The personal re-branding of Ravichandran Ashwin

In my earlier avatar working in PR and advertising agencies, I have occasionally worked with famous celebrities (film stars, sportspersons, etc.) for specific promotions, events, campaigns, and so on.

Most of them, as I recall, are in the mindset of coming to the spot (stage, shooting spot, or a destination for the campaign), performing what has been asked of them, and move on. For them, this is no different from their ‘performance’ in their chosen profession – films, or sports. They apply their knowledge of those fields, in this field, to simply perform and move on. I remember very, very few who took extra interest in the script or the part we (as an agency) were asking them to perform, make improvisations and work together to produce a better outcome than what would materialize if they simply performed and left.

Later, when I started working on digital/social media at the agency side, I have seen, first-hand, how many of the celebrities share content on social media. Many of them depend solely on their teams to conceive, articulate, and share/post content online, with their role being the ‘professional famous person’. Some of them I recall also tried saying something on their own, got into trouble/got trolled because of that, and did not bother to venture in that direction again. For context, I also (now) follow quite a famous folks who speak their mind on their own, without any teams, on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

Given this backdrop, consider what a famous and talented cricketer’s usual trajectory is.

Play well in the local matches/IPL.
Play for India.
Retire.
Write a book on the experience of playing for India.
Become a commentator.
Write occasional newspaper/magazine articles on cricket.

Even the book can be written along with a ghost-writer, using the cricketers’ memory and experience. But, to become a commentator or write articles for publications, the cricketer needs to be articulate in thought and words. It is fully understandable if his/her talent lies only on the pitch. When even top CXOs struggle to get the right words for everyday stuff like email (yes, I have encountered them too), this is hardly surprising and is very normal too.

Talking to friends and known people is very different from broadcasting your thoughts in a coherent and interesting manner to strangers. Many sportspersons are taking their first steps in this direction via social media because it asks very little from them – a few words, a small video snapshot, a couple of photos, and so on. These do not demand too much thought or articulation.

The other aspect of the book/writer or commentating as a career fork is that the cricketer is dependent on another media platform (a publisher, a TV network, and so on) to be able to dispense that task.

So, it comes across as a pleasant surprise to see what cricket Ravichandran Ashwin is doing, on YouTube!

Ashwin has been active on social media platforms for almost a decade now (for context, he joined Twitter in 2011, a few months before his test debut), but his YouTube debut started in April 2020, during the time when the world was under lockdown, worried about how the pandemic will turn out to be.

The content he started with seemed well-planned based on the simple fact that it was a series, and he posted 20 ‘episodes’ and a series finale too!

From being a cricketer, Ashwin also became a content creator based on the consistency with which he started ideating, producing, and sharing content.

Was this content ‘professional’? If you use the parameters of good camera equipment, title design, or graphics to qualify ‘professional’, it was not. The videos were shot with a phone, with middling audio, the bugbear of mobile video shooting. But content-wise, the videos were extremely professional and also genuinely entertaining and informative, and interesting. Ashwin was himself, talking in an amiable manner to the camera, almost in a free-flowing conversation mode, but on topics and themes that seemed well thought-through.

Ashwin also moved, as the videos started getting consistent, from talking to the camera himself in a monologue, to inviting other people from both cricket and the entertainment fraternity to discuss cricket.

Then he moved the content framework a notch further in his videos – he started talking about handling pressure, leadership skills, communication skills… all from his cricketing perspective, mapped to life, with newer series like ‘The Formula for Success’, ‘DRS with Ash’ (about decision making in the content of cricket).

Most of his videos have a colloquial mix – he started with just English, but moved to speaking in Tamil and English, and always bothers to add English subtitles to benefit non-Tamil speaking viewers.

Many videos also have topical, meme-like use of famous Tamil film dialogs, for added entertainment value or SEO-value – smart work!

So, from a professional cricketer, he has fashioned himself to be a professional content creator (as a side hustle) and does a mighty good job of both.

If you notice his personal website, you’d see a page that pitches him as a corporate speaker too, and lists topics like communication skills, leadership skills, handling pressure, among others… topics that he has demonstrated on the field and in his videos!

This is a highly impressive personal branding effort – or a personal re-branding effort, done in a systematic and thoughtful manner, without depending on mainstream media that usually people seek for either credibility or audience building. Ashwin has done all this on his own, through his own channels, directly talking to and building an audience for himself.

Some of his videos have done phenomenal numbers, running into millions of views. I recall his video featuring Indian team’s fielding coach R.Shridhar being shared left, right and center on social media, despite the length of those videos crossing 15+ minutes usually.

I did notice the ‘Powered by Trend Aloud’ logo on his YouTube masthead – Trend Aloud is a digital marketing company based out of Chennai, and I follow the latest music from their other group company Trend Music for my weekly new music playlist in my other blog, Milliblog.

I don’t know their role, but going by the sparse production quality in the earlier videos and the slightly improved production quality in terms of graphics or title cards in the newer videos, I’m assuming the agency support helps.

I also observed that the contact details of Ashwin (to hire him for corporate services/gigs) go to a company called Carrom Ball Events & Marketing Pvt Ltd, the Managing Director of which is Ashwin’s wife, Prithi (who also features in an episode of the series, ‘Let me tell a kutti story’, aptly titled, ‘Queen’s Gambit’!). I believe both Prithi and Ashwin have done a smashing job of shaping his profile online as a content creator closely aligned to his main identity as a cricketer.

The best part here is that this kind of service used to be provided by professional agencies (they still do), while the channels used to build the audience used to owned by existing media channels in television or radio, or print media. Now, the service is being done by the celebrity himself (with fantastic help from his wife) and the channel is his own! This is disintermediation of agencies and media, on multiple levels!

Are there other examples like Ashwin? Of course – one person I can quickly think of is Dr. Shriram Nene, a.k.a Madhuri Dixit’s husband. He has used his doctor-credibility to extend his personal brand to other related themes and creates content consistently on his own YouTube channel.

I had briefly written about his starting the effort last year, in a different context. Dr.Nene has been fairly consistent in his content creation efforts too.

Compare that with a professional content creator like actor Alia Bhatt. She launched her YouTube channel in 2019, and I came to know about this through a press release that was widely published in the media.

She, by her profession, is a professional content creator, but not in the direct-to-people mode – she takes part in content created by other professional bodies like producers, advertising agencies, and so on. Even though she has been sporadic in her own channel on YouTube, she has produced direct-to-audience content too, but it is understandable that her professional commitments keep her busy in not being consistent in his direct-to-audience avatar.

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