Last week, 14 December 2018, the Maruti turned 35. How time flies! It was on 14 December 1983 that the then Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi handed over the keys of the first Maruti car, to Harpal Singh who would go down in the annals of Indian automotive history as the first ever owner of a Maruti 800.
I was studying at FMS-Delhi way back then in 1983 for my MBA, and visited the Maruti factory for a marketing project just a few weeks before the first Maruti 800 rolled out. The Maruti factory was really far far away in distant Gurgaon, on the Delhi-Haryana border, and it took me an eternity to get there on my bike from Delhi University. What struck me as a young management student was that the entire work force at the new spick-and-span factory were wearing the same uniform, all company-supplied clothes with no exception: a bluish-grey uniform with the Maruti wings imprinted/embroidered on the left pocket in a darker shade of blue. The only differentiating factor was the colour of the cap: grey for workers, blue for supervisory staff and white for managerial cadres. Everyone ate the same food in the same self service canteen (in contrast leading automotive manufacturer Escorts at nearby Faridabad served a four-course white gloved lunch to its covenanted staff in a 5-star lunch room). No one in the entire sprawling Maruti complex had an individual office cabin, except for the CMD, V. Krishnamurthy. My young mind was fascinated by the corporate democracy on display.
The initial productivity at Maruti was planned at 25 cars per employee per year. Just to get a comparative perspective, Hindustan Motors, the manufacturers of the Ambassador car produced two cars per employee per year. The young manager that I met at the yet-to-be-functional marketing department at Maruti Udyog Limited (as Maruti Suzuki was then called) was actually a bit apologetic that the global standard amongst leading automobile manufacturers then was about 50 cars per employee per year. “Maruti will catch-up one day soon”, he said. Those were prophetic words. Maruti Suzuki is getting there today: it produced 15,68,603 vehicles last year with an employee base of 34,515 employees, which is verging on to almost 50 cars per employee per year.
I remember that my business school project was centred around customer service. The Maruti manager introduced me to a wholly alien and new concept for those times: besides its car dealerships, the company would launch its Maruti Authorised Service Stations (MASS) which would provide standardised car care with Maruti Genuine Parts (MGP) across India. The Maruti strategy, I was told, was to have the service network as a USP of the brand since demand for the small car would over time come from Tier-II, Tier-III and rural pockets of India. 35 years ago, this sure was far-sighted thinking. Currently, Maruti Suzuki has over 2,000 dealerships in 1,667 cities along with 3,200 MASS workshops spread across the country. The carmaker also has an additional 250 premium dealerships called the premium Nexa outlets. In the next three years, Maruti will open an additional 1,000 dealer outlets and another 1,800 MASS service centres which will be more than the current combined sales and service network of three carmakers- Nissan, Renault and Fiat in the country!
I was back at Maruti a year later. This time as a management trainee working at the paint company, Goodlass Nerolac. Maruti was the first automotive manufacturer in the country to install a highly advanced Japanese E-Coat painting system from Kansai, the partners of Nerolac. The new system had been designed for uniform DFT distribution with super high throwing power to achieve minimum cost/unit with excellent performance. I would visit the paint booth almost every day for a week as part of my internship. I was fascinated by the advancement in technology that Maruti was ushering in. The new paint system ensured uniform coverage without pinholes, or other surface defects, leading to less paint consumption; better edge protection resulting in corrosion resistance; coating / access to recessed areas like box-sections etc. Maruti was at least a few generations ahead of Ambassador and Fiat. Another interesting insight that I picked up (and it has not changed in three decades) is that more than two out of three cars sold are white or a shade of white. Despite the Maruti bringing in a new palette of colours, including the famous red, Indians still preferred to play it safe with white as the most preferred colour by far.
I was at HTA Delhi when the agency was tasked with ‘re-launching’ the Maruti Van. I was not on the account but was witness to the legendary Denis Joseph creating perhaps the only brand advertising for Maruti in the 1980s. Denis, true to his cavalier style of writing, first mocked the Maruti Van as a ‘bread-box’ then went on to re-brand it as the Maruti Omni. There was actually a branding contest within the agency. My suggestion, ‘car-a-van’ almost made the final choice. But legend has it that Denis used to read the highly intellectual Omni magazine (perhaps the only copy sold in the Indian capital was bought by him!) and decided to convert his love for the magazine into the brand name for the van!
The year was perhaps 1990 or 1991 when Maruti again came into my life. This time through one of its lead vendors, Subros. Less than 3 per cent of Marutis in those days left the factory with OE fitted air conditioning. But life styles were changing and a healthy market was starting to build up outside of the OE fitment. Subros was the OE supplier to Maruti, but were now starting to produce Maruti air conditioners for the secondary market, through a collaboration with Nippondenso of Japan. We created some really interesting advertising about how air conditioning in the car not only made for a comfortable ride, but saved you from pollution. Well, today almost 100 per cent of Maruti’s production comes with air conditioning as a standard fitment and customers no longer need to be educated about protection from pollution!
