Even ancient brands can be rejuvenated: Pro Kabaddi League

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 17.57.39[Guest post by Prasad Narasimhan , Managing Partner for Asia who's based in Bangalore]

Can you revive a brand so ancient it seems to have lost all relevance for today's consumers?

Well, the success of the Pro Kabaddi League in India suggests that with smart strategy and excellent execution this is indeed possible. A revival of an ancient sport in terminal decline has been sparked and the success story holds lessons for us as marketers.


Building on an emotional core

For over 4 millennia, shirtless & shoeless young men played on patches of muddy ground across India, reveling in the ancient contact sport of Kabaddi. Over these centuries, the sport has remained largely unchanged. But its transformation since the start of 2014 has been remarkable, fueled by the creativity & ambition of a few inspired marketers.

Kabaddi’s appeal owes itself to several factors. It is simple & has very few rules. It is a full-on contact sport that needs no equipment whatsoever, just a patch of ground half the size of a basketball court. Short & intense, it demands speed, stamina, strength & strategy. And it is great fun to watch.

The sport was however dying a slow death in India, increasingly being seen as a vestige of an uncool, rural & irrelevant past that people wanted to get away from. That is until Kabaddi got a glamorous makeover when Pro Kabaddi League was set up this year by tycoon Anand Mahindra in partnership with Murdoch-owned Star Sports, catapulting the reach of the sport’s appeal nationally. 

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First the results 

The numbers are stunning. 22 million viewers tuned in on 26th July, the opening night; ten times higher than the viewership of the opener between Brazil and Croatia in the 2014 FIFA World. This number was over a 3rd of what the enormously popular IPL received, in its 7th year in a Cricket crazy India. Within the first 12 hours, we saw 140 million tweets & very significant activity on Facebook. Crowds are coming in huge numbers to watch the games. 

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The early success of Pro Kabaddi reflects many principles that we at the brandgym believe in.

Defining an inspiring ‘why’ (brand purpose) 

The promoters passionately believe that a country of a billion plus people cannot remain captive to just one sport. They have defined their purpose as a “crusade to fight thick & deep-set vaults of perception in our own country about our own sport.”

Penetration, penetration, penetration

What was essentially a localized rural sport has been amplified overnight to a national level by roping in India’s largest sports channel as the lead sponsor. And as Star TV expands its digital footprint beyond the 45+ cities it is now in, Pro Kabaddi will penetrate more & more markets in the next few months. Additionally, by co-opting big rural brands like Mahindra & Big Bazaar in the effort, the league will further expand its penetration very aggressively. 

Rejuvenating the ‘product’ from the roots up

In reinventing Kabaddi for today’s TV audiences, the promoters retained the essence of the sport, even as they rejuvenated the game itself in many relevant ways. Synthetic mats, lycra uniforms, high-grip shoes & electronic scoreboards have changed the rural ‘barefoot sport’ forever. The high-adrenaline game needing athleticism & mental alertness attracts youngsters, and international rugby cameramen have helped dramatize the action.

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Brand properties

Strong visual & sonic properties, including the logos & identities of all 8 teams in the league and a tagline with the claim to be ‘The new face of Kabaddi’ have all been created from day 1. 

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Innovative comms that dramatize the brand idea

The promotion plan, inspired by the IPL, went well beyond the game. Eight city teams were announced, each owned or associated with big Bollywood stars who lent the sport the salience & glamour it so badly needed. Many top stars & business tycoons were guests at the matches, visibly tweeting & clicking selfies during the games. 

Branding & communication was almost gladiatorial – designed to appeal to young males, dramatizing the sport’s rougher, physical side & featuring slick, violent visuals. 

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In summary

Nothing is as powerful as ideas whose time has come. Kabaddi with its well-storied Indian heritage can tap into the pride that many feel in their country’s truly homegrown sport. As Anand Mahindra says, “India is finding its feet again after a rough period, and this makes now the perfect time for a game like this to rise. This thing isn’t a gift of British imperialism, like cricket or hockey. This is our sport. And we think we can make it work.”