Last week was crazy. My WhatsApp was inundated with forwards on the FIFA World Cup. All kinds of stats, stories, anecdotes, jokes and footage on England, Belgium, Croatia and France were coming in from friends and acquaintances without too many filters or discretion being exercised. So, in the middle of all that chaos, I almost missed the first message on Hima Das winning a gold medal at the IAAF World U-20 Athletics Championship 2018 in the 400 metres at Tampere in Finland. But then in the space of the next couple of hours I received (I counted) 22 forwards of the video showing Hima Das’s dash to victory and glory. It was as if India had finally found its own hero amongst all the noise and hype of the FIFA being played by everyone else, but us. And, the forwards did not stop. Almost out of nowhere background stories about Hima started to fill up my inbox. Again, I counted. 31 of them over the next 4 hours. Finally, a video of Hima Das on the victory podium started to pour in. A video of the young champion, India’s national anthem playing in the background, and Hima with tears hesitantly rolling down her cheeks. The video actually brought tears to my eyes too. This time the count on the forwards exceeded 50. Overnight, Hima Das had become the darling of the nation, a sensation recognized the very next day by Amul with a hoarding headline that said, “Das pe dus!”.
Not since Dipa Karmakar attained the 4th position in the Women’s Vault Gymnastics event at the Rio Olympics in 2016, had I witnessed such mass adulation and euphoria. There were many similarities in the Dipa-Hima stories. Underprivileged backgrounds. Both from the North East. Almost no formal coaching. No facilities. Just a lot of grit, determination and loads and loads of hardwork. Entirely self-driven, supported by poor families, unsung heroes no one had expected to win on the global stage. So, in all the WhatsApp messages (I am not very active on Twitter, hence did not keep track on that) there was surprise (in fact wonder would be a more appropriate word to use). There was the usual lament about lack of support and encouragement to these emerging heroes and many many hopes that these newly minted champions would make India proud many more times in the future.
Das will soon be back home, I am sure to a hero’s welcome. I am sure the Minister of Sports will escort her to meet the Hon’ble President and the Hon’ble Prime Minister. It is after all the done thing. There will be lots of media coverage. Lots of social media commentary too. More stories will emerge about her impoverished past. A couple of stories on her coach for sure. Perhaps a Padma Shri and an Arjuna Award will follow. Das will be offered some sports sponsorships and perhaps a permanent job in the government. And of course, one would expect that brand marketers would queue to sign-up the new sensation.
Alas, this is where there is a twist in the tale. Dipa Karmakar raised a lot of hopes on the brand endorsement front just post Rio. There were media reports that many brands were considering using her in their campaigns. But after the initial euphoria had ebbed, there was no sign of Dipa anywhere in any ad of any consequence. Star Plus did feature her in their #RishtonKiTaqat and #BillionCheers ads and Tata Tea got her to support their ‘Jaagore’ petition to the government, but the star called Dipa faded away without any commercial endorsements actually coming her way. Sad, but real. No Hindustan Lever, no P&G, no Colgate, no Dabur, no Hero, just no one thought Dipa Karmakar was good enough to feature in one of their ads. So, despite all the lip service to women empowerment and uplift of women, all the ads were cornered by Bollywood beauties Deepika, Priyanka, Shraddha, Alia, and more of their tribe. PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal have had some success with brands, but it is mostly a filmy show out there: good looking and glamorous beauties over shadow plain Jane sports champions ten-love. Karmakar, of course, has been named the brand ambassador for Tripura, her home state, but I would really not count that as a brand endorsement.
My fear is that Hima Das too may be headed the Dipa Karmakar way. All the WhatsApps flying around, all the clips of her winning, the video of her crying on the podium, are unlikely to move brand managers and creative directors to actually feature her in any ad campaign for a big, visible brand. The excuses are easy to find. One drop of rain on your window pane does not mean there is a thunderstorm coming. Let us wait and see how she performs at other world events. The Asian Games are coming. Let us see if this win was just a flash in the pan, or more. Basically, wait and watch. Better to hedge your bets in favour of tried and tested endorsees rather than back a new talent. For the record, 89% of all cricket endorsements have gone to captains of the Indian team (current and past) while regular team members, despite all the media exposure that cricket guarantees, hardly ever made the cut for brands except in IPL team kind of ads showing more than one player. Indian advertising has always waited for an endorsee to achieve unimpeachable success before investing in them for becoming the face of the brand. It took Kapil Dev to become the 1983 World Cup winning captain before he could sign up for the Boost campaign, his first ever brand endorsement. Real interest in Dhoni too was ignited only after he won the T-20 World Cup. Virat Kohli has been luckier but then his career trajectory towards India captain was already visible when brands started queuing up at his door step. Look at the chinaman Kuldeep Yadav. He is pure genius, a spinner unparalleled in the world today. But brand managers and their agencies are just seeing no value in him. They would rather pay 20 times more to get Virat Kohli to do his 20th endorsement. It is no different with the swashbuckling K L Rahul. The guy looks good, in fact handsome. He is a batting sensation. But zero on brand endorsements.
It is sad that even sports goods companies like Nike or Adidas or Puma have really not stepped forward to support the likes of Dipa Karmakar. So it is possibly not going to be any different for Hima Das. I was speaking to one of the biggies at one of the leading talent management companies and he said the problem was that Das is ‘too raw’. I reminded him that Nike signed on Roger Federer when he was still in his teens and struggling on the Grand Slam circuit. The Nike-Federer deal lasted 20 years. So, I really do not agree with the ‘too raw’ argument.
It requires a serious change of mindset if brands have to back fresh talent. As of now, the signals on that front are weak. I hope, for the sake of Hima Das, that brand managers and their ad agencies will show more spunk, be willing to take a few more risks in giving our new heroes their due on the commercial circuit. More money in the hands of these new champions will hopefully lift them from their penury and give them better wherewithal to win laurels for the country in the future. Sure, commercial decisions cannot be driven by patriotism alone, but on merit too. If Das can earn the right to be on an Amul hoarding, she is a much better choice to be endorsing Horlicks than a 70+ Amitabh Bachchan. A Hima or a Dipa are actually more natural choices to be paying tributes to ‘desh-ki-dharti’ than an Akshay Kumar who is India’s best known ‘khiladi’ without playing any sport. A sensible brand manager could sign-on Hima for a fraction of the price that Virat charges. More so, a first-mover brand could ‘own’ a Hima without having to share her with a dozen or more other brands. But to do that, creative directors in ad agencies will really have to exercise their grey cells to create stand-out advertising that does justice to these newly-minted heroes and moves brand packs off the retail shelves. Which, to tell you the truth, is much tougher than getting Big B to mouth some poetry and utter some meaningless bombast about the brand and then say if Big B won’t work, what will?
Sandeep Goyal is a PhD in Human Brands. He has spent more than 30 years in advertising dealing with celebrity endorsements.