Bowled out

Brand Dhoni is super big business but is Mahi overstretched?

There is a boy. We run for cover to shield our bones when we bowl at him in the nets,” Arun Pandey would come back from a cricket camp with this story to tell his Lodhi Colony roomies in Delhi. The year was 1999. Indian cricket fans had been cruelly disappointed at the World Cup yet again. Pandey recalls his friends laughing in disbelief, clueless that the hard-hitting ‘boy’— the 18-year-old Mahendra Singh Dhoni — was to magnificently end the nation’s despair just two World Cups later.

 The small-town superman did it in style, lining up the best of trophies back home in Ranchi. Great riches followed. In the finest tradition of contemporary sporting culture, endorsements earned him an estimated Rs.150 crore from June 2011 to June 2012. Forbes ranked him 31st in its list of the world’s highest paid athletes, which covered 100 sportspersons from 11 sports for the first time, and included Usain Bolt, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tiger Woods. The only other Indian on the list was Sachin Tendulkar, who came in at 78 — he endorses 24 products versus Brand Dhoni’s 20 (it was 28 two years ago). ‘Mahi’ rules everywhere. He helps sell, among other things, Ashok Leyland trucks, Reebok shoes, Orient fans, Maxx cellphones, Gulf oil, Sonata watches and Amrapali homes. And, oh, he likes Lays chips and drinks Pepsi. Dhoni is a super brand. 

Pandey, Dhoni’s Ranji buddy and founder of Rhiti Sports Management, which fronts Dhoni’s off-pitch persona, spins it a little differently. “Perhaps the concept of a brand is more suitable for Europe,” he says. “Indians have icons. We become emotionally attached to them.” No kidding. At SportsFit by MSD (short for MS Dhoni, of course), a swanky gym chain opened by said icon, Dhoni has taken an undisclosed majority stake instead of a licence fee.

His presence is much larger than life at its branches in Delhi, Gurgaon, Faridabad and Mohali — there are full-wall pictures of Mahi running, boxing and, erm, sweating. Perspiration, did we say? The MSD line of ‘international’ perfumes and deodorants has had that covered since August. Then there’s the $50,000 Mahi Superbike Championship Team, which Dhoni launched at the first FIM World Superbike Championship in November. Pandey is elated with a podium finish in the very first year, and claims he already has 10 sponsors lined up, which will deliver returns. 

Currently, Dhoni is said to charge Rs.30-40 crore per three-year endorsement. In July 2010, Rhiti Sports signed him for three years with an earnings guarantee of Rs.210 crore. The company says this — the highest deal ever signed by any Indian sportsperson — was an attempt to double or treble Dhoni’s brand value and send out the message that Brand Dhoni was highly sought after. In fact, “Indians are very conservative about self-branding and it’s good to see Dhoni breaking that mould,” points out Shailendra Singh, joint managing director, Percept, a media and communications company.

“Sportspersons abroad are far more evolved when it comes to branding and a successful association can ensure a lifelong income.” For instance, American boxer George Foreman has sold over 100 million eponymous grills across the globe while Lacoste T-shirts, branded by the French tennis player of the 1930s, are still popular. Singh is surprised that it took Dhoni so long to organise his branding agenda — the Indian cricket captain is no newbie to the game and he’s running out of time (most observers feel Dhoni may not play after the 2015 World Cup).

Spread too thin?

Impressive as it looks, some industry watchers are nonplussed because Brand Dhoni is a juggernaut that encompasses a jarring spectrum of products — he has Pepsi and Sony on the one end and Lafarge (cement) and Orient (fans) on the other. “Proper fitment and screening was missing in his decisions,” feels Singh.

There are two reasons for this grab-all-you-can strategy: companies in India don’t pay as much as celebs are paid overseas and unlike Bollywood heroes, who have a longer shelf life, most sportspersons are only as good as their last win. “A cricketer’s popularity is like the Sensex: down today, up tomorrow,” smiles Pandey, agreeing that a cricketer’s performance on the pitch has a bearing on his endorsement rate. 

Even while the going is good, Kiran Khalap, co-founder, Chlorophyll Brand Communications, advises selective brand associations for emotive and practical reasons. “Upmarket and expensive positioning may not work,” he thinks, and adds, “Dhoni must back brands that reflect the values he represents.” Dhoni remains, to most Indians, a savvy boy from the boondocks who worked hard and made it big. He is talented, reliable and essentially middle class. 

Perfumes do not fit this picture. “Perfumes need extreme upmarket [read: suave and stylish] positioning whereas Dhoni’s overall mass image and ruggedness maybe a dampener,” points out Percept’s Singh. Which does not mean Dhoni should try to sell innerwear like David Beckham. Pandey concurs. “[Innerwear] companies have been offering us a mindboggling two-three times the money [for endorsement], but we always say no,” he reveals. 

Icons also age. “When we signed on Dhoni, he was the new captain of the Indian cricket team and he was fast becoming a youth icon,” remembers Anupam Vasudev, CMO, Aircel. “At that time, Aircel too was an upcoming player in the telecom space.” Vasudev is too circumspect to hint that Dhoni is ageing but the mobile operator has already signed up other, younger celebs such as Tamil actor Dhanush and boxing sensation Mary Kom. 

Should the fall in the number of Dhoni’s endorsements, down to 20 from the peak of 28 in the run-up to the World Cup, be seen as diminishing popularity? “The strategy was very clear while I was around — fewer brands, more money,” reasons Sangeet Shirodkar, director, Off Spin Sports Management, who was managing Dhoni alongside Pandey two years ago. Pandey has more numbers handy: “About 90% of endorsements have been renewed during last one year, and he has signed four or five more.” But he won’t give the details of the contracts. Nevertheless, Shirodkar feels Dhoni has maxed out: “He can’t charge more from companies when he is already charging Rs.10 crore per endorsement per year.” 

Dhoni’s USP will remain his spectacularly unprecedented achievements. He has already led India to two World Cups (both in ODI and T20), and to the ranking of the No.1 test team in the world. Shirodkar is convinced: “He is in the same league as Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar. Dev, even 29 years after lifting the World Cup, has six or seven brands in his kitty.” But Dhoni, like all high-performing, closely-watched celebs answerable to fickle and demanding audiences, may not be able to create the immortal and perpetually lucrative brand he would like to be. Branding, like fame, comes with an expiry date.