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Knight Riders sample Coke deal but Pepsi still in reckoning

Mumbai, Feb. 17: Cola kings are eyeball to eyeball over Shah Rukh’s knights.

The negotiations with PepsiCo for title sponsorship beginning to look tough, the actor’s Indian Premier League team has begun talks with Coca-Cola for a deal.

“Coca-Cola signed a letter of intent with Kolkata Knight Riders for title sponsorship on Monday. The proposal is for a limited offer for IPL Season II. The Sprite brand (the company’s clear lemon drink) will be used by KKR as part of the promotions,” top sources in both Kolkata Knight Riders and Coca-Cola confirmed today.

The sources said Coca-Cola is expected to pay around Rs 6 crore as sponsorship to the team owned by Shah Rukh, actress Juhi Chawla and her husband Jai Mehta.

Neither Mehta nor Coca-Cola’s official spokesperson was willing to comment.

The Knight Riders has been scouting for a title sponsor ever since real estate major Housing Development and Infrastructure Limited (HDIL), which bagged the deal last season, pulled out this year because of the economic slowdown.

Coca-Cola sources said the decision to leverage its Sprite brand through the Calcutta IPL team came after it displaced Pepsi as the second highest selling soft drink in India, according to a December 2008 study by market research major AC Nielsen. Thums Up, also from the Coca-Cola stable, retains the top slot.

However, Coke sources insisted that the decision to back KKR did not indicate any association with Brand SRK. Rather, they said, they wanted to leverage Bengal cricket icon Sourav Ganguly’s association with the Knight Riders and promote Sprite in the state.

“We have a long-standing relationship with Aamir Khan, our brand ambassador. Our proposal has no connection with SRK, we are limiting ourselves to KKR” said a Coke source.

The Knight Riders clarified that the doors had still not been closed on Pepsi. The beverages major has not renewed its endorsement contract with Shah Rukh, but a title sponsorship for the Knight Riders was on the cards as an amicable “golden handshake”.

“Channels of communication are still open with Pepsi. But it is clear that they are going to be tight with their purse strings. So we decided to check out the market. Coke has shown interest. But no final call has been taken yet,” said another top KKR source.

PepsiCo sources admitted that they were treading cautiously and not without reason.

The sources pointed out that Coke was expected to seal its deal with broadcaster SET Max as an on-air sponsor for IPL season II, like last year.

“And like last year, Pepsi does not want to be in a situation where it spends money on any IPL property, but is unable to leverage that through ads on SET Max. The channel’s on-air deal promises exclusivity to a sponsor in the category,” said a Pepsi source.

This means, even if Pepsi ends up clinching a deal with KKR, it may not be able to leverage the brand and run ads on SET Max during the IPL broadcast.

“We had committed Rs 10 crore a year till 2013 to be IPL’s beverage partner. Yet we could not get a single spot aired on Sony Max, as Coca-Cola picked up the sponsor slot for about Rs 16-18 crore, blocking the entire category,” said a Pepsi source.

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