Friday, February 1, 2008

Bug to the nano

Tata Nano has truly scored on pricing & features. But if automotive history is anything to go by, it would need an exceptionally innovative advertising strategy to sustain

In 1931, Dr. Porsche designed a small car in Stuttgart, Germany. Hitler had ordered the best cars to be made ready for the 1938 car exhibition in Berlin. He specified that the cars be small, inexpensive and fast – suitable for the new roads being built in Germany. It was exactly seven decades ago that the car appeared on German roads. This car was later on launched in America, which was recovering from the war and rebuilding its consumer society. This car from Germany, which looked like an orthopaedic boot designed by Hitler, could not have come to America at a worse time. No one wanted anything associated with Hitler. Then the pied piper of creativity appeared, and did miracles for the car. This man knew the people were ready & waiting for something to get excited about. Someone needed to show them how. He created an advertisement for the car, which is considered by many as the best in the history of advertising. While all other cars were showcased in lush settings with beautiful models, here stood a tiny car – unadorned, untouched – in black and white. A simple headline of two words “Think Small” and the Beetle became the new symbol of a whole generation. The man – William Bernbach – had created an icon.

A few days back, when Ratan Tata unveiled the Nano and gave the world its first Rs.1 lakh car, he once again fired the imagination of the automotive industry the world over. “A promise is a promise,” said Ratan Tata, at the launch of the world’s cheapest car. However, a great car is more than just price and features. It’s all about creating an impact. Yes, the “Nano” with its unbelievable pricing, has succeeded in creating a buzz, but great advertising and positioning is what is going to help it sustain in this extremely competitive area. A whole lot of small and midsize car manufacturers are already queuing up with their wares on the Indian shores. Those here are reworking their prices too. Maruti 800 will soon offer its basic version at Rs.1.8 lakhs (ex-showroom price). The Beetle, Volkswagen’s iconic car is going the hit the Indian roads too, sometime in May this year. We do hope Nano has some great ideas stashed up, to help it stay ahead.

Marketing miracle

Yes, it was a marketing and advertising miracle that made the Beetle a symbol of the 1960’s “flower generation.” It used the same theme (albeit after a little modification) to relaunch the car in 1970’s and 80’s. “Ugly but it gets you there,” won the Beetle a 15% market share. O&M devised a marketing strategy on the concept, “Isn’t that what you’d expect from a VW” and created a powerful branding around the VW family.

In March 1998, when Volkswagen started marketing the New Beetle, its advertising campaign aimed at helping people connect to a happier past of the 1960’s.The commercial entitled “Soul” promised that “If you sold your soul in the 80’s here’s your chance to buy it back” and the commercial entitled “flower” simply declared “less flower, more power.” A heavy dose of nostalgia, which worked well for the Beetle.

Car buying has got a lot to do with perception and image. Car makers are working hard to portray the right image of their cars and make them more compatible and more “today.” Toyota, for long, has been known as the dependable one. It now wants to shake-off that image & become more sporty and sexy. Honda’s conservatism doesn’t seem to work well anymore. It’s trying to become more adventurous. Jaguar needed new designing or else it would have become a nostalgic brand. Mercedes is trying hard but it still lacks the glamour of a Bentley. Times are changing and automakers need to change too, if they want to remain in the race.

Perception – the key to success

It’s all about communicating – and communicating well. The one car that seems to have mastered the art is Ford. According to a survey done in America, 16% of teenagers wanted a Ford for their first car – the highest percentage compared to other makes. They may have ranked a Merc or a Lexus as the best, but Ford had very successfully convinced them and their parents that this was the most solid, reliable & above all affordable car for the teenagers.

Perceptions play an important role in influencing customer purchase behaviour. Korea’s Hyundai entered the US market with cars that were plagued with problems. Chinese cars, too, face the same problem of being perceived as not being up to the mark in terms of safety & reliability. However, a sole Chinese automaker displayed his silver sedan bang outside the main showroom of Detroit’s Auto Show, sending a signal to the world that Chinese cars are as good as the best in the market. Chrysler is perceived as a company that makes great looking vehicles, but is behind competition in terms of technology & quality. To change this, it changed its tagline to “Engineered Beautifully”, with the television commercials showing all the technological innovations.

The Camry, on the other hand, has been the best selling sedan in the United States for the past eight or nine years. It’s perceived as the most reliable car, making every car manufacturer aim directly at it. GM has come out with a drastically restyled Chevrolet Malibu, pitching it directly against Camry. Honda, Chrysler too are making sedans to attack Camry’s market.

Advertising can change perceptions, create new perceptions and the one who advertises intelligently scores. Not surprising then, that Toyota, the market leader, accounts for 30% of the total ad-spend by vehicle manufacturers, and in return, rules 25% of the new car market. Performance and features are surely strong selling points, but you can’t ever doubt the impact of advertising.

New ways new times

Times are changing, consumers and their buying habits and patterns are changing too. With a plethora of new models in the market, the generic benefits like fuel efficiency etc., hardly claim to be distinguishing factors between car models. It’s advertising that provides the differentiation and positions the cars. The “Josh Machine” gave Ford Ikon a unique positioning. Santro entered the market by positioning itself as the family car. Then it evolved into the “Sunshine Car.” It used the “Sunshine-Bollywood-stars” Shah Rukh & Preity Zinta to make the car more young & glamorous. Maruti’s “Count on us” slogan gave it the tag of “Mr. Dependable.”

Not just advertisements, you need to constantly innovate your marketing strategies to stay in-sync with the times. Mahindra and Mahindra unveiled its four-wheel drive vehicle, the Quadro, which could be booked on the Internet. Targeted at the up-market, young-at-heart clientele, the Quadro could be customised on the net, where one could select accessories etc.

Movies for long have worked wonderfully in building and promoting car brands. Remember movies like Love Bug, and the more recent one Herbie: Fully Loaded, which had the Beetle as the hero of the films, making it more popular & likeable. The movie Road helped re-launch Tata Safari. Ta Ra Rum Pum was probably a movie made to promote brands. Goodyear, General Motors and Castrol all starred in the forgettable film. So marketing of cars is getting more & more exciting.

A car is today a way of expressing who you are and advertisements today play a very important role in helping build the right image. The spanking new “Nano” needs to build its image very carefully. This is one of the strongest factors that will decide its success or failure in the long run. Don’t forget, it’s advertising that made the most hated car in Germany, a craze in the US. Being pushed as the “people’s car” by Hitler in Germany associated strong negative connotations that lasted more than half a century, while it became iconic and the Love Bug, the Herbie of America. It’s advertising that made this ugly duckling survive, even after being pitted against sleek compact Japanese, European & American cars.

You need to associate your car with the right emotions, the right sentiments. Whatever era, whatever generations, advertising has built and will continue to build brands – right from the Bug to the Nano.

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