Magnus Carlsen: Champion of commercial success!

When Magnus Carlsen won the World Chess Championship from Viswanthan Anand, the chess world thought that the Norwegian would take chess to new heights of visibility. The truth is that while Carlsen has been on a number of television appearances and had a professional modeling gig, this has not translated into sponsors knocking down the doors of chess entities to sign up. However, Carlsen has made some very nice impressions as an icon for marketing campaigns. Lately, he has been featured in a couple of slick commercial spots.

A commercials effectiveness can boil down to the credibility of the message. Ironically, Maria Sharapova is not currently the best tennis player, so maybe the analogy is off a bit. The current #1-ranked Serena Williams has beaten Sharapova 17 straight times. Nevertheless, Carlsen shines through in the ad with his smooth persona complementing the brashness of Muhammad Ali with a bit of panache. Well done.

The mobile game app was Carlsen as you’ve never seen him. The 40-second Altibox ad was very exciting showing that such a gaming experience can be vivid and even lifelike. What sticks out is Carlsen’s expressions and of course the nice special effects. This ad actually makes chess look like the game it really is… a serene beginning, sudden skirmishes, sporadic lulls in action and then more bursts of turbulence.

Probably the most famous marketing campaign involving Carlsen has been his stint with G-Star Raw. Take a look. Carlsen graced billboards around the world and combined his status as the world’s top chess player with his good looks to give chess some high visibility. However, this campaign would only increase Carlsen’s brand, but not chess. It is still a challenge to pull chess out of the long-outdated image of geekdom, but the G-Star commercials do provide an image of chess players not normally seen.

RAW Chess Challenge

Unfortunately, far too often other media images go back to old stereotypes. Carlsen is pulling in quite a bit of his riches as a result of leveraging his looks with his status as a chess player, but it is unsure how this translates to attracting sponsorship for chess. In the past two years of his reign, chess is still struggling to develop a modern image for the game.

Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

5 Comments

  1. Daaim,

    A template has to be found that will generate consistent interest from the major media players worldwide, social media etc. that can attract (and HOLD!) the attention of significant numbers of persons OUTSIDE of chess-playing people. This will result in serious interest from sponsors. Once the sponsors come on board (in the form of governments, public entities or the corporate world) financing, and other resources, will materialize. These resources in the hands of knowledgeable marketing/public relations strategists (“gurus”) can provide a sustained platform for conceptualizing and implementing ideas to bring chess into the mainstream and have it REMAIN there.

    Bobby Fischer did wonders but no one really capitalized on his pioneering break-through in a consistent, sustained way. Garry Kasparov also tried in the past couple of decades and has had some success, though not of the level needed. In the final analysis, it is difficult, if not impossible, for only one person to achieve what is desired although he/she can be the catalyst.

    Magnus Carlsen and his team are doing some of the things necessary but it takes a consistent effort in other places. For example, what he is doing should be replicated throughout ALL the countries highlighting their players, whether or not they are number one, two or three in the respective countries. Judit Polgar’s initiative of having millions of players/games worldwide simultaneously (each year) is another example of what can be done to bridge the divide.

    Chess-in-schools programmes should be in the news all the time; billboards of chess players (with or without chess sets) should be all over cities; players should be giving interviews on radio, TV etc. as frequently as possible. Tournaments, no matter how “small” should be publicised by the local media on “normal/regular” media channels instead of primarily on the usual chess sources. Celebrities who play chess (Will Smith, MaDonna, Jamie Fox, Lennox Lewis, Boris Becker et al) must be encouraged to promote it regularly in ads, their movies etc.

    The benefits of playing chess must be publicized frequently to get the attention of schools, universities, parents et al. Statistics must be garnered and surveys must be published. Chess should be “in your face” all the time so that the non-playing public will start to pay attention and want to be players, sponsors, or supporters generally.

    The above suggestions are just some ways of changing things radically. Of course, it will take a lot of work by local associations/federations, organizers but it can be done.

    More anon.

  2. Ian,

    I always thought that chess suffered from its own elitist persona. It still suffers from it esoteric and enigmatic appearance and the notion that you have be a genius only to learn the rules of the games. Grandmasters of the past willingly contributed to this persona because they wanted to make it appear as if chess was a game of geniuses. Today, Grandmasters seem a bit less pretentious, but sponsors are not budging. Many of the things you mention are being done at various levels, but there is no initiative. It is uneven.

    Adding to the problem is the fact that the media perpetuates this idea that chess is played by social misfits as seen in many of the movie characterizations. While Carlsen is certainly not characterized in that fashion, he does not seem to have a evolutional story that people can relate to. Certainly… a child prodigy, but what else? You need more than that because most people cannot relate to the life of a child prodigy. Fischer had an intriguing and dramatic story and for better or for worse, American marketing machine helped catapult chess into the spotlight. Unless you get a champion with an intriguing story, chess will not make much headway.

    What needs to happen is a deemphasis on chess as an esoteric activity and one that show grassroots acceptance. Showing celebrities playing chess may or may not do that depending on who it is. Unless you show the universal appeal of chess, it will not attract many sponsors because there is an assumption that it is an activity of the elite without much market reach into different market segments.

    Many chess website contribute to this by only focusing on the top players and the top countries. Generally it is the same players and the same countries highlighted. In my view, you have to show chess as something that is pursued by people around the world of all demographics… educational levels, income levels… ethnicities, nationalities, gender, etc. Chess does not present itself in this way. Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East and Latin America are barely on the map in chess. Asia has only recently ascended. If chess remains in the American and European domain, it will not grow the global appeal needed to attract investors looking for an return on investment.

  3. Daaim wrote –

    “Many chess website contribute to this by only focusing on the top players and the top countries. Generally it is the same players and the same countries highlighted. In my view, you have to show chess as something that is pursued by people around the world of all demographics… educational levels, income levels… ethnicities, nationalities, gender, etc. Chess does not present itself in this way. Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East and Latin America are barely on the map in chess. Asia has only recently ascended. If chess remains in the American and European domain, it will not grow the global appeal needed to attract investors looking for an return on investment.”

    Well said…. chess has to have a global domain. Just like soccer….

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