Brands team up with athletes in bid to broaden appeal

Brands use sports and the struggle of becoming an athlete to convey their message

A still from apparel brand YWC’s YouTube ad.
A still from apparel brand YWC’s YouTube ad.

Mumbai: The film begins at the crack of dawn. Tones of grey fill the screen and capture the life of a para-athlete, struggling against the odds to make his dreams come true. “The sport is unforgiving, the ground is not softer, the struggle is no less… But why is the applause falling short?” asks the film, JeetKaHalla, from IndusInd Bank, as it highlights the past achievements of Indian para-athletes at the Paralympics.

The film calls on people to support their para-athletes as they compete for India at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, which started on 7 September.

It’s probably the first time the brand has done a campaign that does not talk about its products. The bank’s campaigns, so far, have focused on products, banking, and simplifying the consumer’s life.

“It may seem like banking has nothing to do with sports. But as a bank, we are linked to the community and this is our way of giving back through our corporate social responsibility programme,” said Anil Ramachandran, head of marketing, corporate communications and retail (unsecured assets) at IndusInd Bank, which is supporting 18 Indian para-athletes as part of its CSR programme, IndusInd For Sport.

Interestingly, IndusInd Bank isn’t the only one making that argument. The rush of ads that started last month highlighting the grit and determination of our athletes in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, continues as an increasing number of brands use sports and the struggle of becoming an athlete as a theme to convey their brand message.

The latest ad for cricketer Yuvraj Singh’s apparel brand YWC narrates the story of Singh who returned to cricket after a successful battle with cancer.

“No one said life would be easy, it will throw you around, put you down, punch you where it hurts, and beat you senseless. But you always have to get up and do it again...” says the film.

The ad for Cinthol Deodrant for women titled #ReadyForAwesome also showcases young women, training hard, pushing themselves to achieve their best as they fight stereotypes. No reference to body odour here or the product’s ability to make the opposite sex swoon.

Dove, the soap and haircare brand from Hindustan Unilever Ltd, through its film “Is that you?” turns the rhyme, “chubby cheeks, dimpled chin” on its head, as the film shows young girls, playing sport, competing hard and slaying the competition as they go against all odds to pursue their dreams.

Even earlier, as a run-up to the Rio Olympics, Good Morning Films made an ad featuring Saina Nehwal for ITC’s Savlon, describing her battle against naysayers; Edelweiss had an Olympic anthem (“I am Team India”) and Tata Salt had “namak ke waastey” with boxer Shiva Thapa and wrestler Babita Kumari. Steel and energy conglomerate JSW got one done for its sports excellence programme which supported 12 of the athletes competing in Rio.

While it may be perfectly natural for certain categories such as nutritional supplements, sports equipment or apparel manufacturers to use sports as a theme, other categories are also joining the mix with campaigns that use keywords, phrases or images related to sports.

“Jumping on the bandwagon has always been a tactical advertising trend,” says K.V. Sridhar, chief creative officer, SapientNitro India, pointing to instances where advertisers have chosen to work with anything topical, typically themes that are driving consumer conversations, and range from the weather, festivals, the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat campaign to sporting events such as the Olympics.

However, using topical hooks, experts say, could work both ways for a brand. For the right brands, it can help, but it can also land the brand in the clutter. For instance, practically all the ads featuring these themes are shot in documentary style and highlight the struggle an athlete has to go through to achieve his or her dreams.

“When brands and agencies follow these champions to say their stories, the visual narrative too hardly differs. The tones, the shots, the grime, the style—because you can’t really replace aesthetics and special effects to rule over the harshness and reality of human effort,” said Prathap Suthan, managing partner and chief creative officer at the agency Bang in the Middle.

Filmmaker Vasan Bala, who directed the JSW ad, said: “It’s only once you reach the pinnacle of success that humour creeps into your messaging. It’s easy for first world countries such as America to put out messaging that is high on humour. For a country like India, which has been the underdog, the messages revolve around aspiration, grit and determination.”

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