The coronavirus pandemic seemed to have upended the IPL’s branding applecart, but as it gears up for its 13th edition that will be held in the UAE, a sold-out slate of the tournament and franchises sponsorships tell a story of a remarkable rebound. In the middle of one of the deepest recessions the world has ever witnessed, this would rank as quite an achievement. Something that even the BCCI President himself praised. In a quote tweet response to BCCI’s announcement of a new Official Partner being signed for the IPL, Sourav Ganguly congratulated them with the words “Well done bcci and team ..in spite of tuff (sic) markets ..”
The announcement was about CRED (a members only club that rewards individuals for timely credit card payments and provides access to premium experiences) coming on board as ‘Official Partner’ of the IPL. It happens to be CRED’s first major foray into cricket sponsorship. “We are delighted to have closed the deals for two official partners with the IPL, defying the apprehension that had set in after the initial weeks of the lockdown and the pandemic. Everyone had predicted that sponsorship volumes will fall, but contrary to those expectations, it’s actually gone up.”, says Bhairav Shanth, co-founder and Managing Director of ITW, the consulting firm which was involved in facilitating the deal.
Back in the beginning of 2020, things were looking gung-ho for the league and its franchises when Marriott Bonvoy signed a three-season deal as Loyalty Partner for the defending champions Mumbai Indians in February. Then the pandemic hit, and things came to a standstill. Even as resumption plans were being finalised in August, the existing title sponsor Vivo pulled out and the outlook seemed grim. But since then, the league found a new title sponsor at extremely short notice, brought two new official partners on board and has seen all franchises sell their sponsor slots out completely. Away from the spotlight, agencies have been working fine-tuning the focus and pitch of the country’s pre-eminent marketing platform for the new normal. “The paradigms of Return on Investment or Return on Opportunity based investments in sports properties is becoming a relic of the past in this fast-changing environment.” explains Paroksh Chawla, the CEO of ITW Catalyst, the agency behind the Marriott deal. The young agency, set up less than a year ago, has gone on to clock deals with six out of the eight IPL franchises, on the strength of what Chawla calls “a consulting-based approach in figuring out the right fit and solution for a brand through evaluating their Return On Objective(s)”. Hiten Makhija, the Director Marketing & Communications, South Asia, Marriott International, spells out what that objective was. “Our aim is to grow member experiences in India through this association with the IPL’s most followed team. We are happy with ITW who provided us the end to end consultancy to achieve our goal” he said. “Every single brand we have worked with in this short period of time has been given a customised sponsorship solution based on their objective”, adds Chawla.
That kind of thinking is also evident when one looks at the other big brands who have boarded the IPL marketing train. The edutech unicorn Unacademy signed on as an “Official Partner’ for three seasons till 2022. Explaining their rationale behind associating with the league Sonal Mishra, the Director, Marketing at Unacademy, highlighted the role of synergy and brand fit. “Unacademy has been reinventing education and learning in India through disruptive and innovative offerings, and we were keen on associating with IPL which effectively reinvented how the game of cricket is marketed and consumed. Our growth and impact trajectory perfectly align with the league and we want to ensure our message of democratising education reaches all learners in India through (this) association”, she said. There is also Mobile Premier League (MPL), a mobile gaming platform, who have embraced cricket because of the access it provides to their specific target audience. They were the shirt sponsors of the Irish cricket team during the ODI series against England and at the IPL will be seen as principal sponsors of the Kolkata Knight Riders. As Abhishek Madhavan, the SVP – Growth and Marketing at MPL puts it, “we look forward to the upcoming cricket season.”
So, are brands bullish about the IPL again? “If you offer great value, there will always be takers”, says Shanth by way of explanation. May be that’s why the IPL retains its sheen as a marketing platform – this subtle shift in how brands are utilising it, moving from a one size fits all approach to seeking bespoke solutions.