Monday 27 April 2015

Will the ugly duckling become the swan? Why Cyrus Mistry needs to re-think the Tata Motors’ design language

It’s not often that a share price can say as much without saying anything. The Tata Motors scrip
closed at Rs. 517.3 at day end today. Down from a lifetime high of Rs. 1340 sometime in 2011. The scrip remains largely buoyed by a resurgent Jaguar Land Rover. The Tata group’s bid to buy the iconic British brand (from Ford) has perhaps not worked to bolster Tata Motors’ image as a global company and help it go upscale (in the same way that previous acquisitions such as Tetley Tea Ltd and Corus Group Plc. did for Tata Tea Ltd and Tata Steel Ltd, respectively). Instead strong performance by JLR has helped shore Tata Motors share prices which otherwise would’ve been languishing much lower. Share price aside, the problem with Tata Motors is extremely deep-rooted. It’s a brand that’s become synonymous with all that than can possibly go wrong with a brand – which is exactly what happened. 

How has this impacted the brand? Is brand Tata Motors dead? A quick look at Google’s search trends reveals anything but. After Maruti Suzuki, there are more people out there searching for Tata Motors than any other auto brand in India today. But ask a young working couple today if they’d like to buy a Tata car and they’re probably likely to decline. The Zest and Bolt, though interesting vehicles, have hardly set the cash registers ringing. 

That the folks at Tata Motors have a problem on their hands is well known. The untimely demise of Karl Slym, the erstwhile managing director of Tata Motors was definitely a huge loss for the company. Karl had articulated a plan running up to 2020; this includes appropriate focus on alternate fuels, hybrids and electric vehicles. The new Tata Motors would resolve to foster a culture of customer centricity and innovation, so that the company's products and services consistently exceed customer expectations. That vision is now the baby of Cyrus Mistry – known to be an auto aficionado himself.

"There is a need for a cross-functional team, which will be manned by young talent and monitored by senior most leaders, so that youthful team can bring the latest insight into the products for the future," Mistry told employees through a webcast recently. The address happens at a time when the company is facing its biggest loss as well as lowest market share in both passenger and commercial vehicles in a decade. With the recent launch of the Zest and Bolt cars, Tata Motors has managed to arrest its slide in the market, yet the company's volumes at the end of fiscal 2015 showed a double-digit decline. Its market share of 6% was the lowest since fiscal 2005. 

So wherein lies the problem and is there a solution?

I believe that the single, most important issue affecting the car division at Tata is design or rather the lack of it. Performance, quality, reliability etc are defining attributes and not to be negated but for the purpose of this article and specific to the brand resurgence required for Tata’s car division, the three most important elements are design, design and you guessed it, design! Everything else comes later.

Let’s see why. Go back 10-12 years. Look at the auto brands present in India (and still existing). There’s market leader Maruti Suzuki, Tata Motors, Hyundai, General Motors, Toyota, Mahindra and Ford.  All of them produced at least 1 iconic brand (from a design perspective) that even today evokes exclamations of nostalgic ecstasy. For Maurti Suzuki there’s the Zen that continues to have an incredible fan following and was a great car. Hyundai’s tall boy Santro was another icon as was its Accent (which most Indians pronounced as ‘Ascent’). The ‘Ikon’ was the trailblazer for Ford while GM’s Optra was almost there (a good, under-rated car that did not see as much as it should’ve). For Tata Motors, yes, the Indica – the “More Car per Car” did enjoy unprecedented success, but simply forgot to evolve beyond that.

All the above icons had a strong element of design that emerged as a critical aspect of success.  This is also true for the Indica when it was launched (or the Sumo and Safari). But while the design philosophy of most car makers evolved with time, it did not with the Tatas. The Indica morphed into the unbelievably ugly Indigo and each iteration of the series became uglier than the last. And as old icons gave way to new icons (the Santro to the i-20 or the Zen to the Swift), somewhere down the line, the mandarins at Tata Motors lost the plot and the Indica remained exactly that…an Indica, a remnant of the coming-of-age era for Tata Motors.

Cars need to have a personality – something that talks to and engages with the driver / owner. It can be edgy or sublime, in-your-face or subtle – different strokes for different folks and the design (followed with performance) will speak that language and set the context. Marketing and brand gurus milk this for all its worth. From TVCs to ambassadors, influencers to salesmen, customers to aspirants, everyone will speak this one language and set the context for a particular model or series. 

Automakers call this a ‘design language’. The Hyundai’s fluidic range has worked wonders for it in India. In contrast, Ford’s ‘kinetic’ global design language did not work in India with the Fiesta but has done wonders with the Eco Sport. Even Mahindra did a fairly good job of the XUV5OO and earlier with the Scorpio. At Tata Motors they’re calling their new design language DesignNext, to “shape our philosophy in engineering vehicles that not only look good but feel good too.” The Bolt and the Zest followed by the Tata Hexa Concept SUV (and other models) follow or will follow this philosophy. But given the tepid response to the Bolt and the Zest, how DesignNext evolves and is communicated to a wider public in relation to newer cars, SUVs and crossovers remains to be seen. And also whether it bites!

- Rahul Mishra 

1 comment:

  1. Nice Rahul. I agree and hope for their sake the younger lot in the team injects the much required life into their design and brand. However, their start by branding the program 'DesignNext' is not very encouraging (wondering how many offsites were required for that clever name). Clearly, the old fogies need to step aside.