Chess champ Viswanathan Anand not yet the King of brand endorsements?

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Indian chess Grandmaster and recipient of the second highest civilian award Padma Vibhushan, Viswanathan Anand has quietly and diligently worked his way to become one of the greatest sporting legends of India. While the world chess champion enjoys an iconic status among chess enthusiasts across the globe, it is the celebrity-driven advertising world that has not yet cashed in fully on this sporting genius.

The chess player, who retained his world chess champion crown in Moscow last month by winning his fifth world title has been associated with only a handful of brands that include NIIT, AMD India and Parle-G. While these brands have leveraged Anand’s intelligence quotient and intellectual achievements, most other brands are yet to explore his brand attributes. Why is that non-cricketing sports personalities like Saina Nehwal and Abhinav Bindra are doing better than the chess champ when it comes to brand endorsements? Pitch finds out.

Intelligence Quotient vs Cool Quotient
Having won his first game of chess way back in 2000, Viswanathan Anand’s image in the public eye as well as his personality traits have been sculpted because of his association with chess. He epitomises intelligence, resilience, and determination. Pitch asks experts how marketers can leverage these qualities and for which sectors can the chess champ be an ideal fit.

According to Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults, Anand’s key personality attributes are solidity, true blue intelligence, poise, and a calculating mind. For brands that want to rub off some of these traits onto their own products, and showcase such qualities as part of its brand ethos, Anand seems an ideal fit. In Bijoor’s opinion, the chess champion would work well for financial products for the similar reasons.

There is also a credibility factor associated with Anand due to his impressive track record, which is another positive that brands can leverage.

Jagdeep Kapoor, Chairman and Managing Director, Samsika Marketing Consultant

Jagdeep Kapoor, Chairman and Managing Director, Samsika Marketing Consultant

For Jagdeep Kapoor, Chairman and Managing Director, Samsika Marketing Consultant, apart from his individual achievements and intellectual capacity, Anand also has a calm, collective and cool persona, and would be apt for brands who want to let their performance speak for itself. “It all depends on how you position your brand and Viswanathan Anand,” he says.

Besides NIIT, which, according to Kapoor, has used him for a relevant knowledge management industry, there are several other product categories and industries that would blend in perfectly with Anand’s traits. He cites a few categories like indoor sports as well as those which are into strategising and intellectual achievements. Anand’s deliberate and subtle style is also a stark contrast to the charismatic, flamboyant and idol-like image of most cricketers who endorse brands.

Mind champion
Out of the numbered few brands in his kitty, one brand association that has remained on top of mind recall because of the inherent synergy and connect between the brand and Anand is NIIT.

Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults

Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults

NIIT’s 13 year long relationship with Anand has been built on the basis of the similarities between the game of chess and the brand personality of NIIT. Explaining the powerful synergy between the two, Prateek Chatterjee, Associate Vice President & Head- Corporate Communications, NIIT says, “Just as chess helps to develop the young mind and enhance lateral thinking skills; NIIT has also been shaping minds by bringing people and computers together.”

Among the various marketing campaigns with the chess master, the prominent ones include an NIIT mind champion’s academy, a joint initiative between Anand and NIIT with the objective of promoting chess among school students. Its direct connect based marketing strategy for this ten-year-old academy, that boasts of 15 lakh members, focuses on on-ground activities like mentoring, and lectures by Anand. Its latest campaign ‘Turning Point’ will also see similar interactive activities by Anand.

Most experts agree that NIIT has benefited tremendously from its association with Anand, who has a hard appeal which goes well with the brand’s intended positioning and career oriented outlook.

According to Dr Prashant Mishra, Associate Professor IIM Calcutta, besides NIIT, AMD’s association with Anand is also a correct fit since AMD talks of performance, stability, and technical intelligence; traits that perfectly match Anand’s personality.

Prateek Chatterjee, Associate VP & Head- Corporate Communications, NIIT

Prateek Chatterjee, Associate VP & Head- Corporate Communications, NIIT

The missing piece
If the existing brands have struck the right chord, and the chess player’s brand qualities are in symmetry with the attributes of a lot of brands as discussed above, then where lies the disconnect? Why doesn’t Anand have the same magnetic appeal as other celebrity sport endorsers do when it comes to brand endorsements? Why aren’t brands attracted to sports other than cricket, despite their equally impressive show?

