In conversation with Indranil Das Blah, former VP of Globosport and the CEO of Mumbai City FC, on the art of building a long-term sports brand
When news of the Indian Super League hit the tabloids in early 2014, the football fans across the country were painting the town red about a league they could call their own, while the franchises were coping with a pyrrhic victory. The league came into act at the last minute and the teams had just six months to put all the elements together. From battling for sponsorships to creating enough buzz to fill stands at stadiums, each franchisee was put through a litmus test to determine the success of the league in year one. As much as a daunting challenge it was, there are several branding lessons that one can derive from the first year of its operations.
Sharing these lessons with interesting anecdotes at every turn is Indranil Das Blah, the CEO of Mumbai City FC, a team owned by Ranbir Kapoor, Kayque G. Saldanha and Bimal Parekh. Prior to taking up this role, Das was the chief operating officer at Kwan Entertainment and Marketing Solutions and vice president of sports at Globosport India.
(As narrated by Blah)
Last year, many clubs saw grassroots as a key marketing tool to build a loyal base of supporters for its team. The clubs targeted kids from the age of five and upwards to create a lasting impression on them by allowing them to engage with the players through events, football festivals and more
A general guideline
Like building any other intangible brand, the important aspect is to identify the brand identity of the club and what it stands for. For instance, at Mumbai City FC, we were clear that the team should stand for everything that the city Mumbai represents; a land of opportunities, a city where irrespective of the challenges it poses, its people get the work done. In fact, the one vital piece of advice we gave our players was, the important thing is not to win or lose but to give a 100 per cent and the results will follow. The second step in this process is to identify a creative team to design collaterals which convey this positioning effectively and step three is to hire the right people across technical, management, operations, marketing and sponsorship teams.
Having said this, I think a lot of things happen together and laying out a process only acts as a general guideline.
The importance of right sponsorships
Since an announcement about the league came only six months prior to the event, we were faced with several challenges in raising sponsorships. Many brand managers, especially ones who follow football, were aware that the league was being planned for a long time and hadn’t seen the light of day until recently. Hence, even though the announcement was made, they continued to be sceptical about the success of it this time around. In other words, for brands to take a punt on a property that they didn’t know was a major challenge.
Secondly, there was no benchmark to arrive at the right pricing. There was Indian Premier League (IPL), Indian Badminton League and Hockey India League, but the fan following for football was lesser than cricket and higher than the other two leagues. And thirdly, typically brand managers in India tend to wait until the last minute because they bank on a distress sale. To explain this better, when teams struggle for sponsorship until the last minute, they pitch in at the last minute to get maximum ROI. In my opinion, this won’t favour both sides because a partnership needs to be leveraged pre-season, during the season and after the season to create the right mileage for the event.
Last year, many clubs saw the grassroots segment as a key marketing tool to build a loyal base of supporters for its team. The clubs targeted kids from the age of five and upwards to create a lasting impression on them by allowing them to engage with the players through events, football festivals and more.
In fact, at Mumbai City FC, we focus on the actual ISL training from July to December and work on grassroots (to build up to the season) from January to June. I believe the grassroots marketing effort has been very successful and made a huge difference to the brand.
The art of merchandising
Merchandising is a very niche concept in India. Take the case of the IPL. Except Kolkata Knight Riders, no other team has been able to make money out of merchandising. Hence, when we partnered with retail brands for merchandising, we didn’t see it as a means to generate revenue. We saw it as a means to create visibility about Mumbai City FC. We wanted to offer accessible, good quality, affordably priced products to create marketing hype and brand recall around the team.
Branding – Year Two
Our branding and marketing strategy this year won’t be radically different from what we did last year. The objective will still be to promote brand Mumbai City FC through ATL, BTL and grassroots activities, and to get people into the stadium.
ISL vs European Leagues
The comparison is quite broad because the European League has been in place for decades now and what we’ve seen in India until now is amateur leagues.
We need to be aware of the challenges in India. For example, weather plays a crucial role in holding it so we can’t schedule matches all year round. Having said that, I believe it is inevitable that all these leagues start increasing their tenure because as they get more sponsors and investors to fuel the leagues, we can’t be there for three months and disappear. We need to engage fans throughout the year. So we are hoping ISL will graduate from three months to six months in future. However, that is not in our hands. What is in our hands is to continue to participate in grassroots initiatives to sustain brand recall throughout the year.
FIVE KEY MARKETING LESSONS
Look at unlocking long term growth areas even if it means losing out on short term revenues. For example, it is very easy for franchises to say we are making losses so let’s price our tickets at a price which drives revenues. But when you are starting a league, you have to be accepted by your customers, and to achieve this, your pricing has to be competitive compared to other teams. Once there is brand loyalty, the money will automatically flow in, in future.
Once you have developed your brand identity, do not deviate from it any time soon. For example, Mumbai City FC didn’t do well mid-way through first season. We didn’t stop playing. We didn’t stop marketing. Neither did the players accept failure. You need to believe in the team. Some brands may say that they lost because the logo or brand positioning didn’t work out. In reality, it takes time to build a brand and you cannot be short sighted about it. There is a certain degree of integrity and honesty that comes with it.
We are not in a position to tell our technical team which player to pick. We should let them do their job, and give them enough flexibility and opportunity, leaving our role only as overseers.
You need to be flexible with pricing and deliverables. If the sponsors realise that you are willing to come halfway and meet their requirements, you will build a long-term partnership and that’s important.
You should focus on your customer, treat them well, with respect and not take them for granted. They can make or break you.
Culture is everything. For us, it’s very black and white. We believe in team work, not being a hero but helping colleagues and being honest to yourself and to your partners.