Monday, November 17, 2008

Marketing Funda : Marlboro Friday

On November 12 , 2008 , Honda Motors India shocked the Indian autoworld by offering the biggest discount of 40% for its hybrid Civic. The country's first hybrid car Honda Civic was introduced in the Indian market this June. The launch price of Civic Hybrid was Rs 21.5 Lakh. Now the car is sold at Rs 13.5 Lakh.

Naturally the news was the talk of the town. For two reasons, first was the quantum of discount.It was the largest discount seen in that sector and second was that no body expected a price cut from a car maker like Honda.

Now the reason for the price cut has been officially out . The price cut was to clear the inventory . Honda had expected that the customers will buy the new generation Civic Hybrid for the prohibitive cost of Rs 21.5 Lakh. How ever Indian consumers gave this product a miss.

The huge price did not justify the value offered by the car. For one reason, Indians do not care too much for the eco-friendly proposition. We like eco-friendly cars but not at the cost of Rs 21 lakhs. Infact the hybrid feature was not motivating enough to justify the price. The dampener was the 105% import duty which forced Honda to sell the brand at such a high price.

The Civic Hybrid was imported as a completely built unit . The first shipment of 25o cars reached India this June. So far Honda was able to sell only 30 cars.

For high technology products and also products with " limited edition/Special edition" tags have only limited shelf life. When time passes, their value also erodes. Hence Honda had to sell off the inventory. To add to this problem, another shipment of 250 hybrids were on the way.

Honda maintains that the current discount is applicable for 190 cars only. That means the next lot of hybrids will be costing more.

All these events remind me of the famous Marlboro Friday.

On April 2 1993, Philip Morris which is a global cigarette major cut the price of its flagship brand Marlboro by 20 % in the US market. This sent shocking wave across the consumer market in USA. The stock market reacted violently and Philip Morris stock went down by 23 %. The entire consumer goods stocks fell drastically on that day. The market felt that consumer companies have buckled under the pressure of low-price competitors.

Philip Morris at that time was reeling under the pressure from discount brands . The low priced Cigarette brands was eating away the market share of Marlboro which was the market leader.

The branded cigarette business at that time also faced serious issues like
a. Demarketing by government
b.Restrictions on advertising and promotions.
c.Threat of law suits.
d. Price competition from discount players.

Philip Morris justified the price by saying that the price cut is a part of the major shift in the business strategy for long term growth. Many analysts blasted the company and predicted that the iconic brand status of Marlboro will bite the dust.
Philip Morris argued that it will not be able to withstand if it does not react to the price competition.

The Marlboro price cut was followed by a price restructuring exercise by the company across the product line. While the price of premium brands were reduced, it increased the price of its own low priced brands. The aim was to reduce the gap between the premium brands and the low priced brands.

The price cut was executed initially through sales promotions like coupons and offers like one + one free. Later the discount were made permanent .

The brand felt that once the price differential between premium and low priced brands are reduced, customers will choose the branded ones.

Although for the short -term, Philip Morris suffered revenue loss and share price beating, the strategy proved to be correct. After a year, the price competitors suffered and customers began to buy the brand. Marlboro regained its lost market share and share price of Philip Morris went back to sunny times.
The whole event is now known in the marketing world as Marlboro Friday.

I think that the price cut of Honda in India should be called as by Hybrid Wednesday.

Unlike the Marlboro price cut, Honda Civic price cut is not strategic but tactical. But the price cut throws some relevant marketing questions .

The most important question is about the brand equity. Many think that such a drastic price cut will hamper the brand equity of Honda. Since the price cut is for a specific variant, I don't think that Honda as a brand will suffer. Remember that Honda brand is build on attributes like quality, technology ,innovation etc which are still very relevant .

Another question that arises is the fate of those customers who had bought the car for Rs 21 lakh. Obviously when there is such a drastic price- cut, the existing customers are obviously going to be pissed off. According to reports, Honda is planning to compensate the existing customers although its not legally binding. Since there are only 30 customers who suffered because of price-cut, it makes marketing sense to compensate them because these customers are ' innovators ' who have lot of ' value ' among the target audience.

Although Honda claims that price cut is for 190 cars only , I have serious doubt whether they will be able to sell the next lot of hybrid cars for anything more than 15 lakhs. In a way the brand has fallen into a price range by its own making. It will also be a price benchmark for all those car marketers who have plans to launch their own hybrid cars.

What is interesting is that although Honda has misjudged the pricing during the launch, it had corrected the mismatch swiftly. It takes lot of guts for marketers to admit that they had made a mistake.
Honda quickly acted on the inventory problem and rightly identified the new price. According to reports, with in a day of announcing the price cut, Honda was able to sell a whopping 98 cars. So in a way the entire event help discover the price for such an innovative technology based product.