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Abhishek Verma

Marketing Head | 23 Jul 2008

Cricket will always remain at the top because in India, we are exposed to the game from childhood. There is mass interest in cricket, and it is a reflection of the changing demographics of the country… (however) We have realised that there is a niche community of people who like to watch certain sports that are not common likings for everybody… Our attempt is to broaden our sports offering vis-à-vis other channels.

Abhishek Verma, the Marketing Head of Neo Sports Broadcast Pvt Ltd, comes with an experience of over a decade in media, Internet and CRM. A Strategic Marketing and Communications professional, Verma was with Sony Entertainment Television, heading the marketing division for SAB TV. He oversees the marketing of all the business verticals for the two channels – Neo Cricket and Neo Sports. With a medal of Honours from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, USA, Verma had earlier worked with Discovery Channel as Marketing Manager. He has successfully created loyalty marketing programmes with a Singapore-based CRM consultancy, SurfGold, for blue chip clients such as Tommy Hilfiger, FedEx, Microsoft and HP, where he was Head of Client Services.

Verma was also instrumental in conceptualising and launching the first portal dedicated to the IT community – ITspace.com. His team for HP India programme won the best country award for the loyalty programme across the Asia-pacific region.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Swapna Rahul Shah, Verma talks about cricket as a collective Indian passion and the road ahead for both Neo Cricket and Neo Sports.

Q. Neo Sports has been a recent player in the sports arena. You now have Neo Sports Plus in addition to Neo Cricket, the cricket channel. How are your marketing activities divided between the two channels?

The company named Neo Sports Broadcast Ltd was launched with cricket as the mainstay. Then Neo Cricket, a leading 24x7 cricket entertainment channel along with Neo Sports, an all sports channel which focuses on sports other than cricket, were launched. We felt that there was a need to cover other interesting sports, that’s how Neo Sports was launched. What we have done is now is we have gone into a different branding exercise as we have two distinct brands. All the best cricketing actions that will take place in India will be on Neo Cricket. It is more of a mass brand where we cater to people who are passionate about cricket.

Neo Sports is a completely different brand, a premium sporting channel. Neo Sports holds the exclusive rights to top drawer football (Italian Serie A and Bundesliga), tennis (WTA Tour and select ATP tournaments), golf (US PGA Tour), badminton (IBF Thomas and Uber Cup, BWF Super Series), and beach volleyball (AVP World Series).

We have realised that there is a niche community of people who like to watch certain sports that are not common likings for everybody. For instance, golf is popular amongst senior corporate honchos and so on. Hence, we got PGA Golf on the channel. Our attempt is to broaden our sports offering vis-à-vis other channels. In terms of how we are positioning two brands – Neo Cricket is positioned very differently. It is an Indian brand, it’s cool, young yet classy. It is broadcast in 30 countries across the world. If you look at the packaging of the channel today, it is world class.

Our marketing activity for Neo Cricket is obviously to retain the audience who come and watch live matches. But we have realised that this audience also looks for something more and want to remain connected to sports when there are no cricket matches happening. For them, we have shows like ‘Dial C’, ‘Cricket Tadka Marke’ and so on. Neo Cricket has niche marketing activities such as below the line stuff targeting each community. We will also be doing a lot of online stuff and direct mailers.

Q. How do you divide the thought process when approaching the marketing of the two channels?

The thought process basically stamps from consumer insight that we have. With two distinct brands, first we identify what is the core consumer group of the two brands. Neo Cricket, a cricket centric channel, will always be wider mass-based brand. If you look at the consumer of cricket in the country, it has always been people who watch live matches. But these people have now started getting more interested in various aspects of the game. For example, a keen follower of cricket would be interested in watching things on batting tips, etc. Our consumer of cricket is interested not just in the game but also in the Indian team, various techniques of the game, cricket gossip and so on. So, based on consumer groups, programming and marketing activities have been created to reach out to these consumers through various possible channels such as hoardings, radio, press, on-ground activities, etc. We intend to make Neo Cricket a default destination for anything to do with cricket. That’s our core marketing task that we undertake based on consumer understanding. Consumer expectation for sports in the country is gradually changing.

Q. To be more specific property wise, what would be your marketing strategy for the forthcoming India-Australia series?

It is too early to disclose the marketing strategy for the high profile India-Australia series. But I would say that it is going to be a big launch. We will approach the India-Australia series as a significant event. So, there would be significant amount of spend on on-air campaigns, print, SMSes, below the line activities, contests and so on, basically a 360-degree marketing. We intend to make people come and watch the India-Australia series only on Neo Cricket.

Q. Do you have a strategy to retain the exclusive rights for the telecast of the series? (Earlier the Court has directed DD to telecast live the same along with the commercial.)

We have the exclusive broadcast rights of all India-centric cricket matches till 2010 that will be played in India. We also have the first right of renewal. This apart, we also have exclusive broadcast rights for international cricket played in Bangladesh and Kenya as well as BCCI’s offshore cricket series. In 2008, NEO Cricket will broadcast a minimum six international cricket series, including four featuring India, adding up to nearly 200 days of live cricket.

