Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Brand Power in the Pavilion

Why haven't brands leveraged cricket better to their advantage?
Updated 17 Apr, 2024 06:00pm

Although there is no doubt that Pakistan is a cricket obsessed nation, few people today know that sports sponsorship received a huge boost under President Ziaul-Haq’s Martial Law. His government recognised that given the strict censorship policies that were in force, a way had to be found to allow people to let off steam. It was therefore decided to encourage PTV to cover cricket which could take up five to seven hours during the day and a good match would keep people glued to their screens. And in this way, sports became an integral part of the communication for many brands in Pakistan.

In 1952, Pakistan unveiled its newly-formed cricket team in a test match against India. The captain of the team was the tall, aristocratic-looking Abdul Hafeez Kardar. Known as The Skipper, he had five years earlier played for the team he was now facing. A brilliant strategist and a gifted all-rounder, Kardar was, in every way Imran Khan’s predecessor.

There was also the dashing Fazal Mahmood, literally the blue-eyed boy who became the face of Brylcreem in Pakistan. Brylcreem – popularly associated itself with sports, mainly cricket, tennis and football – chose sportsmen with luxurious locks, such as Mahmood’s, to endorse it. Hanif Mohammad, the boy wonder, was picked up to endorse a myriad brands. The most tenuous of them was to advertise a 1955 Indian film Taxi Driver with the line ‘As Hanif smashes all previous records …so does our funtoosh Taxi Driver’. It seems Dev Anand’s name in the billing wasn’t enough. Mohammad later became the face of Cricketer Magazine as well as Berger Robbialac Paints.

Unexpectedly, it was the Joe Friday of the team who provided gossip to the tabloids by wooing a much married celluloid star and breaking his leg while escaping the wrath of the said movie star’s husband. Or so the legend goes.

So began our love affair with cricket – and cricketers. Was it the thrill of conquering the colonial gentlemen’s game, the well-defined charisma of the players that allowed everyone to have a firm favourite, or the drama and intrigue of the locker room, reported in the gossip rags (yes, always a mainstay) that has made us root for cricket with more passion than we ever could muster for any other sport? Not surprisingly, the love affair of advertising with sports endorsements started with cricket.

Pakistan had stellar hockey teams for many years and dominated squash for a decade, with Jahangir Khan as the face of PIA, and hockey gracing a stamp or two. We were proud of both but never infatuated enough for brands to come knocking on their doors. For a brief period in the eighties, we had international yachting stars Behram and Goshpi Avari and an international bridge star, Zia Mahmood, much in the news, but ‘a bit too niche’ for an advertising market that was still developing.

Wills was the first brand to court cricket with campaigns in the seventies and eighties, predominantly via branding the World Cups in Australia and Pakistan. While Benson & Hedges courted cricket in Britain, Wills produced a series of memorable campaigns featuring Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and Majid Khan. The clamp down on cigarette advertising put an end to that. Unfortunately, nothing can be found on the world wide web. If there are agencies out there which worked on the campaigns and have anything in their archives, please do share.

But the ubiquitous presence of cricketing celebrities in advertising can only be credited to one brand and one particular campaign.

Whereas globally, sports have a much more deep-set and consistent association with advertising (Gillette, Rolex and Nike), in Pakistan, it has never amounted to more than a flirtation.

In the mid-eighties, Pepsi Pakistan dutifully followed global guidelines and focused on the nation’s favourite sport and its captain, who seemed cut from the same mould as Kardar. The TVC featured a very fit Imran Khan in his impeccable whites, coaching a group of young kids who looked up at him with awestruck eyes. Perhaps it was the minimalistic visual appeal of the pristine whites against the green backdrop; perhaps it was the appealing metaphor of Imran Khan towering over adoring fans/aspiring cricketers like a modern-day god perhaps it was the sight of him wiping the sweat off his brow with the ice-cold bottle that set a million hearts aflutter, or the peppy English jingle; maybe, it was simply the perfect match of a youthful brand (the only one at the time) and the youthful zest of sports.

Compare this to another cola ad the same cricketer did across the border within the same timeframe. Drinking a Thums Up with Gavasker, he looks like your genial next-door neighbour. But that iconic Pepsi ad succeeded in the marriage of advertising and sports. And I suspect, in cementing Mr Khan’s reputation as a star that culminated with the ’92 World Cup.

In later years, other brands piggybacked on the cricket wave, with HBL and Mobilink/Jazz being the most frequent. Servis jumped in with campaigns featuring Abdul Razzak and Shahid Afridi for Cheetah shoes.

The business of sports is big. It is not saturated and as advertisers, we have the power to create new sporting heroes and new sporting avenues.

Dawn Bread worked with Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq. And lately, Bank Alfalah brought the rags to riches stories of Anwar Ali. Yet, Pepsi has been the most consistent and has produced the most memorable advertising, successfully ensuring our love (/hate) relationship with the game. Very briefly did Aisam-ul-Haq provide a welcome distraction and Close-Up seized upon his winsome smile, but tennis is not a game that is played by everyone and Haq, though very sweet, was not sexy enough. Cricket still makes our hearts go zing.

Whereas globally, sports have a much more deep-set and consistent association with advertising (Gillette, Rolex and Nike), in Pakistan, it has never amounted to more than a flirtation. Often that incongruous endorsement materialises simply because the brand wants to capitalise on a particular cricketer’s budding popularity without much thought given to check whether that sportsman (or the sport itself) is a good fit for the brand. Not surprisingly, it may not translate into ROI. And for some brands that may find a good fit, perhaps the player’s price is too high. Some brands like Coca-Cola, knowing that they do not have a right to win in cricket, are branching into football, much of which will become apparent over the next year or so. The business of sports is big. It is not saturated and as advertisers, we have the power to create new sporting heroes and new sporting avenues.

T.N. Ahmed works for an advertising agency in Pakistan.

First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.