Friday, November 20, 2009

The ego trip of a changing nation By Santosh Desai

SANTOSH DESAI: A man of many parts, Desai has led one of the country’s leading advertising agencies, is a brand guru and renowned columnist with an incisive take on whatever catches his fancy. Sachin, we were sure, couldn’t have escaped his attention

Two decades ago, India’s nascent commercial world found a hero who was easy to relate to and impossible to put down. Sachin became the engine that drove an economic renaissance in cricket, playing the multiplier effect in a sport that had previously not known money

To speak of Sachin as a brand is vaguely disrespectful, for somehow that description shrivels up all that he represents into something crusty and commercial, as if all his achievements are somehow a marketing contrivance, or a public relations sleight of hand that allows him to make more money. But then brands, particularly iconic ones, are not about marketing at all. An iconic brand does much more than perform excellently or help sell prodigiously; it reaches out and connects with something deep, vital and important in our lives. Iconic brands tell us stories we don’t even know we want to hear. The money that gets made is almost incidental — it is one currency in which we pay tribute to the power of the idea.

The reason why Sachin as a brand is much more than commerce lies in the role Sachin has played in our lives and indeed in the times we have lived in. The 20 years that he has been around coincide more or less with the story of India’s economic reforms. During these two decades, we have seen a substantial re-scaling of our imagination, economic standing as well as those of our anxieties. Sachin has been a key ingredient in this journey of ours as we have moved from a tentative player on the fringes of the world stage to being self-confident, sometimes brash mainstream participants.

Sachin has been a device instrumental in helping us re-scale our view of ourselves and the world we live in. In 1989, India had just kicked off it’s first round of economic reforms and was full of self-doubt. We had few heroes and fewer benchmarks that reassured us about our place in the world. It is ironic that our fragile sense of self should have rested on the improbable shoulders of a squeaky-voiced teenager who wielded a bat and played a game followed in only eight countries in the world. But looking back, it is clear that our burgeoning sense of ourselves as a significant nation came at least in part from this very unlikely source.

Sachin came in as a baby-faced teenager and rapidly developed into a powerful force in world cricket, and helped carry us from being perpetual good losers to often being dominant winners. If Sunil Gavaskar told us that we could be world-class and face down any challenges that were thrown our way, no matter how fearsome, Sachin showed the world that we could, for the first time, be feared. Sachin destroyed bowling attacks, and did so without effort, venom or guile. For viewers, the headiness of being on the right side of these traits was incredibly sweet. Sachin reigned in the collective imagination of India because he made us feel like we never had before. And he did so in a manner we could embrace and indeed feel elevated by. Sachin’s aggression was an expression of purity rather than anger; his resolve an inner drive for perfection rather than a stolid attempt to cope. Sachin represented a new side to India, and we idolised him for making us believe that this was possible.

No wonder the commercial world embraced him. For in Sachin, they found a hero who combined the qualities of being easy to relate to, thrilling to watch and impossible to put down. Television was just taking off and Sachin became the engine that drove an economic renaissance in cricket. When the late Mark Mascarenhas signed him on for a Rs 27 crore deal, it forever changed the scale at which Indian cricket and indeed Indian commerce pitched itself. To give you some perspective, the rights for the 1987 World Cup were sold for Rs 72 lakh. When Mascarenhas bid Rs 36 crore for the 1996 World Cup, it caused a sensation. Compare that to the hundreds of crores that are now spoken of so casually. How critical a role Sachin played in creating the kind of mass followership that the game developed in the last few years is perhaps not adeqautely recognised. India froze frame when Sachin batted, with everything coming to a standstill. Of course, the team was important but there was no doubt about who the people came to watch. Viewership routinely dropped off when he got out, such was the obvious thrall in which he was held.

Along with re-scaling the commercial value of cricket as a sport, Sachin multiplied the value of the celebrity endorser as an idea. Along with Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, Sachin was part of the trinity that helped make celebrity endorsement a virtual necessity for any brand with significant ambition. Before Sachin, cricketers always played second fiddle to film stars, something that has changed since, going by the number of endorsement deals that Mahendra Singh Dhoni has signed. If you think back on endorsements signed by past cricketers, there isn’t very much that is memorable apart from Kapil Dev’s Palmolive or Sunil Gavaskar’s Dinesh Suitings deals.

As the evening shadows lengthen on Sachin’s cricketing career, the endorsement deals have begun to thin out. This is partly a natural order of things and partly a reflection of the marketing anxiety to be current. But then endorsements are a small part of the power of Brand Sachin. Even now, we recognise the hold he has over our psyche, particularly in the venom with which some of us vent our occasional frustration with him. By expecting him to perform like a God every time he walks in to bat, we reveal the place he occupies in our mind. In some ironic way, the more we curse Sachin Tendulkar when he fails, the more we betray our need for him.

Sachin has helped us cross a hump in our imagination, he has carried us over the threshold of self-belief, but clearly there is much more to be done. Cricket will not be the same when Sachin decides to retire, although that possibility is thankfully still some years away. More importantly, we will not be the same without having Sachin to believe in.

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