Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Indian car buyers: a smarter generation

If you are an automobile manufacturer and want to launch a model in India, you albeit have to do a lot of market analysis. And the huge market in India provides a sea of data to base your analysis on. How many Mahindra Scorpios were sold versus how many Tata Safaris? What is the preference of any particular geography? Did more Safaris get sold in the Northern parts of India? If yes, why so? Does it have to do with the cultural preferences of a particular race? According to a market research agency, although a Mahindra Scorpio is more reliable and the service experience is infinitely better than at a Tata outlet, North Indians have shown the Safari preference over a Scorpio solely on the basis of aesthetics. Do Indians go by hearsay or do they make their own decisions? Is a place where potential customers gather their information from? How does it influence their final buying decision?

You can understand if a foreign manufacturer like Nissan or Renault have not had the chance to do a lot of research before coming into the market and hence some of their solo products are not even taking off. Nissan, for example, have sold only a handful of their Teana, which is a premium luxury sedan. On the other hand, Skoda could manage to sell a lot of their Superb in the same price bracket. The number has nothing to do with the quality of a premium product like that but with a customer's buying behavior. Now let's look at what influences an Indian customer's choice between Renault Fluence or Chevrolet Cruze. The Cruze is better marketed both in print and television ads, there are many Chevrolet outlets in your city, and a test drive can easily be arranged. Because there are other Cruze owners around, one can ask around about any quirks that their cars have shown. So, even if there are persistent clutch problems and climate control issues reported in a Cruze, a customer can be seen preferring it over a Fluence. If the customer, however, prefers elegant European designs over flashy American ones, she might think between the Fluence and the Skoda Laura and opt for the latter. "Let Renault sell some more cars without the help of Mahindra, let them set up a few more dealerships in my area/city, and I can think about it."

Chevrolet themselves couldn't get it right initially. They were launching petrol models one after another, and all of them tanked at the box office. The much publicized Aveo lost out to Ford Fiesta, which had a diesel variant coupled with aggressive sales. The U-VA was launched a few years ahead of its time when the Indian mindset was to buy hatchbacks priced only below Rs 4 lakhs or so. Their diesel Tavera did sell as a people mover, allowing them to stay afloat, but it was the launch of the Optra Magnum diesel that changed the game for them and brought them back to contention.

The only manufacturer that staunchly held on to its "only gasoline" cars was Honda. And in the current scenario, they have also been forced to slash the prices of their models drastically. When you get a Fluidic Verna crdi or a Ford Fiesta Kinetic TDCi for a similar price, why would you buy a petrol Honda? The Jazz, a premium hatchback, was frugal in terms of fuel efficiency (the 1.2 liter mill being a really efficient one), but the initial pricing was a huge mindblock for an Indian customer. "If I pay 8 lakhs, why should I go for a hatchback?" So the price cut on the Honda Jazz is the biggest we saw in recent times.

Did the Indian manufacturers have it easy? Take the case of Tata Aria, premium 4wd UV with 17" wheels and unlimited features. The people who did the market research for Tata got it all wrong. They launched a product at such a premium pricing that nobody who could afford to shell out that kind of money would want to settle for a Tata product. They could easily go for a Ford Endeavour, a Chevy Captiva, or more importantly, a Toyota Fortuner. More reliable, better plastics and interiors, better service. Why Aria? I will leave out the discussion about its design because it is just a little more inspiring to look at than the Innova, and the front grille looks straight out of an Indica. At least borrow the Safari's grille? But that's my personal opinion and nobody has to subscribe to it. So, after all this didn't warm up the Indian customer, they had to go back to the drawing board, take off a lot of the features, take away the 4wd transmission case, and relaunch it at a much lower price point. Within days of this rethinking, one could see many Arias on the road.

The Skoda Yeti 1.4 is coming, did you know? Another relaunch, another story of having read the Indian customer wrong. The price will be around 11 lakhs. The one available abroad delivers a peppy 122 ps so one can expect this 2wd beauty of a car to get a fresh lease of life on Indian shores. Surely the Indian car buyer can't be fooled no more. And there are some morons still building the Morris Oxford and trying to sell it to us.