When money means Dhoni...

Dhoni at an ad shoot... the wellspring of money.-PHOTO: K. R. DEEPAK

The ascent of Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the corporate world's rising advertising budgets comes as no surprise. It is an apt reflection of the man's rise to stardom from the dusty bylanes of Ranchi. A journey that hinged on the old-fashioned methods of sweat, hard work and a sharp brain is now reaping the benefits of corporate largesse, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

In a week of surprises, Mahendra Singh Dhoni got married and snapped up a whopping wedding gift — a Rs. 210-crore deal for endorsements spread over three years. As Dhoni signed up with Rhiti Sports Management and Mindscapes One to handle his brand associations, the Indian skipper extended his numero uno status in advertising sweepstakes.

Sachin Tendulkar was at the earlier peak of Rs.180 crore, managed by Iconix for a period of three years from 2006, but over the years India's ‘Captain Cool' had emerged as the most valued sportsperson for companies desperate to leverage their products.

Be it an energy drink, a fuel brand, a bike or a telecom service provider, Dhoni has lent his mighty presence in ad spots that also showed him to be a man at ease in front of the camera, just like he is near the stumps.

The ascent of Dhoni in the corporate world's rising advertising budgets comes as no surprise. It is an apt reflection of the man's rise to stardom from the dusty bylanes of Ranchi. A journey that hinged on the old-fashioned methods of sweat, hard work and a sharp brain is now reaping the benefits of corporate largesse. Dhoni's synergy with brand executives is a reflection of the times we live in. A liberalised environment with a surfeit of products jostling for space often forces advertising executives to whisper those ‘magic words' — ‘get a celebrity to enhance brand-recall'.

The celebrities inevitably emerge from India's twin obsessions — celluloid and cricket. And as a feverish fan base quivers with excitement, actors and cricketers prove to be the messiahs of consumerist messages as they goad us from banners and television spots to get a ‘better life'.

Hockey may be the National sport and kabbadi and football may have their share of the sun on desolate fields, but when it comes to loosening an Indian's purse strings, cricketers do have the power to lighten wallets. Remember ‘Palmolive da jawab nahin', the catchline of a shaving cream plugged by India's greatest allrounder Kapil Dev? Or Sunil Gavaskar looking dapper in Dinesh Suitings. Or Dilip Vengsarkar and K. Srikkanth highlighting the value of TVS tyres?

Subsequently, Tendulkar assumed the mantle of waving the magic wand while we tucked into the 9 p.m. news and live sports on the idiot box. Dhoni is just continuing a tradition and at 29, he surely has many more years to pouch catches, hit breezy sixes, lead India to greater glory and influence a generation's choices ranging from watches to chips.

From being a breaker of window panes in Jharkhand with his beefy strikes, Dhoni, then sporting a long mane, emerged as someone who connected with the elemental fan residing within every cricket lover. ‘See-the-ball-will-hit' is a philosophy that is intrinsic to street cricket despite the stringent rules of one-bounce catches and almost every Indian has wielded a bat in his or her neighbouring gully.

The likes of Dhoni and Virender Sehwag, who wade into any attack with gusto, stir up many childhood memories that reside in an Indian's sub-conscious mind. A connect is made to the eager fans and with Dhoni being a successful batsman, wicket-keeper and skipper, all rolled into one, a larger-than-life halo is well and truly his to savour.

Dhoni also has a certain boy-next-door charm and offers hope to the millions of small-town men and women who migrate from places as diverse as Ludhiana, Tirunelveli and Raipur to the big cities. The struggling individual dreaming about a better tomorrow finds Dhoni inspirational. No wonder that ‘Big Bazaar' used Dhoni to increase foot-falls in its sprawling shopping malls or Titan relies on him to add value to its mass brand — Sonata.

To his credit, Dhoni has remained level-headed and reflects a no-fuss demeanour on the field. “There is pressure in each and every game and since you are playing for the country, there will be criticism as well as praise. It is part of the game,” Dhoni recently said. He may be wary of what appears in the press, but has retained his sense of humour.

During the Asia Cup at Dambulla in Sri Lanka in June, sports writers were surprised when they trooped in for a press conference. A relaxed Dhoni sat outside, goading the journalists to write their names and organisation details on the registration form. “Let me read the press release first and get prepared for your questions,” he quipped and then bantered about a cycle-ride down the mountains.

