Home > industry > Game Plan | Luxury brands bet on sport to market products

Actor Julia Roberts, dressed in a brown polka dot dress, sips delicately on champagne as uniformed waiters, armed with platters of gourmet canapés, do the rounds of the elite gathering at a corporate polo match. Two decades later, the iconic scene from the 1990s’ Hollywood blockbuster, Pretty Woman, is still an inspiration of sorts for Brandon de Souza, managing director and chief executive of Tiger Sports Marketing Pvt. Ltd.

De Souza’s aim is to try and recreate the level of sophistication, luxury and exclusivity portrayed in the scene in the company’s own events, especially those sponsored by luxury houses, which are increasingly looking to elite sports such as golf, polo, motor sports and properties such as boat shows to create a buzz around their brands.

Artful marketing: Like other luxury watch brands, TAG Heuer has tapped into polo—considered a heritage sport in India

Beyond some serious club work on the perfectly manicured greens, the participants also enjoyed being pampered off it. They were treated to exquisite food, champagne, foot massages, the works.

The evening closed with an interaction with TAG Heuer brand ambassador and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, the launch of a new collection and dinner at the Orient Express at the Taj Palace in New Delhi.

The luxury watch brand is attempting a repeat of the perfectly orchestrated hospitality and brand experience of the golf tournament at the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 matches. The brand is supporting Khan’s team, the Kolkata Knight Riders, with TAG Heuer lounges.

It may seem a bit of a contradiction for an elitist luxury brand from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to sign a sponsorship deal in cricket—a sport with a mass following in India—but the shortest version of the game is set apart by its glitz factor.

“There are two religions in this country—one is Bollywood and the other is cricket. We always wanted to be in cricket and, with the IPL format, it looks like we have found the right platform. The game is likely to have a high celebrity and glamour quotient," says Manishi Sanwal, general manager, LVMH Watch and Jewellery India Pvt. Ltd.

The TAG Heuer lounges at the IPL matches have on offer premium experiences, including interaction with players, hosting the team’s celebrity guests and familiarizing target audiences with new product ranges.

TAG Heuer also has a presence in sports that are traditionally considered elite. Much like other luxury watch brands, such as Omega and Rolex, the Swiss watchmaker has tapped into polo—considered a heritage sport in India. The brand is currently the official timekeeper for the Indian Polo Association.

Fine jewellery and watch brand Cartier S.A., too, is a keen promoter of polo internationally, and even sponsored an elephant polo tournament in Jaipur in 2006.

Other luxury and premium brands, such as DLF Ltd and Emaar MGF Land Pvt. Ltd, have invested heavily in elite sporting events such as golf to promote their residential and commercial properties in the luxury segment.

Then there are events that are almost certain to attract only high networth individuals. For instance, the Mumbai International Boat Show, launched in 2007, is already sailing through with sponsorships from premium and luxury brands for the 2009 show.

Beyond luxury brands in the boating and allied categories, the show is likely to land sponsors such as the LVMH Group, Tommy Hilfiger, Rolex and Bentley, among others.

The trend is poised to take off in a big way, say experts, as luxury brands find an increasing number of takers in India. Over the last few years, India has emerged as one of the most sought-after markets for luxury brands.

A study conducted by consulting firm AT Kearney showed the luxury market in India, pegged at $4.34 billion in 2006, is likely to touch $14.34 billion in 2010 and $30 billion in 2015.

“This is a natural result of the overall economic boom reflected here. Even the scale of events has been catapulted to levels that we have never seen before, and cricket is a good example of that," says Alex Kuruvilla, managing director, Conde Nast India Pvt. Ltd.

However, luxury brands face problems such as the absence of appropriate platforms—that are heavily relied on in more mature markets—in India.

“Unlike more mature markets—which offer red carpet events, charity balls or art auctions—India has few events or platforms that could be seen as a natural fit for luxury brands," says Backstage Productions Pvt. Ltd managing director Vandana Mohan, who was responsible for organizing the high-voltage launches for brands such as Vogue and Gucci in India.

Internationally, events such as the Oscars or the Cannes Film Festival lend themselves to associations with luxury brands as they offer opportunities for gifting, celebrity dressing and sponsorships.

The absence of appropriate properties to partner with means that luxury brands have to do things a little differently in India. While most marketing budgets are skewed towards advertising in fashion glossies and in-store events, brands are looking to build relationships through direct mailers, personalized services and, more recently, investment in sporting events that are emerging as hotbeds for the growing number of high networth individuals.

Zaha Hadid’s mobile art pavilion. Around two years ago, French fashion house Chanel hired the Pritzker Prize-winner to build a travelling museum that would hold works by 20 artists from across the world.

Sponsorship provides a tool for bringing the truly memorable experience of the luxury brand to the luxury consumer. Experts say that elite sporting events such as golf offer the perfect opportunity to do just that. “It offers the brand a chance to be part of the experience, where consumers participate and play alongside some of the best names in the sport," de Souza says.

No surprise, then, that over the last few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of golf tournaments in the country, with an ever-increasing number of sponsors.

But the most visible contribution has been in women’s golf. “Ten years ago, women’s golf didn’t really exist. However, it is a drastically different story today. In the last year and a half, there have been 20 women’s events with a total prize money of Rs2.5 crore," says Rishi Narain, managing director, Rishi Narain Golf Management Pvt. Ltd. “This makes golf the richest women’s sport in India."

However, some believe that luxury brands need to focus on capturing critical mass before they begin organizing or sponsoring major events.

“It really is a catch-22 situation," says Tarun Joshi, managing director, Brandhouse Retail Ltd, which has brought brands such as Escada and Dunhill to India. “On (the) one hand, luxury brands need to establish a strong retail presence before they launch into events and, on the other, they need to create awareness about their brands to grow in a diverse and fragmented market like India."

However, brand owners are hopeful the situation will improve following the roll-out of luxury malls in India. DLF’s Emporio luxury mall in Delhi and the UB Group’s UB City luxury mall in Bangalore are due to open this year.

“With the expansion of retail presence, we are likely to see more activity in this area (launches, events, marketing efforts)," says Shantanu Mukerji, general manager, Ermenegildo Zegna South Asia Pvt. Ltd. “Eventually, events will get formed around the availability of sponsors."

And the trend is not restricted to traditional events. Worldwide, apart from A-list events and sports, luxury brands are also using art, and even architecture, to attract audiences.

Prada S.p.A, for example, is known for creating destination stores that serve as talking points for the brand. Around two years ago, French fashion house Chanel hired Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid to build a travelling museum that would hold works by 20 celebrated artists from across the globe. Each of the works featured in the mobile art pavilion is inspired by the quilted 2.55?bag—launched by Coco Chanel in 1955.

But some say that perhaps shedding some of the elitism may be a better long-term bet. Experts say that there are several areas, such as social corporate responsibility, that luxury houses could use to create more awareness and affiliation for their brands in India.

“Given Indian disparity levels, luxury brands should adopt such mediums (social corporate responsibility-related lifestyle activities that are seriously adopted in mature markets) as this sends (an) encouraging message—that they care about their local market’s social economical situation, and are not just present to market to the affluent and high networth individuals sets," says Devyani Raman, chief executive of Leading Brands of the World and chief executive of the Luxury Marketing Council, India. “This lends to their brand character."

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