It was about the same time that I met a young chartered accountant, Ravi Oberoi, who ran First Maruti, a leasing company completely dedicated to the re-sale market for Maruti. The Maruti had launched in 1983 with a price tag of Rs. 52,000. In about a decade, the price of the Maruti had almost doubled. But more importantly, the premium on the Maruti was almost the same as the price of the car as the waiting time post booking was nearly a year, actually more. So, customers had no choice but to wait or to pay a hefty premium if they wanted their Maruti in a bit of a rush. Ravi was amongst the first pioneers to partner with Citibank to ‘officialise’ the secondary market demand through loan and leasing products. I was then at Interact Vision, a subsidiary agency of Mudra. With Ravi we created some really impactful advertising, including opening up a fleet-sales market for the newly launched Maruti 1000. Maruti was the engine of growth and opportunity for many many enterprises that lived off it. And continues to be so for ancillaries, vendors, dealers, partners and more.
In 1994, I took over as the branch head of Rediffusion Delhi. Tucked away somewhere in our list of clients was Maruti Udyog Limited. I was told that, without fail, every month we released a small 30 column-centimeter ad in all leading newspapers nationally for Maruti announcing all the ‘matured’ bookings for the month. Effectively this was an intimation to customers who had booked a Maruti that their car would be ready for delivery during the month. So, no brand advertising, just a rationing announcement! Competition was starting to announce itself. Daewoo had already arrived. Hyundai too was starting to shift gears. I asked for an appointment with the client at Maruti.
The ‘client’ actually turned out to be two marketing heads at the Maruti office in Connaught Place: a Japanese gentleman, Kozo Senga, and an IAS-turned-corporate Jagdish Khattar. Both of them sat in the middle of a large open hall next to each other, with no privacy, no cabins. The ‘open’ culture at Maruti continued and still continues to this day. Messrs Senga and Khattar were surprised to see me as meetings with the ad agency were really not an everyday happening at Maruti. Mr. Khattar, however, asked me to clean-up the Maruti sign-off, “Maruti: Building Trust Worldwide”. I came back with a dozen options the next day. Mr. Khattar liked what he saw. He asked me to meet Sunila Dhar who briefed me on a rally for the newly launched Maruti Zen. Overnight again, Team Rediffusion led by Gullu Sen our creative director, came back with “Zen and the Art of Maximum Mileage” branding for the customer rally. Mr. Khattar again liked what he saw. He and I became good friends.
Meanwhile, Senga san too was quite taken up by the idea of actively using an advertising agency. But he was appalled by how little we knew about the company or its products. Gullu and I underwent almost a compulsory indoctrination over the next few weeks, including many visits to large dealerships like Competent Motors and Sai Auto. Senga san then asked for me to visit the Suzuki headquarters at Hamamatsu in Japan. I spent a wonderful week at Suzuki under the charge of Kinji Saito, then a bright young manager in the marketing department at Suzuki HQ. Kinji san was to come in later years as the Director Marketing to Maruti Suzuki India and still sits on the Board of the Indian company. Kinji san took me to visit many many dealerships and service locations of Suzuki. But the highlight of the visit was my sneak preview of the soon-to-be-introduced-in-India Wagon-R which was already the best selling small car in Japan. Since small cars, especially in upcountry Japan, were largely driven by female drivers, the Wagon-R had some really interesting features. The boot of the car had a really small but functional ironing board and an actual steam iron that could be used by the lady drivers to smoothen out any last minute wrinkles on their jacket just before leaving the car for work or shopping!! Similarly, how customer driven the Japanese can be was best illustrated by another feature in the Wagon-R: the driver seat actually had a small refrigerated space under it for a shopping basket to carry home ice cream or other such perishables! The other front seat similarly had space under it for another small shopping basket with provision to carry delicate cargo like eggs!
Mr. Khattar, meanwhile, was keenly looking at emerging competition as the likes of General Motors, Ford, Honda and Toyota were all entering India. The keen strategist that he was, Mr. Khattar correctly figured that the biggest Maruti advantage was its vast dealer and service network. To communicate this superiority over competition, Gullu Sen created one of Maruti’s most famous and enduring TV commercials ever, the ‘Kancha’ ad shot in Leh-Ladakh, to highlight that Maruti Service Stations existed even where there was no place to stay or eat.
Jagdish Khattar was overjoyed by the response to the ‘Kancha’ commercial and we at Rediffusion became the preferred ad agency of Maruti there on.
I could go on and on. Maruti is one of those amazing companies to have retained a 50 per cent plus market share over the years despite the entry of every large global brand into India. That in itself is testimony to the innovativeness and the strength of the Maruti brand name in India. Maruti has sold over 20 million cars in India so far. The last 35 years have been truly amazing for Maruti. I am sure the next 35 will be equally awesome.
Meanwhile, the first ever Maruti 800 handed over to Harpal Singh by Smt. Indira Gandhi, I am told is lying in utter neglect in Green Park New Delhi ever since its original owners passed away a few years ago. In this, the 35th year of its existence, it would only be in keeping with the goodness of Maruti to acquire its first ever car sold in India and house the Maruti 800 either at its Gurgaon factory or its Vasant Kunj corporate office to remind us all of when and where the miraculous Maruti story first began.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal enjoys writing nostalgic pieces that trace the history of corporate India, especially through brands like Maruti that he has had the privilege to work on personally.