Automakers should make efforts to tell a brand story to the masses, similar to what Maruti Suzuki and Mercedes-Benz have done.
Twenty years ago, when at Maruti Suzuki, I was doing a project with marketing wizard Shunu Sen. One day he commented, “Maruti’s product advertising is rubbish. Thank heavens for the corporate advertising you people do which helps build relationships and get customers!”
After recovering from the initial shock, I did an unbiased evaluation and came to the conclusion that millions bought Altos, Zens and WagonRs not for their advertising but because of pieces of communication like “Kancha, yahaan koi service station hai?”, or “Papa, ki karaan, petrol khatam hi nahi haunda!” It was about more than the product; it was about the story of the mother brand.
The customer had primarily associated and aligned with the larger story of accessibility and economy that the Maruti brand was all about, and then the product was decided upon based on other rational factors. In each piece of communication, the brand made a conscious effort to tell a story about its purpose and promise, beyond just pretty pictures of cars and comparative specification charts.
Apart from Maruti and Mercedes-Benz, I have not come across any four-wheeler brand making an effort to tell a brand story. In the two-wheeler space, we do have good examples of Bajaj, Hero and TVS. But in aspirational categories like cars and SUVs, I cannot think of a third example. Whether it is a Tata or a Toyota, the communication is always and only around the product. It is as if without the physical product, the brand would just cease to exist!
In my professional career outside of Maruti Suzuki, I have made feeble attempts at doing so for the brands I worked for but failed. And I have asked numerous colleagues who have led and are leading brands in India why they don’t wish to share the brand story with their existing and potential customers, but have got only facetious replies. Almost all automobile companies waste too much time in sharing trivial specifications with prospects to convert them, while ignoring the larger brand story which might actually help build better connects.
It is sad that some of the world’s most venerable brands operating in one of the world’s biggest markets bothering over screen sizes, ventilated seats and panoramic sunroofs without ever trying to tell their brand stories. One may counter by saying that the Indian customer is not bothered about stories. That would be thoroughly disrespectful of the customer without even making one serious attempt. We know the names of the brands, but do we know about them? No, because we have never been told so.
Marketers believe that it is the product that makes the difference. They think wrong. It is always about the story and how it appeals to specific people. The biggest brands have always told the best stories!
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