Q. What is the core TG of the channels?

The core TG for Neo Sports is upscale, urban, well traveled male, 25-plus, dominantly living in the 10 top cities of the country. We are basically targeting the individual who is exposed to different sports such golf, football, tennis and so on. As far as Neo Cricket is concerned, it has a very interesting segmentation as it targets both males and females. There are three groups of segments that we are looking at – people who follow cricket intently, who can basically tell you all the finer technical details of the game. The second, of course, there is a big grand nation of ours where everybody follows the Indian team, they may not be crazy about the game, but are crazy about the Indian team, and that’s a very important differentiated domain. The third critical group comprises people who are interested in the lives of the cricketers and behind-the-scene activities. We are looking at programming that would cater to all the three groups of audiences.

Q. It has been observed that sports channels like ESPN and Star Sports fall under Tata Sky’s family package, whereas for Neo Sports one has to pay extra. Why so?

Neo Sports and Neo Cricket have a separate agreement with Tata Sky, wherein a person can pay a fixed amount and subscribe to both the channels. From business point of view, it makes better sense for us. At the end of the day, if a person is interested in sports, he or she will definitely subscribe to it. I don’t think the monthly cost is high, it is very nominal in today’s scenario. Neo Sports and Neo Cricket are also available through cable and satellite networks.

We have our own strong distribution team. We are very well connected throughout the country. There might be some instances where you will find unavailability of the channels through the cable network, but I would say it is very rare because our distribution has really grown over the years. I think we have over 70 per cent of connectivity across the country.

Q. How do you see Neo Sports’ strategy vis-à-vis ESPN and Star Sports?

ESPN and Star Sports have been there in the Indian market for more than 10 years now. Their strategy would be as per their business. Our objective is very clear – we have two brands, we have to establish them as default destination and as a premium sporting channel, not only at the Asian level, but probably at a global level as well.

Q. Which future tournaments are you going to pitch for their exclusive rights?

We have the exclusive rights to several cricket properties. The forthcoming tournaments on Neo Cricket include international cricket series such as India-Pakistan-Bangladesh (Kitply Series) from third week of July to second week of August; India Vs Australia from third week of September to second week of October; and India Vs England from first week of November to second week of December; domestic cricket series such as Challenger Series on the fourth week of October; Ranji Trophy from first week of November 2008 to third week of January 2009; Duleep Trophy from fourth week of January 2009 to third week of February 2009; All Star Series for Dheodar Trophy in the third and fourth weeks of March 2009.

The forthcoming tournaments on Neo Sports include soccer tournaments like Serie A and Bundesliga Season in August, and Serie A and Bundesliga Season from first week of September onwards; tennis tournaments such as Catella Swedish Open ATP in the second week of July; WTA Tournament in the fourth week of July; Fed Cup Finals in the second week of September; Davis Cup Semi-finals in the third week of September; Fed Cup/Davis Cup first Round in first and second weeks of February 2009; golf tournaments like WGC Bridgeston in first week of August and The Tour in second week of September. We also have the world famous Tour de France cycling tournament in July, besides Supercar Championship, a motor racing tournament, in the third week of July.

Q. Neo Sports is still not very popular amongst Indians. How do plan to popularise the channel?

There is lack of awareness because we have changed the brand names recently – Neo Sports to Neo Cricket, and Neo Sports Plus to Neo Sports. Marketing and PR activities over the next six months would specifically concentrate on informing people that there are two separate channels on board. We will also have a lot of outdoor campaigns and use whatever media vehicle that we feel would work best for us.

Q. Sports has been picking up in India, but somehow the focus is still very cricket-heavy vis-à-vis other sports...

Cricket will always remain at the top because in India, we are exposed to the game from childhood. There is mass interest in cricket, and it is a reflection of the changing demographics of the country.

Q. How do you see the sports genre growing on the television in India? Where is it headed?

There will be tremendous growth in coming years because of the growing interest of the people, plus getting exposure to international sporting events.

Q. How are advertisers responding to Neo Sports? Who are the advertisers that have come on board so far?

Cricket has always been a mainstay for advertisers. I would like to say that the India-Pakistan final of the Kitply Cup Tri-series, which was shown on Neo Cricket, got 42.6 million tune ins, which was 20 per cent higher than the IPL final. Though we are just one and a half years old, advertisers are responding pretty well. We have all industries on board – right from telecom, four-wheelers, two-wheelers, insurance, mobile phone, mobile services, personal care, banks, lifestyle, television channels, print publications, car battery manufacturers, watch manufacturers, and so on.

The brands that have advertised on the Neo channels include Perfetti, ITC, Tata Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra, Fiat, Hyundai, TVS, Hero Honda, Yamaha, Birla Sun Life, Aviva Life Insurance, Bharati AXA, ICICI Prudential, Reliance Insurance, Idea, Vodafone, Bharti Airtel, Reliance, Tata Indicom, Pidilite, Coco-Cola, Pepsi, Hindustan Times, Nokia, LG, Samsung, Bajaj Auto, Titan, HDFC Standard Life, Stanchart, ICICI Bank, HSBC, SBI, Exide, Cadilla, 9X Colors, Godrej, and Gillette, among others.

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