Apollo Tyres’ Satish Sharma on Manchester United partnership, eSports & looking beyond football

Tyre maker Apollo Tyres and global video game publisher KONAMI, in association with Manchester United recently organised ‘Apollo Tyres United League’, an ambitious eSports Tournament played on eFootball PES 2021 for mobile.


Apollo Tyres boasts of a long standing partnership with Manchester United. The association started in 2013 and in the beginning, it was just for the UK and India markets but after 2 years it became a global partnership. Some of the initiatives undertaken have been the launch of co-branded tyres, Go The Distance pitch (football pitches made of recycled tyres), United We Play programme (an initiative for identifying and training footballing talent) and fan engagement & dealer engagement initiatives.


The Playknox spoke with Satish Sharma, President, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa (APMEA), Apollo Tyres to know more. Excerpts:


Tell us more about the strategy behind the recently organised ‘Apollo Tyres United League’


We wanted to amplify our association with Manchester United and deepen the strategy. An eSports tournament was a platform which we felt was the right platform to take it forward and it has allowed us to cater to new markets.


The fact that technology spread and we are now using 4G and the gadgetry of eSports or gaming and its affordability has improved is a clear sign of the increasing popularity of eSports.  We wanted a deeper penetration into the market in order to develop a new fan base and expand the demographic.


Ever since we went up the two wheeler market space, our audience in the business or the target group that we are looking at are enthusiasts and we wanted to catch them early. Also, the fact that the platform has been really doing very well in our country for all the right reasons. It’s like becoming an industry of its own magnitude and size. 


We have reached out to rural markets as well as other geographies around us like the APMEA market and we’ve been able to activate this in Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Africa and the Middle East. We have connected everybody across these geographies through Apollo Tyres, Manchester United and Konami. 


What were the challenges associated with organising such an event amidst Covid-19? 


We gathered it was the right time to organise the event because we are in the pandemic and digitalization has brought a huge accelerator because of the pandemic. And because the physical sport has taken a beating, the eSports has got a stimulant to further progress. 


And there’s a fair amount of physicality in eSports as we have seen even while it’s played indoors, the hand eye coordination etc. So I would say that the timing was right. And given the fact that we weren’t able to engage with our audiences physically through physical sports as much as we would like to, this was a very good ploy for us. 


We had more opportunities than challenges here simply because of the pandemic and the growth of digitalization that has happened over the last few months. And the other opportunity besides digital, time didn’t become a constraint. So across geographies, time zones were not an issue. So when anyone was playing the game, he could be playing at 7am in India, but he was comfortable playing with somebody in Southeast Asia, three hours down the line as well. So there were more opportunities than challenges.


The only challenge was about aligning Konami, Manchester United and Apollo Tyres’ interest together which worked out really well. All of us have been really happy with this and are looking at probably going forward and seeing would be the right time frame in terms of executing something like this even better. 




Why is sports such an attractive category for Apollo Tyres?


The amount of dynamism that sports bring and the fact that tyres are an inherent part of mobility and the quest of a human being to be mobile and to do adventurous things, makes sports such an attractive category. Sports is symbolic to performance: performance of an athlete, performance of a team, performance through technology and many of those aspects. And those are the attributes that the categories are in a way trying to portray. 


And so while you could do it very rationally by doing FAB (Features, Advantages and Benefits) of your products but the association with sports gives you the performance rub off.  It sort of comes naturally. And very obvious is Formula One as motorsports is definitely using the rubber, the tyres.  The association of the industry or the category has barely gone beyond motorsports with various aspects that I mentioned. And that’s why you would find whether it’s in EPL, or whether it’s an ISL, whether it is cricket in India, the association with tyres and sports globally is a sound thing, perhaps the best platform for the tyre category to pass its message today. 


Apollo Tyres already sponsors an ISL team. Will we see Apollo Tyres coming out and sponsoring more athletes and sports organizations/outfits as well?


While we have spend more dollars on football, we aren’t particularly sport agnostic. We are not wedded to just football although we do have a good strategy for it. We try to use any sport medium which furthers our strategy of reaching the user in a meaningful to pass on our messages. So that’s our primary objective. Football does it very good and cricket does it very good. Whether it would pick our interest in Olympics going forward, I would say quite likely that it might happen. For the simple reason that whether it was the Tokyo Olympics or the Paralympics, I would argue that it was quite a pivotal shift. 


And for the first time India sort of put its feet on the ground and said that we can also be counted as a sporting nation. The only way forward is up and let us see what kind of properties come our way or whether it makes sense or not. Do we have an open mind? The answer is yes. But whether something comes off it, I cannot at this stage say right now. 


Apollo Tyres has a long association with Manchester United. What has experience been like?


Firstly, we believe in Manchester United as a club. Their fan base numbers are staggering. Perhaps the best numbers any club has got anywhere in the world. Secondly, the region in which we are operating is football crazy. And in India, we are hoping to break the ceiling with football. Whether, its Africa or Middle East or ASEAN, it’s all soccer crazy. And Manchester United has got an extremely good fan base in these regions. Having joined hands with a club like United, we believe that as in most things we do, partnerships are built over time. Since we have joined Manchester United they have not been in the top 3. They have had performance pressures of their own. But that’s what the partnership is all about. That you partner during the highs and lows.


The marketing principle irrespective of their ranking or wherever they stand will still stand the test of time. So the fanbase is a very loyal fan base. United fan is a United fan. So we continue to work with them and we continue to improve the association. We see how we can amplify it and how we can both work together and this is all done in a partnership spirit. And from our standpoint, the fact that we have a full fledged sports marketing wing only goes to show our resolve in enhancing our partnership with the people that we work with, the institutions that we work with. 


We ensured that we get the desired benefit over a period of time because brand associations are not something that you do in a year and you put it on an annual report. It happens over a period of time. After so many years, I would say that people have started talking about Apollo Tyres and Manchester United together. It’s now beginning to pay off. Regionally, we are associated with ISL and we believe in India, after cricket football will emerge as a great sport. And so we believe in that and we continue to invest in that even though if you look at the numbers in India, the investment has not really justified. If you look it from the Puritan marketing statistics, it’s difficult sometimes to justify what we are doing. But again, we believe in the longer term vision that we have.


Manchester United has been very supportive in terms of content that we can generate and what we can build on with the access to legends, etc.  There’s a lot of content that we can get, or we’ve been getting from United, which we have used across our channel. We have a dedicated sports handle on Twitter and Instagram, and we connect with the consumer or the consumer sports consumers today. And we have content from Apollo Tyres handles as well. 


Esports is something that has worked very well for us but it is very early days. There are conversations already on with United and Konami to look at how we can build on this going forward. So on the digital front, this is what we have. We are also looking at hybrid models, where, for example, we have been running ‘United We Play’ which is a grassroots program, football program. It started off on the ground but because of the pandemic we took it to last season. Now given that no markets are opening up, things can happen. We’re looking at working with United Soccer Schools on designing and developing a program that we can run across geographies and on ground as well as on digital. There are things that are happening on that front. 


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