NEW DELHI, November 18
In Spanish, "alto" means "high". A word that precisely defines the hopes of Maruti Udyog Ltd (MUL), a company that has had a lot of cold water poured on its plans in recent times. And, in a desperate gamble, the company played with fire in its advertisement campaign for the Alto, or the "hottest little thing", as the company positioned it.
Maruti had put a lot into the launch of the Alto in two versions, the 796-cc Alto LX and the 1061-cc Alto VX 1.1. At the launch, Jagdish Khattar, managing director, MUL, had termed the Alto "a car of desire". But, as it appears, the idea has not quite gone down with the consumer.
Company officials fervently hoped that the Alto would set the company's sales graph on fire. But, after the initial flare-up, the fire seems to be dying out. Even as the overall passenger car market went down by 38 per cent in October, the company was able to sell only 1,853 units of the Alto last month.
A good figure, but most cars have done well in the first month of their launch. Again, the higher sales could mean that the Alto cut into the WagonR sales. A mere 521 WagonRs were sold last month. The same car had sold 10,000 units in its first 100 days. Company officials put the blame on the company's bitter tussles with its workers.
The question is: was the communication strategy for the Alto flawed in the first place? Critics aver that it was. What was being talked about was, as one cynic put it, just another teeny-weeny car, and not something that burned the streets. In an already crowded car market, Maruti failed to differentiate the product. For example, the company could have focussed on the world-class safety features of the car, points out the media chief of a Delhi-based advertising agency.
The advertising agency has its own take on this. "We wanted to communicate the idea that the car was really hot, and that it was a young thing, a beautiful thing," says Kenneth Augustine, creative director, Lowe Lintas, the agency that crafted the advertisement. Adds Jaysree Sundar, account director, "We were not emphasising on the features of the car; what we wanted to do was create excitement around the brand."
And that is where the problem lies. The Alto is a value-for-money car priced at Rs 2.99 lakh and Rs 3.65 lakh in Delhi (ex showroom). "The excitement was created; but around an emotion - that of desire. For a small car, or for a car in the value segment, desire doesn't cut much ice. What people look for are utilitarian benefits, which were never communicated in thee first place," says a Delhi-based auto analyst. Adds Santosh Desai, executive vice-president, McCann Erickson, "Everyone tries to sell a dream. There is nothing wrong with that. But there should be some truth about the ad. In this case, it was very shallow."
In one way, the advertising had the same weaknesses of other advertisements for the Maruti brand, such as that of the WagonR - which, some critics maliciously say, is a prototype model of what would happen if a Maruti 800 is kept between two huge blocks of steel and squeezed - has not done very well in the market.
Ironically, the Alto had a host of world-class features, such as its safety mechanisms. Both Alto versions are equipped with a collapsible steering column, protective side impact beams on the doors made of high tensile steel, and halogen headlamps. Rear door child locks have been fitted as standard on the Alto LX and the VX .1, to protect children in the back. The safety features were not there in the advertisement, which rather tried to sell the "hotness" of the car.
Industry analysts, therefore, feel that if the stress of the campaign was on the safety features of the car, or on the fact that it was just a good car for the price, the Alto's fortunes would have been very different today.
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