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12 October 2013

Abhishek Mishra on: hindsight

Why do brands in the 21st century behave like Cain and Abel? Because they can. And are able...

Abhishek Mishra
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Hindsight is a wonderful thing. You know, it being 20-20 and all. This especially holds true when it comes to the fortunes of car models launched in any market, more so in India. Still, some people do tend to make predictions about the future of newly launched models.

For example, quite a few had predicted that both the Suzuki Grand Vitara and the Kizashi wouldn’t sell in India. That wasn’t a hard one to predict. History is riddled with examples of how uninterested Maruti has always been in its flagship products.

It also doesn’t take too much to predict that the EcoSport will prove as successful for Ford as the Ikon did almost a decade-and-a-half ago. Or, as many predicted two years ago, that the feature-packed Fluidic Verna would become segment leader. Where it gets most tricky though, is when you try to predict the fortunes of cars priced below Rs 5 lakh.

Nobody had explicitly predicted that the Nano wouldn’t sell well. News reporters at the launch had predicted a doomsday scenario, in which the roads would be gridlocked with the “One lakh rupee (not really)” car. Even I had assumed that someone who pays just a couple of lakhs or less for a well-designed, spacious small car would not be too bothered by niggling quality issues, if any. But I was wrong.

Something similar happened with the Hyundai Eon. Hyundai’s “Alto slayer” hasn’t managed to sell even as much as Maruti’s Swift or Swift Dzire – and the Alto still sells three times as much as the Eon.

So why has a box like the Wagon R been among the top five best-selling cars in the country for so long? And why don’t the Zen Estilo or the A-Star sell as well? All three cars have the same three-cylinder engine and produce the same amount of power. The only thing the Wagaon R has is a lot of headroom, which is frankly, absolutely unnecessary.

These examples – and more that I don’t want to list here – show how unpredictable the sub-five lakh market is. Which is why I was surprised to hear that the Datsun Go would be introduced for less than Rs 4 lakh. Nissan is being either too brave or too foolhardy. Sure, I think the Go looks better than the Micra, but that’s never a factor at the lower end of the market.

Isn’t it risky to bring in a car at a price point where old timers like Maruti-Suzuki, Hyundai and Tata have faltered with some, if not all, of their products? It’s not like the Micra or the Sunny will help compensate in case the Go sells poorly. More importantly, if Nissan can price a small car that cheap, then why bother with the Micra? Which brings me to this branding issue.

I’m not a certified expert on branding, but I don’t see the merit in having three brands of the same family in the same country. Especially when most of their cars are just simple rebadge jobs. Does this really work in India? Do we have any empirical data to suggest that it does?

Let’s look at one Volkswagen brand. Skoda entered the Indian market as a premium brand long before VW. The Skoda name did not have to bear the burden of being called a Czech joke here. With the Octavia, it was easily able to set itself up as a premium carmaker more than a decade ago. And then VW decided to come in and piss on Skoda’s party.

When I heard of VW entering India, I had expected it’d come to only sell cars in the Rs 20+ lakh segment. Why? Because Skoda doesn’t make anything bigger than the Superb. If VW was that desperate to have a presence in India, it could have brought in cars like the Scirocco, the Passat CC, the Beetle or the Tiguan. The first three could have been VW’s premium showcase models, the last one would give it some half-decent numbers. Instead, VW spent its energy in killing Skoda in India.

The Fabia is soon going to be dead. And it’s the Polo’s hands that are red. If manufacturers had a little more foresight, they’d be able to avoid any regret in hindsight. Hmm… I think I’m becoming a poet.

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