In villages across Punjab and Kerala, it seems every other house has sent someone overseas. Those remaining have their own escape routes, often with dreams of being star footballers, cricketers or hockey players.
Marketing officials at Western Union Money Transfer noticed the trends—and married them in an innovative effort to spread brand awareness.
The company is sponsoring sports leagues and tournaments in India and abroad, from a recent kabaddi faceoff in Germany to soccer leagues in Kerala and West Asia.
Three years ago, Western Union began sponsorship of two clubs in the inaugural Premier Hockey League in a hockey-mad Punjab that sends workers across the world, including contract farmers in Italy.
“Today, we have 78% brand awareness, and our visibility in Punjab has definitely contributed to this,” says Suvodeep Das, Western Union’s South Asia marketing director.
Encouraged by what it saw in Punjab, the US-based company turned to football in Kerala, a state known for its passionate fans—and the largest pool of unskilled and semi-skilled workers to oil-rich West Asia.
While Punjab and Kerala are “large source of migrants,” according to Das, Western Union has begun holding localized sporting events in other migrant hubs as well.
For instance, at Dewa Sharif near Lucknow, it has been sponsoring a hockey tournament during a religious ceremony for the last two years. The reason: large numbers of unskilled workers from Uttar Pradesh are joining their counterparts in Kerala for jobs in the Gulf.
Western Union is now scoping out other markets such as Kolkata, says Mahesh Ranka, general manager of Relay Worldwide, the sports management firm that handles its sports initiatives.
“The business of sports is here for the brands to take,” Ranaka said.
Neither Western Union nor the sports firm would disclose the amounts of its investments in sports, nor the size of its India business.
India has become a priority market for Western Union, where it now boasts 40,000 agent locations, compared to only 3,000 six years ago.
India ranks as the highest recipient of remittances worldwide: $23.4 billion (Rs95,940 crore), accounting for one-tenth of global remittances in 2006, according to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospect Report. The Reserve Bank of India puts the figure higher, at $26.9 billion.
Remittances from overseas Indians have grown steadily over the past 15 years, and “dramatically in the past 10,” notes Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit think tank in the US dedicated to the study of movement of people worldwide.
In a May 2007 report titled “The Phenomenal Rise in Remittances to India: A Closer Look”, Chishti says this source of overseas earnings represented 3.1% of the GDP, a sharp rise from the 0.7% in 1990-91, when India began liberalizing its economic policy.
Last year, the Kerala government estimated the amount that the state received from expatriates at $4 billion.
Chishti says there were four factors behind the trend: shifting of immigration patterns to high-skilled technical jobs, greater competition in the money transfer market, India’s booming economy, and perhaps most important for players such as Western Union—the diminishing role of unofficial channels.
The hockey league in Punjab—a property created jointly by sports broadcaster ESPN, the Indian Hockey Federation and sports marketer Leisure Sports Management—today comprises seven teams drawn from top Indian and overseas players, creating the hottest hockey tournament in the country.
While the inaugural edition was held in Hyderabad, the last two tournaments were in Chandigarh, drawing up to 25,000 spectators, giving Western Union instant visibility in a most sought-after market.
“It was phenomenal, even Ranji matches featuring our top stars do not attract such crowds,” says an official at ESPN, referring to one of India’s leading domestic cricket tournaments.
Increasing Western Union’s presence in Punjab is its backing of two state teams—the Sher-e-Jalandhar and the Chandigarh Dynamos. Both teams, with huge fan followings, have the words “Western Union“ prefixed to their respective names.
Before the tournaments kicked off, Western Union led a “blessing parade” to Amritsar, with players seeking blessings at the Golden Temple. The parade and the company name were widely covered in the local media.
Today, there are over 5,500 Western Union agent locations in Punjab, its largest concentration in India. “It’s definitely the largest remittance market,” says marketing director Das.
Punjab ensures high value and high volumes of business for Western Union, says Ranka of Relay Worldwide.
Business from Kerala, while of high volume, is generally of low value. There, the firm has over 2,500 agent locations.
It has now tied up with the Kerala Football Association to sponsor three tournaments this year: the Kerala Premier Football League featuring the top state clubs, the Kerala State Championship between the district teams, and an inter-college tournament. As it did with the two Punjab clubs, in Kerala, too, all three tournaments bear the Western Union name.
Das says the initiative was logical: football still remains a grass roots sport in Kerala.
Association secretary K.P. Sunny declined to reveal the sponsorship amount, but added the contract would be renewed every year. “So far the commitment is for one year, but we think more tournaments will be added,” he says.
Western Union also planned to sponsor the Qila Raipur Rural Olympics, a three-day sports festival held every February that sees kabaddi and tug-of-war teams from as far away as the UK, the US and Canada, competing against local teams, as well as trained bullocks, camels, dogs and mules participating in various races; the company backed out last year after animal rights activists protested.