100 years and counting: Samsonite on a branding spree

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing | January 18, 2010
Travel gear brand Samsonite has witnessed a category change over the last 100 years of its existence. A look at some of the marketing initiatives the brand plans to undertake in India over this year

When a brand has been around for a hundred years, it has seen it all. 2010 marks the centenary year completion for Samsonite - a brand that has witnessed the transformation of a category from a seemingly rudimentary term like luggage into the more evolved 'travel gear', from a commodity/utility item to a style statement and from an unorganised, haphazard industry into a sophisticated one.

To mark the completion of 100 years, the brand has aggressive marketing plans in India. afaqs! explores.

& #BANNER1 & #Categorically speaking

Luggage in essence equals baggage and the word isn't exactly the friendliest one when it comes to branding or appealing to consumers. Several decades ago, travel was restricted only to the elite few. In India, trains were the dominant mode of travel for a long time, and even with airlines, travel mainly involved the check-in of luggage separately.

"A product that isn't close to your body when you're using it becomes more of a utility/commodity and one doesn't take too much pride in it. The same problem haunted the travel industry until the weights issues were sorted and concepts like cabin luggage and compact luggage were invented," remarks Sudip Ghose, director, marketing, Samsonite India.

The brand was quick to identify changing consumer needs and started producing luggage that was durable yet light. The category evolved to a travel gear one, where the kind of bags a person carries become a personal statement. "Our vision is to shift from travel gear to travel wear - something a consumer proudly displays on him," remarks Ghose, adding the joke that the creation of backpacks are a step in that direction as they are, quite literally, worn on a person's body.

Samsonite operates in the mid to high-end segment (with its range starting from Rs 5,500 and going up to as high as Rs 85,000), while its second brand, American Tourister, caters to the 'mass with a class' or those masses that don't mind paying a little extra for better quality (the brand's range starts at Rs 2,700).

The slowdown at the end of 2008 led to Samsonite reducing its lowest price point by Rs 1,000 but in 2010, it shall revert to its original price point. Samsonite's tagline for the last four years is 'Life's a journey', a more human statement as compared to the earlier one, 'World-proof'.

According to Ghose, the travel gear market in India is estimated at Rs 2000 crore, out of which Rs 1,000 crore is organised. Within this, in the premium segment, Samsonite faces competition only from a few small players in India, whereas American Tourister has more rivals to tussle with in the mass bracket, including VIP.

In 2009, Samsonite added 18 cities to its expansion plan and will expand to another 12 cities in 2010. While Samsonite will grow via exclusive retail, American Tourister will grow via mass distribution.

Lugging on the fashion

Globally, the last few years have seen Samsonite skewing towards changing its product range and positioning to a fashion-oriented one, with global designers such as Alexander McQueen on board to design various products, including the very premium Samsonite Black Label. Furthermore, last year, Sir Richard Branson was roped in to endorse the brand, a move that attempted to make the brand more of a personality statement.

Recently, Samsonite launched the Cosmolite: a product that makes use of its patented material (Curv) to create the 'lightest yet toughest' range of bags. As per research by Samsonite, the Cosmolite was able to withstand a truck going over it, with no damage to it, which led to the positioning premise. A commercial, created by TBWA Worldwide, is currently on air for Cosmolite across various countries including India, which shows a man performing various stunts with the bag while it remains intact.

So is this another case of a global positioning and communication being offloaded in other countries without customisation? "We found it relevant to air the global commercial here as the Indian consumer will find the message of toughness and lightness relevant as well. Besides, for the globe trotters who are our core target audience, the commercial represents a unified language by the brand across countries - no matter where he travels," Ghose shrugs.

However, a centenary celebration commercial released in India has been created by the brand's agency in India, Contract Advertising. It has two versions - a five seconder and a ten seconder - which show a globe turning on its axis while the voiceover goes, "Celebrating a century of going places - Samsonite".

Although the brand's tagline is 'Life's a journey', the centenary campaign shall make use of the thought 'Celebrate a century of going places', a centenary-specific statement that the company shall reflect in its visiting cards, retail stores and other touch points for this year. Further, the centenary logo - which is derived from the main Samsonite logo - shall be highlighted across these touch points for a year.

