‘Da-da-ding’. To be fair, it also featured Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone and a pulsating soundtrack by Gizzle & Gener8ion. But the athletes certainly did not play second fiddle.

What Nike also did with the campaign was tell us more on each person featured, online and through social extensions. Among the athletes was hockey player Rani Rampal, then 21 (who had broken into the team at the age of 15), and squash player Joshna Chinappa, who was ranked 10th in the world at the time. Each had a captivating story to tell.

Yet other brands did not seize the opportunity. If they did, they did not do so with the skill and scale worthy of these achievers. And that trend seems to be continuing.

Screengrabs from Gatorade, Rin, Nike and JSW’s ad campaigns

Screengrabs from Gatorade, Rin, Nike and JSW’s ad campaigns  

Shine before the win

There are some campaigns, however, that cut through, that married the brand with an athlete’s story or perspective. In the context of Tokyo 2020, even before Domino’s moment marketing went viral, there was an attempt to tell the story of fencer Bhavani Devi. It came from brand Rin, via agency Ogilvy. Her victory against patriarchy to qualify for the Games found alignment with the brand’s #AbWaqtHaiChamakneKa plank.

JSW (think steel, cement), which started its #RuknaNahiHai campaign ahead of Rio 2016, carried forward the anthem in the context of the delayed Olympics, also conceptualised by Ogilvy. Is it a campaign featuring women athletes exclusively? No. But as do several campaigns urging India to cheer the national contingent, it features a good share of our sportswomen. (Fifty two of the 119 athletes in the Indian contingent at Tokyo are women.)

MPL (gaming platform Mobile Premier League) put forth a #FanBannJaaoge proposition, giving us brief glimpses into the paths of stars representing India at Tokyo. All but one featured was a female athlete.

Mirabai Chanu competing during in the Women’s 49 kg Group A

Mirabai Chanu competing during in the Women’s 49 kg Group A   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Mirabai’s meal, Lovlina’s road home

There is a lot of action with hashtags sans film on social media, but hardly anything has made an impact. Within integrated campaigns with films, the majority have played on patriotism. Very few have managed to delve into the lives and minds of the athletes.

Beyond women athletes, who, in fact, find more screen time and are in general more sought after by brands (except in cricket), there is a larger factor at work — the divide between winners and the rest. One of the reasons for the lack of storytelling is brands trying to ride with the stars and play safe. Celebrity management firms are tasked with identifying the winners ahead of the Olympics, which is a big ask even if one has been tracking individual athletes’ progress regularly. Some of the managers, I am told, were in the Northeast seeking out the Chanus’ modest home before the first medal winner, weightlifter Mirabai, could return. Images of the Silver medalist’s family meal went viral soon after she won. Could that have happened prior?

Elsewhere in the region, the local MLA called the father of Lovlina Borgohain, representing India in boxing at the Tokyo Games. The Public Works Department is ensuring that the road to their home is rendered motorable in time for her return because she is assured of a Bronze. So it’s not just advertisers, we in India have a bias for winners.

Lovlina Borgohain celebrates her victory over Nien Chin Chen of Taiwan

Lovlina Borgohain celebrates her victory over Nien Chin Chen of Taiwan   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

But even if an athlete does not win, you still have a story. And the story of an Olympic dream is quite powerful by itself. If someone had hunted these stories down before the Games, the brands that told them would have been far richer in terms of RoI.

Trending like Sindhu

PV Sindhu has become the first Indian woman to win two individual Olympic medals, also only the second Indian athlete to do so (wrestler Sushil Kumar is the other). There is no dearth of endorsements in her kitty, but which are the ones that come across as having truly partnered with her?

Gatorade signed her on in 2017 and the relationship went beyond acting in commercials. She went to the brand’s facilities and they tested her sweat to help arrive at the right rehydration for the star. It was clearly a long-term vision. The badminton ace had already won a Silver at the Rio Olympics and was a star, but the brand egged her (and her fans) on, in the #SweatMore work by Wunderman Thompson (2017). After she struck Gold at the World Championships 2019, they chronicled her #SweatForGold journey.

After her 2021 Olympics Bronze win, when a fan tweeted asking for Sindhu to be given a Thar, Anand Mahindra replied: “She already has one in her garage.” It was gifted much earlier.

Screengrab from P&G’s #LeadWithLove campaign

Screengrab from P&G’s #LeadWithLove campaign  

Lessons from around the world

Two international pieces of advertising for Olympics 2020 offer some pointers as to how advertisers could engage with our Olympians, men and women, medal winners and also those who have trained all their lives to bring the nation glory.

The first comes from P&G, where a sustained campaign allowed it, in a sense, to own the Olympics. With #LeadWithLove, it followed up with a series of profiles on some special athletes, the ones who were shining beyond the arena with their actions. From Scout Bassett, a disabled Paralympics athlete, dedicating herself for those like her, to Tom Daley, a gay athlete, speaking up for the sake of those like him, to Allyson Felix, an athlete of colour, turning advocate for health issues in women of colour during pregnancy. Waking up a month before could not have delivered the impact some of these did.

But the piece of work that took one’s breath away was #StrongerTogether, which underlined the spirit of the Olympic Games. It was from brand Olympics, but advertising on a theme like saluting the spirit of the Games could have come from anywhere. The film looks at what makes the Olympics special, through the eyes of athletes over the years — from 100-year old Olympics gymnastics veteran Agnes Keleti to 13 year-old debutante, skateboarder Sky Brown.

The Olympics is perhaps the only sporting arena where, despite its commercialisation and expansion, the spirit of the Games stands tall. And that spirit goes way beyond medal-winning. If brands look beyond, they could well strike gold.

The writer is an independent content consultant and founder-curator of

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 10:25:42 PM |

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