Big appeal: India’s Kohli pulls in the ad dollars despite verbal slips

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Being the highest profile athlete in the world’s second most populous country, India cricket captain Virat Kohli has built such a formidable brand across the spectrum that even his occasional brash and indiscrete comments fail to tarnish it.

Watches, cars, sports shoes, motorbikes, clothes, ride services, tires, snacks, health foods, headphones - even toothbrushes -- they have all had the Kohli marketing treatment.

The 30-year-old cricketer with tattooed arms and coiffured hair currently endorses 21 brands including Tissot, Audi, Puma, Uber and Hero, pushing him into the Forbes’s 2018 list of the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes.

Coming in at No. 83 on the back of his estimated $24 million income over the previous 12 months, Kohli is the world’s top earning cricketer and comes in ahead of other high-profile athletes such as Novak Djokovic and Sergio Aguero.

It is unlikely he would ever be able to challenge the likes of current Forbes’ No.1 Floyd Mayweather or No. 2 Lionel Messi due to cricket’s appeal being mostly tied to a small batch of predominantly Commonwealth countries.

However, he could soon eclipse Mahendra Singh Dhoni as the highest earning Indian sportsman ever. Former India cricket captain Dhoni earned $31 million in 2015 as he promoted a series of brands.

His success off the pitch is matched by his prowess on it.

A prolific scorer of runs, on Sunday he produced a match-winning innings to help India to victory over Australia and his performances have ensured he enjoys rock star status in the cricket-mad country of 1.3 billion.

He wed actress Anushka Sharma last year to create a marriage between cricket and Bollywood, India’s two biggest obsessions, helping give him a ‘family man’ image that can appeal to a middle class audience - and harness its spending power.

That does not mean he has lost traction with India’s youth.

“The youth of the country - and more than half of India’s population are under 25 - can identify themselves with the man living their dream,” said Kohli biographer Vijay Lokapally.

Kohli has a strong social media presence with over 37 million fans on Facebook and is followed by more than 25 million on Instagram and 27.1 million on Twitter.

“He speaks his mind, takes stands, interacts on social media - all of it goes well with his fans,” Lokapally said, describing Kohli as “complete theatre”.

His sponsors have had a bumpy ride at times.

When a cricket fan recently described Kohli, the world’s top ranked test batsman, as “overrated” and said he would rather watch Australian and English batsmen than “these Indians”, Kohli responded with both barrels.

“You should go and live somewhere else, you know,” he said in a video posted on his personal telephone app, which he uses to interact with fans and sell merchandise.

“Why are you living in our country and loving other countries? I don’t mind you not liking me but I don’t think you should live in our country...”

Kohli later said he was “all for freedom of choice” and while the episode burnished his reputation as being touchy about criticism it did little to damage his brand.

Quite the opposite, said Tuhin Mishra, managing director of sports marketing firm Baseline Ventures.

“Such frankness can actually boost the brand, provided it aligns with the brand’s message,” said Mishra, whose firm manages other Indian cricketers including Ravindra Jadeja and Prithvi Shaw.

“After all, brands also want to be seen as patriotic

“Sports and Bollywood stars usually avoid controversies, but fans want their icons to have a voice,” he added.

Cornerstone Sport & Entertainment, the company which represents Kohli, declined to discuss his endorsements and sponsorships.

According to Forbes, $20 million of his total comes from endorsements and $4 million from salary and so-called “winnings”, which would include prize money.

Kohli’s earnings could continue to increase thanks to India’s strong growth - it is the fastest growing large economy in the world and that should mean many more marketing dollars - and the obsessive interest in cricket here and across the Indian diaspora.

He has smoothed out some of his rough edges. He does not endorse soft drinks or skin-lightening cream anymore, advocates a healthy lifestyle, and comes across as a family man and a leader.

He fights for salary hikes for his players, demands that players’ partners be allowed on tours, and seeks to influence who is appointed team coach.

Mishra of Baseline Ventures said Kohli’s appeal had evolved.

“As an aggressive youngster, he was attractive to certain brands then. As married, mature and responsible captain of the team, he is attractive to another set of brands now,” he said.

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