When the Tata Nano was unveiled, the Haves groaned.
The triumphant arrival in Jan 2008 of the much-awaited People’s Car was hailed around the world, but Indian car owners were not amused. They blanched at the prospect of those cheap little buggies breeding like cockroaches, jamming already overcrowded roads, and wished Mr Tata had left the Great Unwashed to their own devices.
Soon after came the crisis in Singur, then building the plant at Sanand, with limited supplies coming out of temporary facilities, and finally in June 2010 production commenced at the new 250,000-a-year plant. At last, enough for everyone.But the People sat on their hands. You don’t need data to see that something is not quite as expected, but the data support what you think you see: Nano sales have been dropping steadily month by month, from 9,000 in July to 3,000 in October, even as the passenger car market in the country has been surging.
So what’s the matter?
It’s not the product. It’s spacious (I’m 6ft 3” tall, and I drive it comfortably); the air-conditioning is quick and effective; at 60 kmph it drives effortlessly and sits safely on the road; it parks like a dream; sips fuel delicately; and all that for Rs 1.70 lakh. It is now my preferred car if I’m driving to dinner and have to park in a typically crowded South Delhi colony or at a restaurant.It’s certainly not the manufacturer: it’s Tata, and all that they represent.
Nor is it want of availability: I got mine in four days. That’s great, but it also means, in a burgeoning car market, that not enough people want it. You may blame low supply for the low on-the-road numbers; but if a product is available off the shelf despite the low supply, clearly there isn’t enough demand.
The problem of the Nano is it’s cool: way too cool.
It’s a symbol of contemporary India: not just standing toe-to-toe with the world but teaching it a thing or two. It’s not cheap and nasty, it’s cheap and cheerful and a product not of jugaad but of technological innovation. The Economic Times reports that the 67,000 Nano owners today include “corporate chieftains who otherwise ride on cars whose four wheels alone could buy the people’s car”. (Yours truly counts among the rest.)
Marketing people would give their eye teeth to get their brand such a cachet. But the Nano has become the rich man’s toy, to be bought on a whim, instead of a real car for real, hard-working middle-class families taking out a loan to get one. It doesn’t even look like a real car – funny shape, no bonnet, and no boot. In a market accustomed to hatchbacks, it doesn’t even have a hatch.The problem of the Nano, though, is not what it is or how it looks, but that Tata Motors did not control the communication. To the extent that they did, they got caught up in the contemporariness of the Nano. Much of what they did was terrific for an upmarket, contemporary audience but bypassed the core.
The press reportage was so overwhelming and so positive that it was perhaps tempting to think it was enough and more. But the press did what they should have done, which was to be excited about Mr Tata’s vision and its realisation, the technological achievement, national pride (and of course the Singur fracas and its aftermath). They did not fire the aspiration of the family on the scooter that inspired the vision, and assure them that this technological marvel was safe, reliable economical transportation, nor was it their job to. That was the job of the marketer.
It’s not too late, since supply is still low. But when the cars start rolling out in large numbers and they do get around to managing the brand’s communication, Tata Motors will have to focus on those for whom the Nano was intended, and risk forsaking those who have adopted it. Or that family will be riding a scooter a long time.