business of sport

Virat Kohli vs Pepsi: Why this debate deserves India’s undivided attention

If arguably the biggest celebrity athlete in the country decides to dump a cola company, will other sportspersons follow suit?

Update: Virat Kohli has ended his association with Pepsi, according to a report in The Hindu published on September 14, 2017. The following story was published in June 2017 when Kohli had hinted that he could reject a contract renewal with the American cola giant.

Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli’s recent comments about being more selective in picking the brands he endorses have raised an interesting debate. During an interview with business newspaper Mint, Kohli hinted at ending his association with Pepsi because the carbonated soft drink does not align with his fitness and diet mantra. Multiple studies have shown the harmful effects fizzy drinks can have on the body.

Kohli is one of the fittest cricketers in the world and has transformed his body in the last five years. He has revealed in various interviews, such as this one, that he gave up gluten, wheat, soft and hard drinks, and desserts in his bid to lose weight and become fit. By hinting at dropping Pepsi from his massive endorsement portfolio, Kohli earned further praise, while some also questioned why it took him so long – till his six-year contract with the company expired – to consider taking such a stand.

His comments also raised an important question: If Virat Kohli, arguably the biggest celebrity athlete in India, decides to dump a cola company, will other sportspersons follow suit? Former badminton player and current India coach Pullela Gopichand is perhaps the only other sportsperson who has taken a similar public stand against endorsing a product considered unhealthy.

“I did not want to be responsible for even one child drinking these soft drinks,” Gopichand had said. That was nearly two decades ago. Since then, no other prominent Indian athlete has taken such a stand publicly, until now.

Will Kohli’s move open the floodgates?

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Rising awareness and consciousness

“I think it will influence other athletes,” said Harish Bijoor, a brand expert. “Brand ambassadors in today’s age want to be seen as having a wholesome, boy-next-door kind of imagery. This [move] will of course influence others to stay off brand categories that could become controversial in the future.”

Not just sportspersons, but even actors are becoming more conscious in this regard, according to Kaizad Pardiwalla, president of communications agency Jack In The Box. “Celebrities are slowly becoming very aware and conscious that they have a public image, which people will have a point of view on,” he said. “And that’s a point of view that will be heard. So that, coupled with the rising consciousness, you will definitely see a lot of celebrities following suit.”

Because of this rising consciousness around the world, a lot of food and beverage companies are also making efforts to ensure they have healthy products in their portfolio, experts said. For example, Pepsi’s parent company PepsiCo has brands such as Gatorade (energy drinks), Tropicana (juice-based drinks), and Quaker Oats under its umbrella.

“If cola companies lose out on big stars like Kohli for their products, they will reinvent within their own portfolio to have healthier options,” said Bijoor. “If Kohli does not advertise Pepsi cola, it does not mean he will not touch any other product from PepsiCo which is fruit based or energy based. I think this will become a trend.”

Get rid of the brand ambassador

Pardiwalla suggested another way companies such as Pepsi can get around such a stand. “Why does a brand like Pepsi need an ambassador?” he said. “It is an iconic brand. If the [advertising] idea is strong and it’s an iconic brand, maybe they don’t need a celebrity [to endorse it]. Maybe they will change the way they will look at advertising and communication.”

Bijoor concurred, pointing out the example of Fido Dido, an iconic cartoon character created by PepsiCo in the eighties who was a mascot for its 7 Up soft drink. “My solution for PepsiCo is to stop looking for brand ambassadors,” he said. “Have brand icons instead of brand ambassadors. Fido Dido was a great brand icon. He was a cartoon character created for the brand. You don’t have to pay Fido Dido anything. He can do no wrong as well – he cannot run over pedestrians or shoot blackbucks. It’s an ownership situation.”

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However, there were also some experts who said that Kohli’s decision will not have any impact on his peers or the cola industry. “These are all very personal choices of sportspersons or celebrities,” said Tuhin Mishra, managing director and co-founder of Baseline Ventures, a sports management company that backs athletes such as shuttler PV Sindhu and cricketer Ravindra Jadeja. “If Kohli is banning a cola, that’s his personal choice. But it does not mean someone else will not want to endorse a product if they believe in it. If Kohli does not consume cola drinks, it is applaudable but that doesn’t mean other sportspersons do not consume it once in a while.”

Ambi Parameswaran, a brand strategist, questioned the intent behind Kohli’s stance. Was it done for effect or is he really serious about it? “If he is serious, he should have his team examine every product he endorses and not advertise anything that he does not think is good enough,” Parameswaran said.

“In some cases it is very clear that the celebrity is using the product,” he added. “In other cases the celebrity only reads the name [of the product in the advertisement]. I think some of these are done for effect, and some from the heart. A more interesting study would be to look at all the other brands that Kohli is endorsing and find out how many is he actually using and how many is he just endorsing.”

Publicity stunt?

Kohli is associated with as many as 18 brands at last count, including MRF Tyres, Puma, Gionee, Tissot, Audi, Herbalife, Boost, Colgate, American Tourister, and Punjab National Bank. Also in his portfolio is United Spirits, an alcoholic beverages company, and this is where Niranjan Kaushik, CEO of advertising agency SkyNinja India, has a problem with Kohli’s stance on Pepsi.

“I’m questioning Virat’s integrity in shunning just Pepsi,” Kaushik said. “Yesterday, I was crossing a wine shop and there was a big Royal Challenge whisky poster with Virat Kohli’s face on it, and I was wondering whether this whole Pepsi thing is just a big publicity stunt.” Royal Challenge is one of the whisky brands under United Spirits’ umbrella.

Virat Kohli plays for IPL franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore, which is owned by United Spirits (Faheem Hussain - Sportzpics - IPL)
Virat Kohli plays for IPL franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore, which is owned by United Spirits (Faheem Hussain - Sportzpics - IPL)

“We know cola is bad,” Kaushik added. “We know that fitness enthusiasts and athletes should not be consuming cola. But just because surrogacy advertising in India is a norm when it comes to alcohol... Just because alcohol companies also sell mineral water or sports drinks is fooling no one. Everybody of drinking age knows that Royal Challenge is whisky. Is alcohol more harmful than cola or is it the other way around? I don’t know. All I know is that both are harmful and neither should be consumed or endorsed by inspirational figures.”

While Indian celebrities, mostly from Bollywood, have previously been criticised for their endorsement of products such as fairness creams and pan masala, the country’s athletes have arguably been afforded a blind eye, at least when it comes to endorsing unhealthy beverages. Before Kohli, India’s two other big athlete brands – Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni – have both endorsed Pepsi, and there weren’t many who raised an eyebrow.

Subterfuge or not, at least Kohli’s stance has raised a debate about the moral side of celebrity athlete endorsements. If Kohli does go on to trash the cola can, at least he will be setting the right precedent to follow – on paper – regardless of the motive or intent behind the decision. Gopichand definitely deserves far more praise for being the first Indian athlete to shun colas, but the fact is Kohli is a bigger brand and far more influential. He could end up making a difference.

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