Messi mess: Will Tata Motors play ball or bail out?


Tata Motors nets Lionel Messi as brand ambassador


  If his poor showing at the Copa América championship was not enough, star footballer and ‘god’ to his fans, Lionel Messi has been tripped up again; over a case of tax fraud, earning him a 21-month suspended jail sentence and a fine of euro 2 million.  While Messi will not serve time and can continue to play for his club, his image has taken a severe beating with fans and critics running amok with jokes and indictments on social media. Even if Messi does put the 2016 debacle behind him, the question is whether Tata Motors can withstand yet another blow in its campaign to build Tiago as a global brand.

The Argentine footballer was appointed as ambassador for Tiago a few months back, a first for the Cyrus Mistry led company. He was brought on board for close to Rs 10 crore for a year-long campaign and he has since, appeared on TV, print and as an app promoting the hatchback. Messi’s global appeal was what Tiago was betting on, given the company’s thrust to build itself as a global player. And that brings us to the second unfortunate event that has overtaken the brand’s grand ambitions — the chaotic overhaul of the group’s global business. Increasingly the group seems to be looking to play to its strengths as an Indian brand rather than an international one, thereby raising doubts over its strategy to go for a global icon as its brand ambassador.

Tiago, many would say, has been a victim of unfortunate events. The hatchback was first named Zica but that had to be abandoned when a virus named Zika triggered off a global health scare. Launched in December 2015, the rechristening took place barely a few months after. The TV campaign broke during the IPL season in April this year, giving the brand huge visibility and recall and the company must have hoped it had finally run out its bout of ill luck.

Instead, it has just got worse. With Messi failing to shine at Copa América and now his brush with the law, can the brand shake off the bad publicity? “We do not have any comment on this till we have further details available,” says a company spokesperson while analysts are divided about the impact. Tata Motors may have little to fear believe some brand analysts. There are others saying the incident may spell the end of the association. For the sportsman it could mean some trouble as not all brands may be so lenient, but no brand has yet pulled out its support.

This is not the first time a sports celebrity with multiple endorsements has been embroiled in controversy. Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps and, more recently Maria Sharapova — the list is long.

Brand consultant Harish Bijoor says, “It is a big financial hit for Messi as he earns $32 million from brand endorsements. For Tata Motors it is a hit as they may have to lose their global brand ambassador whom they had roped in with all good intentions. Corporates never tolerate financial irregularity by their brand ambassador as it sends out the wrong message. But Tata Motors, I am sure, will not be affected financially as the contract might have clauses included on such offences.”

A brand’s relationship with its endorser, however, is more than just a transactional one. It is more than the money exchanged in return for mouthing a few promotional lines. Still, Indranil Das Blah, partner and COO at CAA KWAN, a sports and celebrity management agency feels that the nature of the conviction and the fact that Messi won’t be going to jail, means that Tata Motors has little to worry about and the relation between the company and the player need not be severed.

“He isn’t going to jail; has agreed to pay the fine, and most importantly, he has not been barred from playing. The Spanish League starts in a couple of days, and if he continues performing on the field, this (incident) will blow over pretty soon. You must also remember he does not handle his financial affairs personally, so there is little to imply he did this intentionally. I don’t think the player or the brand should be very worried in terms of brand impact,” he says.

Analysts agree that usually, a conviction means a huge blow for a celebrity’s brand value. There are many examples like Woods and Sharapova, where brands reacted by severing ties almost immediately. “However, in case of Woods, it was an unprecedented setback and brands had no choice but to back out. Sharapova was found guilty of doping, which directly affects her game and so brands lost confidence in her,” adds das Blah.  

Tata Motors has refused to comment on the matter, and there is no confirmation on whether the ongoing Tata Tiago campaign will be taken off-air or not. But few would deny that the company will need to look at the association between its brand and its ambassador very closely in the weeks to come.

Endorsements: $28 million
Brand ambassador: Tata Motors, Adidas, Pepsi, Huawei, Turkish Airlines, EA Sports
Signed on as Tata Tiago brand ambassador in 2016 , for about Rs 10 crore for a year