The underlying factor behind any brand association is that the characteristics of the celebrity, in this case the sportsperson and the game he is associated with, should be in alignment with the brand, its intended positioning and its target audience. In Mishra’s words, brands do not just pay for the celebrity sportsman, they pay for the combined effect of the person, the game that he plays, and the hysteria it generates.

Perhaps it is on this front that an elite game like chess loses out to mass sports like cricket and football. And as a result, so does Viswanathan Anand, in terms of the number of endorsement deals he bags.

According to Bijoor, it is the same reason because of which advertisers get attracted towards players of popular sports, even though they might not be of the same calibre as that of Anand. “It is the game that poses a problem. Chess is a niche game and not a crowd puller,” he adds.

Bijoor’s comment taps the intrinsic problem behind advertisers not queuing up to sign on Anand. A young child will identify better with cricket and football, at least in India as compared to chess, which will motivate only a niche segment. Chess, with its exclusive appeal is not a mass puller.

Mishra echoes a similar opinion and goes ahead to say that the limiting factor is not Viswanathan Anand or his personality traits but the nature and perceived image of the game he plays. “It would be unfair to attribute the less number of endorsements to Anand’s personality. The personality of the sportsman comes in much later, it is the game that is of prime importance,” he adds.

Prashant Mishra, Associate Professor IIM, Calcutta

Prashant Mishra, Associate Professor IIM, Calcutta

For Mishra, it is all a game of numbers and calculation and advertisers’ prime motive behind any celebrity association is to grab eyeballs and convert those eyeballs into sales. For such brands then, which leverage celebrities’ popularity to create a mass connect, cricket and other mass sports would definitely score over chess.

Brand personality scores over the game
NIIT’s Chatterjee, however, disagrees. According to him, the limited reach of chess does not limit the company’s association with Anand because it has found the right connect that would appeal to its target group. “Whether it is the academy that targets school children, the ‘Turning Point’ campaign that caters to college students or the initiatives for working professionals, we are using Anand not just as a brand ambassador, but because of the underlying synergy and brand fit,” he says.

Kapoor, on the other hand, is of the opinion that this is just the beginning of Anand’s attraction, and advertisers are beginning to realise the core strengths of this champion and how to use it to highlight the core values of its own brand. “People are now looking at options beyond Bollywood and cricket. Tennis and badminton have started making an appearance. And Anand is also one of the saleable and solid options,” he adds.

The untold story
Keeping aside the limitations of the game, is there a difference between how different sportspersons market themselves that has a direct correlation to their brand appeal? Has the ‘hard appeal’ of Viswanathan Anand and his few brand associations cast him into a stereotype?

Perhaps, his mass appeal can extend to a broader consumer base if Anand shares a lighter side of his personality, than his usual suave and mature self.

Vidyadhar Wabgaonkar, Sr VP Strategic Planning at Draft FCB Ulka cites the example of cricketer, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. According to him, keeping aside the added advantage of representing a popular, mass game, it is Dhoni’s personal story; his rise from a small, backward town existence to pinnacle that has inspired many a small town youth, and made a great theme for many brands to ride on.

Anand, he feels, hasn’t yet showcased his own success story in front of the world and that his true potential as a celebrity will get unlocked only once he opens out many layers of history and personality. “I’m sure he has his own story of triumph over mammoth odds before he could plant his flag at the summit, or challenges of staying there for long enough,” says Wabgaonkar. “He can go for a make-over and share with us a lighter side of his personality or can pick-up a cause such as ‘schooling for poor children’ or a ‘computer for everyone’ and provide us with one more reason to adore him.”

So while this relative lack of hysteria for Viswanathan Anand as far as advertisers go can be primarily attributed to their reluctance to look beyond cricket and other popular sports, one shouldn’t forget that there is also the possibility of the man himself being wary of too many brand associations.


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