Nine lessons for auto brands from West Bengal elections 2021 – ET Auto

Many global and national brands make the fundamental mistake of believing that their global or national leadership can drive business in local markets. Time and again they have been proved otherwise.

Avik Chattopadhyay

It is said that politics, movies, and cricket are the three universal religions in India. They drive us, divide us, teach us, motivate us and keep the nation engaged full-time. All industries, market segments and marketers can learn from them, in terms of what is offered/performed and how consumers react to them.

This piece has nothing to do with politics. It is not about who won or lost or was wrong or right. It is about 9 key lessons that automobile brands operating in India can draw from a key political event that concluded just about a month ago – the assembly elections across 5 states. Of particular interest to me is the one in West Bengal as it garnered the most national interest and was one of the most bitterly fought in recent times.

Given these times, when consumer sentiment is at an all-time low and marketers have enough time on their hands and space in their minds, just give the following a thought.

1. Promising over punching

This is fundamental to any strategy – defining your purpose and promise to be in a market or a segment. Why the market should choose you is what you must have a clear answer to, not just to replace the current market leader. Punching competition cannot be the only objective. Taking out feature-to-feature comparison ads is only tactical, never sustainable. The target segment will enjoy your barbs and gimmicks but not necessarily choose you on merit. Those that do are only looking at the short-term deal.

2. Who leads your brand?

Many global and national brands make the fundamental mistake of believing that their global or national leadership can drive business in local markets. Time and again they have been proved otherwise. The choice of a clear leader who represents the brand and leads it at the local level is crucial, whether to upset the current applecart or keep pushing it. The success of a global brand depends much more on its market-specific leadership and market-specific strategy in each key market. There is no other formula to this.

3. Switchers are not necessarily winners

After deciding on a leader suited to lead the charge, carefully choose the team members. People who keep moving from one brand to another within the same industry are not necessarily the most capable. Most of them are opportunists and wish to remain cocooned in their comfort zone. Build winners from within and inject fresh thinking and approach from outside your industry to challenge decaying convention.

4. Never alienate

Never ever think that any socio-economic segment can be openly alienated in your strategy. Everyone in a market is a potential customer. Alienated customers end up being your worst word-of-mouth damaging your brand’s image that no advertising money can counter. You just cannot tell a potential customer that you ‘do not belong’ to my fold or class. Never think you can increase ‘bonding’ within your ‘fold’ by such divisiveness. Do not raise issues that are either not relevant or hugely sensitive to sections that you might not be directly addressing. That creates enemies before you even create your first advocate.

5. Activation over advertising

Just because you have a lot of money for a market, do not show off. Full-page talking ads do not work in the long run. People gauge gimmicks when they see them. If your brand is about people, go ahead and engage with them at the ground level. I have always believed that customer camps and meetings by the thousands can always replace being at an exhibition if you do not have money for both. And over-reliance on social media and digital forwards cannot substitute a personal visit or a call, even today.

6. Pardon your French

Sorry for using an oft-used phrase but it is not intended at a specific language but all languages and tones which are totally alien to your target customer. You have to communicate in a language that your intended prospect not only understands but can comprehend and even share with others. Never try to impose a language or terminology on people. The tone of voice is equally important as it demonstrates your ability to empathise with your target segments and bring in nuances in your communication that aligns them better with your brand promise.

7. Do not fall for footfalls

Curiosity is very different from conversion. Huge crowds coming to an event or thronging your showroom to see a new product are no parameters to pronounce ‘success’. People thronging your exhibition pavilion are to get a glimpse of your celebrity brand ambassador and not to salivate on your products. Similarly, people following you or liking you on social media will not necessarily ever say a good word about you to others. It is time we stopped falling for the froth rather than smelling the coffee!

8. Humility over hubris

My boss at Peugeot used to keep reminding me, “Nobody’s perfect!” We make incorrect projections, we read trends wrong, we presume things, and we create stereotypes. The list of our mistakes is endless, so we might as well be humble about them and demonstrate some candour and transparency. Covering them up with bluster is the only bluff. In these times, media, analysts, and competition will rip you open with glee the moment you even tread on hubris.

9. Store away that remote control

This is my final but most important takeaway as an automobile marketer from this political event. Nothing works by remote control in this amazingly complex and hyper-active space that is the automobile market. Neither from the global headquarters nor from the national or regional ones and not even from the comfort of your home, even in the WFH world we talk about. One still needs to go out, smell the air, feel the pulse, study the sentiment, and then create the magic. That is the ground-level reality of every automobile marketer and salesperson. That is the only formula that can ensure sustainable success for a brand. Till the time the conjurers do come up with another formula, the remote control can wait!


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