Virat's social media power will ensure brands stay invested

Brand Virat Kohli

"THE INEVITABLE CAME A BIT EARLY." That was PTI on Virat Kohli's decision last Saturday to quit as India's Test captain, a day after his team failed to do what no Indian team before had managed in South Africa. Win a Test series against the Rainbow Nation.

"Kohli’s untimely resignation as T20 skipper, BCCI’s snatching ODI captaincy from him, the subsequent name-calling – all pointed to a changing ecosystem. This wasn’t the world the man, who once rode roughshod over all matters concerning cricket in India, was used to." That was Indian Express pretty much on the same page with this line of reasoning.

There is a broad consensus in the Indian media that while India's most successful Test captain had hoped to end his innings with a series win away against South Africa, India's biggest sports and entertainment brand and consistently in the Top 3 of India's highest paid celebrities for the past several years had pretty much decided to give up the top job, win or lose.  

That the once the all-powerful leader for most of his captaincy tenure, who pretty much got what he wanted, and who he wanted (l'affaire Anil Kumble versus Ravi Shastri for coach is well documented), decided to go out on his own terms is probably the best way to read the manner in which he chose to end his Test captaincy innings.

Kohli's retirement statement, issued on social media, therefore deserves reporoducing here, in full: "It has been 7 years of hard work, toil and relentless perseverance every day to take the team in the right direction. I have done the job with absolute honesty and left nothing out there. Everything has to come to a halt at some stage and for me as Test captain of India, it's now. There have been many ups and also some downs along the journey, but never has there been a lack of effort or lack of belief. I have always believed in giving my 120 per cent in everything I do, and if I can't do that, I know it’s not the right thing to do. I have absolute clarity in my heart and I cannot be dishonest to my team.

"I want to thank the BCCI for giving me the opportunity to lead my country for such a long period of time and more importantly, to all the teammates who bought into the vision I had for the team from day one and never gave up in any situation. You guys have made this journey so memorable and beautiful. To Ravi bhai and the support group who were the engine behind this vehicle that moved us upwards in Test cricket consistently, you all have played a massive role in bringing this vision to life. Lastly, a big thank you to MS Dhoni who believed in me as a captain and found me to be an able individual who could take Indian Cricket forward."

Speaking of Dhoni, Kohli's predecessor may hold the legacy of being the king of Indian cricket's white ball arena, but can't hold a candle to him when it comes to the longer and tougher format of Test cricket.

To quote directly from Monday's Editorial in Indian Express: "Kohli’s way was to set the standards, draw the line on the sand, and then watch others scramble over or fall beside it. It was hard and old school but unarguably efficient in achieving results. In the process, he would at times come across as non-empathetic, but he wasn’t too flustered by the criticism. A sense of ruthlessness on and off the field was Kohli’s way, and no one can argue with its great success."

So what does the future hold for Brand Kohli in 2022? He currently endorses 30-odd brands — the most by an Indian celebrity today — across sectors and categories, including F&B, men’s grooming, apparel and athleisure, healthcare products, online gaming, cars and tyres, smartphones, audio gadgets, online learning, ACs, snack food, fitness supplements, digital insurance, smartwatches and luxury watches, travel and transportation, et al. Will that see a change?

To put it bluntly, it can unequivocally be stated that it will be "same as, same as"! 

The country’s most saleable celebrity for half a decade will remain just that in 2022 (and this author believes at least in 2023 as well). And it is because of social media that this will hold true as much as his unchallenged status as India's best batsman, vicissitudes of form nothwithstanding. 

It is safe to say that Kohli’s social media status is what makes him India's biggest individual marketing channel. And the numbers tell the tale.    
His social media following has grown at a CAGR of 35.4% since 2018, which is more than any other celebrity in India. In the last year alone, his cumulative following across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook swelled by nearly 60% to 257.4 million.
His engagement per post was close to 3 million, according to Duff & Phelps's last published (March 31, 2021) Celebrity Brand Valuation Study — an annual ranking of India’s leading celebrities based on their endorsement portfolios and social media presence. The study covered the calendar year 2020. “The Indian cricket team captain tops the social media ranking and has the best engagement rate amongst all celebrities that we valued,” the report revealed.

Kohli's engagement per post was close to 3 million, according to the study. 

Kohli is the most followed Indian on Instagram and has a follower count of 172m. And the fourth most followed Indian on Twitter at 45.9m. It bears noting that above him are the personal and official account of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (1st and 3rd respectively) and Indian cinema legend Amitabh Bachchan (2nd).
The Duff & Phelps report added: “Virat Kohli’s exceptional performance on the cricket field and an unwavering audience connection (the real key metric) makes him an obvious choice for brands. With a roster of more than 30 brands in his portfolio, the Indian skipper continues to remain a favourite with brands across industries.”
The former Indian captain across all formats was also the only Indian to feature in the Forbes World’s Highest-Paid Athletes list in 2020. He was ranked 66th, up 34 spots in a year.

And in US sports business platform Sportico's 2021 list of "Top 100 Highest-Paid Athletes in the World", Kohli ranks 59, with total earnings of $31.5 million (Rs 234.3 crore) raked in from Salary/Winnings of $3.5m and Endorsements of $28m.

No surprises therefore that Kohli has been India’s most valuable celebrity for four consecutive years, as per the Celebrity Brand Valuation Study.

In the same study, Kohli was valued at a whopping $237.6m. He’s also the only non-film personality to make it to the top 10 of the list, which is dominated by Bollywood stars. The cricketer was followed by actor Akshay Kumar - a distant second with a brand valuation of $118.9 million.

“Virat Kohli retains the top position for the fourth consecutive year. His brand value remains steady despite the COVID-19 pandemic,” Duff & Phelps had stated in its report. “These stars continue to be the primary choice of product brands seeking to engage and attract consumers,” the report added.

Brands like Puma, Vivo, Audi, MRF, MPL, Uber India, American Tourister, Phillips, Myntra, Manyavar, Tissot, Too Yumm, Himalaya, Muve Acoustics, Great Learning, Google Duo, Digit Insurance, and others have gained immeasurably from Kohli’s association. According to Duff & Phelps’ analysis, Kohli has had “maximum impact on digital media” for Audi and MRF.

This author remains curious as to by what degree Kohli's brand value will be impacted by his losing the captaincy reins in Indian cricket. It will be no surprise if there is a fall, but...  

But the fact remains that brand valuation is a notional term. What is not notional is actual income. So the real question is this - Will Kohli's being just one among the team, even if "more equal than others" (hat tip to George Orwell's Animal Farm), see a fall in income? 


Let's break that down.

Will there be a change in BCCI's annual player retainership for Team India (Senior Men) when it comes out in April? Currently Kohli, along with Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah fall in the Grade A + category (Rs 7 cr). No! 

Now taking Sportico's assessment of Kohli's earnings from endorsements in 2021 being $28m as a baseline value. Will that see a fall in 2022? No!

It might in 2023 though. If and only if Kohli's "unwavering audience connection" (read social media following) sees a drastic drop. If this author was betting-inclined, "smart money" would veer towards that likely not happening.

Why so? How about this nugget? When Kohli returned to the squad for the third and final Test at Newlands, Cape Town, on the first day (11 January), his presence at the crease drew an additional 300,000 viewers to Disney+ Hotstar. Enough said. 

(This column first appeared in TV9 Digital's Sports Section in 17 January 2022)