Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ambassador : Marketing Myopia

Brand : Ambassador
Company : Hindustan Motors
Agency : Mudra/ Equus
Brand Analysis Count : 326

Ambassador can be called as the first Indian car. Although the car has a British legacy, it is considered as definitive Indian car. Ambassador was born in 1958. The car owes its design and technology to a British car model - Morris Oxford which was built by Morris Motor Co at Oxford UK. Hindustan Motors launched the Indianised version of Morris Oxford as Ambassador in 1958.

From 1958 to 1980's Ambassador ruled the Indian market. Infact there were only two cars in the Indian market - Premier Padmini and Ambassador. The licence raj, lack of capital and the unfriendly Indian economic policies ensured that no automobile manufacturers entered the Indian market.

1983 saw the emergence of a new era in the Indian car market. Maruti Udyog Ltd launched the Maruti 800. Soon Ambassador lost its leadership position to Maruti. The family segment which is the largest segment in the car market embraced Maruti. Ambassador was reduced to a marginal player within no time.

But Ambassador had some advantages over 800 which made it dearer to certain segments. It was the only Indian car with Diesel option. During those times, there was a significant difference in the prices between Diesel and Petrol. Second advantage was the space and sturdiness of the Amby. These two factors enabled the brand to become popular among big families and more importantly among the Taxi and tour operators.

Amby was perceived to be a sturdy car ideal for Indian roads. The brand also had a positive perception of being less expensive to maintain. These two were only perceptions . Infact Ambassador was expensive to maintain and even though the car looked sturdy and well built, the car lacked the quality and refinement. Rattling sounds and rusting was common complaints .
But consumers bought the car because of the significant economy of diesel cars which made consumers to compromise on other parameters.

Another significant market for Ambassador was the Government. Over 16 % of the brand sales came from the Government. Ambassador was the first choice for most bureaucrats . Ambassador used to be the Prime Minister's car till 2002. That status was lost when the PM of that time Mr Atal Bihari Vajpai replaced Ambassador with a BMW Limo.

Soon the officials also lost interest in the brand. With the emergence of new and better models from other auto-makers, there was a significant drop in the orders from the Government.
The fall of Ambassador from a leadership position to a marginal player is a classic case of marketing myopia. For four decades, the brand has been taking its customers for granted. There are many reasons that can be attributed to this brand's failure. The fundamental issue was with the product and price.
If we look at the product, Ambassador never changed with times. The brand made many cosmetic changes from 1958-2000 and three upgrades was made which was named as Mark II, Mark III and Mark IV . There was no significant value addition between these upgrades. The look and the built quality remained the same. A major change happened when the brand introduced a 1800 Isuzu engine. The Amby with Isuzu again lifted the sales of the brand. But the euphoria was short lived.
The apathy of HM to offer product changes in tune with the times made the brand stale. Second factor that failed Amby was the price. HM never bothered to rationalize the price of the brand. Even now Ambassador costs more than Rs 4,80,000. At that price one could afford a more luxurious Indigo sedan.
According to reports, the HM plant had achieved full depreciation in 2000. But the company did not thought of passing on the reduced cost to the consumer. Had the company rationalised the price of Amby in 2000, the brand could have survived the competition.
The nail in the coffin came with the launch of Indica. Indica took away the taxi car market from Ambassador. Again the diesel loving individual consumers had a better affordable modern car as compared to the ageing Ambassador.
In order to lift the sagging sales of the brand, HM launched a radically designed Ambassador variant Avigo in 2004. Although the styling was radical, the customer response was lukewarm.
Indian consumer is now spoilt with choices. The competition is immense and the quality of cars has also gone up. Consumers now have new set of purchase considerations like quality, brand, drivability, luxury ,cost of maintanence etc
In the value proposition domain, Ambassador is never in the radar of the consumers. The narrowing price difference between petrol and diesel also eroded the value in investing in an old dated Ambassador.
The company also has never invested in the brand. Without investing in either brand or product, HM had sealed the fate of this brand .
The question that arise is could a brand like Ambassador maintain its position Indian market despite all the competition?
In the brand management perspective, its suicidal not to continuosly invest in a brand .Often heritage brands wait till it becomes dated. Once the brand becomes dated, its virtually impossible to rejuvenate the brand. The task is to prevent the brand to become dated. For that the brand has to go to the consumer for ideas. Changes in product or promotions can sustain the brand even in the light of emerging competition. Brands like Lux , lifebuoy, Surf has been successful because of continuous investment in branding and product development.
Ambassador should have learned from Maruti 800. The brand is still surviving because it made changes along with the changing consumer values. Also the brand rationalised its price in the light of emerging competition which made Maruti 800 relevant even in the current market.
I am not saying that Amby had the potential to become an Iconic brand like Volkswagen Beetle. But the brand could have been relevant to Indian market as a basic family car. It is a herculean task to bring Ambassador back to life. A price below the price of Indica is the only option for the brand to keep its fortunes alive.