Exclusive Precious Lessons in Branding

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Our guest author believes brand custodians have a lot to learn from the English Premier League’s popularity in India.

The English Premier League (EPL) kicks off this month. While it has been telecast in India for a while now; there are some very interesting nuances in its rise and creation of a fiercely fanatical following, which should inform and inspire brand custodians everywhere.

The counterargument frequently offered by ‘number-centred’ decision-makers is-the eyeballs don’t quite add up (as much as they should); especially in comparison with cricket. But what often gets missed out is the nature of the audience or fans in question-many being opinion leaders in their own circles. Add to that the degree of passion that the EPL brand elicits. I remember years ago when it was just about catching on, a group of kids beginning a Sunday morning informal football game at Juhu Beach, only after they had rendered the Arsenal anthem, standing at full attention. Those musical notes of involvement have only increased in octanes since.

This is why it makes imminent sense to pay close heed to what has made the EPL such a phenomenon. Many of these plays might resonate with branding journeys far beyond the pitch and sport. And whilst only a few have been touched upon here, it has all been in the spirit of starting an interesting game of cross-referencing and observation. One which might enable many to score their own great goals in the marketplace.

Presenting an avenue for rebellion

At the turn of the century, India was overwhelmingly a cricket-crazy nation. Still is, to be honest. But some subtle shifts occurred with post-liberalisation and increased exposure to world media and influences. This coupled with a growing sense of confidence among India’s young, probably prepared the ground for the acceptance of another sport in the collective consciousness. A new generation of youngsters, especially those dwelling in urban centres, wanted to express their own choices, separate from those of their parents. They sought to break away from the hegemony of traditional preferences. One place where this found visible expression, was an uprising against cricket, and a transition to football. City youth, particularly of higher social strata, embraced the English Premier League perhaps as a means of asserting their own identities. The starting whistle had been blown on a revolution.

Cult brands are often based on rebellion. They intuitively sense the parameters of the status quo and then lay down alternate narratives which essentially tap into feelings of wanting to move apart from the crowd. They stand diametrically opposite to what the resident leader represents. They offer the possibility of ‘oxygen pockets’ in contrast with the resident overcluttered spaces.

Apple, when it began in the PC market, positioned itself as a sharp relief to the market leader at that time-IBM. Where IBM stood for the ‘establishment’, Apple created the allure of a free-thinking outsider or ‘revolutionary’. Right from its nomenclature, it opened the doors to a more colourful and expressive world. And what once began as a niche brand, embraced by the select few seeking a different experience and expression, over the years has provided conclusive proof of why this strategically honed approach might bear fruit.

Becoming the convenient first option

Interestingly, two factors, which often don’t get the spotlight they deserve, perhaps catapulted the English Premier League ahead of its rivals. Firstly, it was the first foreign league to be telecast in India. La Liga, The Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1, all entered a bit later. For a while, especially during the Ronaldo-Messi era, the La Liga grew in viewership and involvement.

However, the EPL has always leveraged the advantage of being there first. It was a head start they certainly capitalised on. Secondly, the telecast times were rather ‘India friendly’, compared to most other leagues. Big matches on weekends and at reasonable hours made the transition to watching it far more convenient for the fan. It quickly became a weekend fix for many. That’s a foothold which was difficult to break, all puns intended.

Brands try their best to make it convenient and easy for consumers to sample them. Sometimes the factors which govern this are in their control. Sometimes they are not. But that does not mean an inadvertent event cannot be exploited. Think how the ready availability of digital payment platforms like Paytm, Google Pay and the like, benefitted from demonetisation and the lockdowns during the pandemic, making them the default ‘go to’ option.

The pandemic also provided further impetus to edtech brands like Byju’s and Upgrad, who also had the added advantage of having been there for a while, placing them in pole position to ride on a tidal wave of opportunity. Market categories are such, that even if newly created, they tend to fill up very quickly. This is why entering early and being among the first few, always makes sense. This is when the conversation is still being set. It allows a brand to forge its own unique stories. Also, with audiences getting increasingly reluctant to take too much effort to switch, the convenience of trying out something new easily should never be underestimated.

Fostering community engagement

Humans are highly social creatures. They love becoming part of groups. Even if, ironically that might lead to anti-social behaviours eventually. But jokes aside, one of the most powerful things the EPL did, gave young minds a chance to become a part of a community larger than themselves.

Soon, there were Manchester City and Chelsea groups, arguing with the same intense fervour, as their counterparts in England (or around the world) were doing. The adolescent phase of the human journey is one where the sense of affiliation to something larger is paramount. The EPL stepped in to provide this. It gave the youth a sense of global belonging. It provided fodder for passionate conversations. It created an entire culture in itself. One, where fans were building their own ‘theatre of dreams’ from the ground up.

Way before social media brought this to the fore, great brands always appreciated the necessity of creating a community of believers, devotees even. Think how a band of Star Trek fans (Trekkies) took it upon themselves to evangelise the sci-fi series across the country (the US). They wrote numerous letters of support, when the network was thinking of discontinuing it. This fan-injected fuel truly helped the idea “go where no TV serial had gone before”.

Seeing others becoming part of something meaningful and/or fun, makes those sitting on the fence want to join in. Think of motorcycle riding clubs from those around the Enfield Bullet to Harley Davidson. Reflect on how the feeling of being part of a ‘shared high’, entices many to join the ride. Eventually, it’s all about building a tribe, and to this point of view, brand managers do subscribe.

Taking a casual glance around any mall or just about any public space, especially those involved with sport, should bring to light an interesting sartorial observation. One can sight an EPL jersey almost anywhere. Be it Manchester United or Liverpool, these abound in every nook and corner. Even more compellingly, they far outnumber those from any other sport. This, even considering the Indian cricket team or IPL jerseys. The role of the jersey in evangelizing the EPL faith should never be undermined. Seeing a cool, hip T shirt worn by someone else, makes many others want to feel the same fabric on their skins. Even if they are not into the game itself. The brightness and dazzle of the material bypasses rational faculties. And in these days of Instagram obsession, they make for instant ‘post-worthy content’ as well.

Our senses are the most powerful media channels that brands can leverage. They leave deep and lasting impressions. They short circuit logical thought and build a highway to passionate emotional engagement. I remember passing the Parle factory in Mumbai often, and how the delicious aroma of freshly baked biscuits, used to waft outside the company compounds, and always help kindle the urge to eat Parle-G at that moment. Ponder how glimpsing the colour red, triggers fleeting glimpses of Colgate or Airtel across Indian minds today. Examine how all the various sonic signatures of Microsoft Windows, reinforce the perception of it’s installation being a sound decision. All in all, nurturing sensorial cues, has always been a strategic initiative which has made imminent sense for any brand.

To blow the final whistle on this, the EPL is sure to usher in a lot of sporting entertainment starting this week. But as goals fly in, crunching tackles are made and interesting team moves develop; endeavour to look a little closer as to why so many around you have got onto this bandwagon. In decoding how and why they joined the band, you might uncover some priceless ideas for your brand.

Vinay Kanchan is a brand storyteller, innovation catalyst and the author of ‘Sportivity’, ‘Lessons from the Playground’, and ‘The Madness Starts at 9’.

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