Dhoni too has helped his cause as he melded his batting frenzy with situation-induced-caution besides continuing as a safe wicketkeeper and shrewd captain. His figures — 43 Tests, 2428 runs, 113 catches, 20 stumpings; 166 ODIs, 5593 runs, 164 catches, 53 stumpings — along with timely contributions in the Twenty20 format, have ensured that he is one of the first names scribbled in during any selection meeting since his International debut in 2004.

He has also shimmered in his skipper's role and enjoyed a huge fillip on September 24, 2007 when he led a motley bunch and defeated Pakistan by five runs to clinch the ICC World Twenty20 Cup in Johannesburg. India's subsequent rise to being the number one Test team has only enhanced his stature.

In the Indian Premier League too, he has led Chennai Super Kings with aplomb and guided it to a title triumph in the last edition.

The blips of India's failures in the latest ICC World Twenty20 Cup in the West Indies and in the earlier Champions Trophy, remain sobering points in an otherwise glittering resume of the Indian captain. Whispers of alleged differences with Sehwag or the tabloid tales about his friendships with the acting fraternity have also not impacted his brand equity.

Dhoni currently has 22 brands riding piggyback on him and the numbers are bound to swell.

He has also gone well beyond his peers, who in fact made their international forays ahead of him — Sehwag (1999), Harbhajan Singh (1998), Zaheer Khan (2000) and Yuvraj Singh (2000). Even in the field of wicketkeeping, his immediate rivals, Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel, have not exactly set the turf on fire. And with Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman in their twilight phase, Dhoni will be the oarsman who will guide India's fortunes in the years ahead.

However, he needs to guard himself against corporate ruthlessness. For instance in 2003 when the selectors axed Laxman and plumped for Dinesh Mongia in India's World Cup squad, a soft drink major had no qualms in cutting out Laxman's visage from the promotional banners! In a cash-driven endorsement world that revolves around success on the field, the mantra would be ‘perform or perish.' The player-agent-corporate equation need not always be a cynical one though and a case in point is the warm vibes that Tendulkar shared with the late Mark Mascarenhas during Worldtel's heyday.

The latest deal would also mean that Dhoni might suffer a bout of over-exposure while selling multiple brands. Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of Brand-Comm, pointed this out. “With the kind of deal that he has signed, it is but natural that companies will try and extract their money's worth from Dhoni. He is bound to feature in many more advertisements and consumers might at times get confused. Brand-differentiation might get difficult and that's where the creative directors have to step in with fresh scripts for Dhoni. Let us also remember that Dhoni isn't Aamir Khan who, with his different acting styles, is able to highlight a brand's individuality. In 2003 when Tendulkar was all over the place, most consumers linked him with the TVS Victor bike, while forgetting the other brands he promoted. So making Dhoni sell multiple products is going to be a challenge for advertising agencies,” Sridhar said.

Captaincy saddles and team compositions have a four-year cycle that coincides with the World Cup. With the event looming large early next year, Dhoni would be well advised to be aware of the pitfalls that will crop up if the ‘Men in Blue' crash out with an insipid show. The same hands that have reached out with bouquets now, might well be the ones that hurl stones. But for now, ‘Brand Dhoni' is here to stay.

* * * The money spinners

M.S. Dhoni's climb atop the totem pole in terms of success and money has been spectacular. A few of Dhoni's illustrious peers are also part of the mega-bucks brigade. A sneak peek...

Sachin Tendulkar: The maestro rakes in an annual earning of $8 million (Rs. 37 crore) and he was the first Indian cricketer to touch the stratosphere of big money and brighter visibility. Dhoni may have pipped him now, but Tendulkar remains the favourite idol of cricketing fans. His aura remains undiminished.

Yuvraj Singh: The southpaw, with a blistering blade that once clattered six sixes off a Stuart Broad over, is a flamboyant presence. His forays into Tests may have been sporadic but his exploits in the shorter formats have ensured that he takes home $5.5 million (Rs. 25.7 crore) every year.

Rahul Dravid: The man, who has carved a niche for himself despite Tendulkar's giant shadow, is another eternal favourite with advertisers. He remains the thinking woman's favourite and his erudition and depth of knowledge set him apart. Besides his classics at the crease, he is also a safe catcher and earns around $5 million (Rs. 23.1 crore) per year.