I suspect the word “cricketainment” and Twenty 20 leagues share a time and place of birth. Truth be told, there is no better way to describe this rapidly rising format of cricket, which was specifically designed to evolve the gentleman’s game into a massive entertainment platform.
From sleepy county clubs to genre dominating franchise leagues, the T20 journey is powered by a simple mantra; the bigger the show, the bigger the audience. Although the Pakistan Super League was a little late to the party, it put on a spectacular show that left fans salivating and critics stunned. The catalyst to its success, much like its global counterparts, is the colossal amount of money that was injected into the platform. And when there is that much money involved, there is no better way to spend it than under the garb of ‘marketing’. After all, a bare minimum of 93 million dollars were at stake.
From PSL to HBLPSL
Banks have known how to piggyback on Pakistani cricket to showcase their marketing might ever since the good old days of the ABN Amro Cup. However, giants HBL have been perhaps the most consistent supporters and backers of Pakistani players, with cricket-related campaigns commanding a major chunk of their marketing strategy for many years. And thus their urge to be closely associated with the first PSL is understandable.
As corny as Ramiz Raja sounds every time he mentions HBLPSL instead of simply saying PSL, the title sponsors have truly milked the inaugural tourney for all its worth. Leveraging ambassadors Afridi, Shahzad, and Gul, the bank hit the ground running with a TVC-led promotional campaign that promised a chance for Pakistanis to win a seat at the final in Dubai. This was followed by a strong digital campaign that made #HBLPSL arguably one of Pakistan’s most successful branded hashtags, creating trends on multiple digital platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. A smart content drive planned around Ramiz Raja gave a day-by-day account from the crease and became an increasingly successful engagement property for the overall digital community of cricket lovers in Pakistan – which is in itself no small feat.
Not to be left behind in the song and dance rituals of Pakistani marketing, HBL commissioned an anthem with none other than Ali Zafar, which fared well across mediums, despite the video being a formulaic series of shots taken around HBL landmarks and branches.
Nevertheless, HBL’s marketing machinery delivered with quality executions across all media, accentuated with a few interesting one-offs such as the HBL gatling gun that hurled merchandise across the stadium.
From teams to brands
I may be a cricket simpleton, but I can’t see the value in calling these five contenders ‘teams’ rather than ‘brands’, except perhaps as a nod to rituals and traditions. As I understand it, the players will change each season, there is no demographic or geographic filter and the city names used have no connection or association to the owners. By that logic in the next season, everything changes except the guy who foots the bill and the logo will remain the same. In my book that is a brand. And from within these brands came the most promising use of the Pakistani marketing apparatus since a long time.
Full disclaimer here: Being the agency on record for one of the teams, the Quetta Gladiators, I did get a first-hand account of how chaotic the process was with PCB and PSL once the project started and how, very quickly, the red tape was all but streamlined to make way for each team’s promotional efforts to shine through.
The richest kids on the block, at least on paper, were the Karachi Kings. Media giants ARY put their muscle behind the Kings, and quickly amassed exposure on the media to ring in a list of celebrity A-listers in support of the team. Ali Azmat was roped in to create an anthem which in my opinion was one of the catchiest in the series and one which quickly found its way into a little crevice of our brains and simply refused to come out. “Karachi jeetay ga” became a rallying cry for the metropolis and rang loud and clear from colleges to chai dhabas across town. The Kings also managed to create the right kind of buzz across social media with their celebrity powered testimonials. Brands associated with the Kings, such as the newly launched Oye Hoye chips, powered on with their own campaigns, spreading the message further with increasing efficiency.
Next in line was the Khpal team, anchored around the star power of our very own Lala. Haier boss Javed Afridi’s marketing acumen was on full frontal display as the Zalmis were perhaps the fastest to market their team through traditional media and social amplification. Hamza Ali Abbasi, who is effectively a meme in his own right, was right up there, predictably giving his two cents on every occasion and so became a powerful mouthpiece for the Peshawar-based team. Between Afridi’s bravado and Hamza’s quips, the Peshawar Zalmi hit all the right notes and were one of the most visible faces of the series. Another masterstroke by the marketing minds behind Zalmi was their support for the APS victims, cemented with a launch where the APS students unveiled the iconic logo for the team. This socially relevant conversation was further elaborated with the APS students and their families flying to Dubai for the tournament. Great humanitarian cause certainly - but even better publicity material.
The Lahore Qalandars started picking up steam when they were adopted by Mobilink, which commissioned the rather-apt “Dilon Ke Sikandar” campaign, spearheaded by a TVC that showcased the brand’s vigour and colour. The redshirts also managed a grand launch event, but apart from a few interesting things in between, like the Qalandar Force Heavybike Rally, their marketing seemed to be dominated by Mobilink’s backing as a brand. It helped that Chris Gayle, a publicity machine in himself, managed to gel in with the Qalandar’s jolly positioning, although their association with Geo helped bulk up Lahore’s marketing efforts, I felt that the city’s rich culture could have been better used to showcase a grittier, more authentic brand persona.
The Gladiators from Quetta were arguably the most interesting team to watch on the field. Their marketing campaign, however, wasn’t as loud as some of the other teams. The tone and positioning of the brand’s underdog ethos was intentionally set from day one, when in our initial meetings with the owner, Nadeem Omer, the emphasis was on “serious cricket” rather than the bells and whistles typically associated with T20 bonanzas. This was perhaps the only team that did not rely on celebrities to increase brand visibility. By design, Quetta’s decision to spend the money on persuading Sir Viv Richards, a living legend, to become the team’s mentor was based on practical assumption; morale-building. But Richards managed to eclipse everything else in the tournament, and with his beaming smile and his Quetta Gladiators shirt, took up more airtime than any other single personality in the tournament. Richards, in effect, not only helped bring greater visibility for Quetta, he made headlines with his animated enthusiasm.
The other big thing Quetta had in its favour was a strategic partnership with PTV Sports, which despite being a little less aggressive compared to other channels, enjoys unparalleled access to audiences across the country.
Short of Richards jumping on the field, no team had greater visibility on the greens than Islamabad United with their flashy orange uniforms. Wasim Akram in that orange jumpsuit is sure to be seared into your head for all time.
Add to the mix Fawad Khan and Ali Zafar, and Islamabad was quickly established as the team with the right gloss, energy and sophistication. Islamabad United’s marketing plans seemed to be centred on three key pillars; Ali Zafar’s anthem, Akram presence, and a powerful association with new-age influencers on traditional and social media. In terms of digital content marketing, Islamabad had the most mature of all teams, amplifying their fan base with instagrammers and twiteratti with great prominence.
And the winner is
Islamabad United got to keep the cup. However as a whole, the one brand that truly won is Pakistan itself. Even in defeat, teams showed a rare mix of sportsmanship and mutual respect on social and TV media, which showed the world that we too can be gentlemen when it comes to playing the game. The first PSL is an achievement because it showcased to the world the people power of the Pakistani demographic, the management of the Pakistani board, and the economic potential that big-scale Pakistani entertainment ventures can carry.
The brief that was given to this motley crew of brands, agencies, media houses and assorted professionals was not only to execute a T20 tournament. The brand in question is not Gladiators or United, it is Pakistan. The marketing objective is to change Pakistan’s perception. The KPI is to create an economically sustainable model to support this brand perception shift exercise.
If we can manage to make a tattoo-sporting Englishman like Kevin Pietersen tweet in Urdu, I think we have won the pitch already.