The centenary commercials were unveiled through a roadblock of sorts across 55 channels on January 1 and 2, wherein the first commercial on every ad break for two continuous days was a Samsonite centenary one. This is among the first steps at communication undertaken by a brand that otherwise advertises itself rather thinly in India.

In March, Samsonite shall also launch a centenary accessory range in India.

What's in 'store'

To Samsonite, its stores are its strongest branding vehicle. "If people spend 'X' amount on their stores, we spend 'X+40 per cent'," says Ghose, the idea being that of wowing its customers. Samsonite stores are present in various high-end malls in India and its market share in the premium luggage segment is about 80 per cent.

The brand has also unveiled a different initiative - that of launching Samsonite business stores. This model is akin to a McDonald's joint at railway stations, or even a Café Coffee Day Xpress. Just the way these target a specific set of customers who are 'on-the-go', Samsonite's business stores will stock a wide range/assortment of products relevant to a business traveller, or a person who may not have too much time to scour various stores.

The company shall flood these stores with a large business product assortment, including accessories such as laptop bags, to cater to this segment exclusively. These won't be very large stores (400-500 square feet) and will be located in and around airports, business districts and areas frequented by the business executives.

The plan is to unveil stores at Mumbai (international and domestic) airports to begin with: launches which should be completed by February 1.

Other office areas being targeted include Nehru Place in New Delhi, Kalaghoda Fort and Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai, Sector 5 (Salt Lake) in Kolkata and White Field in Bengaluru, among others, besides the Domino's and Subway outlets frequented by business travellers. Further, some existing broad range Samsonite stores in Bengaluru and Hyderabad will be converted into these business stores.

What is the rationale behind launching such stores? Currently, about 30 per cent of Samsonite's revenue comes from business travel sales and the company feels that this figure has the potential to grow. The concept of exclusive business stores was also propelled by the fact that the business traveller is comparatively recession proof as compared to the leisure traveller, in the sense that he cannot cut back much on his travelling needs, unlike a leisure traveller who can postpone his vacation trip for better financial days.

"Also, the fact that we have launched a separate store concept for the business traveller as opposed to a smallish business products counter in a regular luggage store gives out a message to him on how serious we are about his needs: that we have so many products for him that we can actually cater to him exclusively," Ghose tells afaqs!.

The first phase will involve the launch of 15-20 such stores this year. Depending on the response, it may even launch a campaign for Samsonite Business Stores after Diwali.

Bollywood calling, and more

Samsonite as a brand is looking at associating with/integrating itself into movies rather seriously. However, this is true only for films with relevant scripts or plots about travel. To begin with, Samsonite will gain high visibility with the upcoming and much hyped Shah Rukh Khan starrer, My Name is Khan, which is the story of a man's journey in various senses of the word. Khan will be seen using a Samsonite backpack across the film as he travels. The film even sports a punch-line 'An ordinary man, an extraordinary journey…for love'. Co-branded commercials for the same have also been launched by the brand.

Some other movie projects are also on the cards.

The next plan for Samsonite India is to launch a campaign for American Tourister, which will conclude in May and the campaign shall be recalled just before Diwali. Being a mass brand, American Tourister is also looking at associating itself with the field of cricket soon.

The company is looking at a 40-45 per cent growth target across all its brands in this calendar year (last year, it grew by 12 per cent). Its ad spends this year are Rs 30 crore, with half of it being spent on the first quarter itself. The ad spends will be divided equally between American Tourister and Samsonite. Above the line activities will consume 70 per cent of the spends, particularly outdoor. The company is also looking at online branding seriously, including branding on travel sites, technology/gadget oriented sites (which the business traveller may frequent) and, as Ghose puts it, "GECs" of the Internet such as Yahoo!, Rediff and MSN. The aim is to reach 90 million impressions this year.

To reach out to young customers who don't mind paying a slight premium for their travel gear, Samsonite and American Tourister have created pages on social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut and also have their presences on Twitter. "Even our channel mix is changing; the roadblock we did didn't just look at business channels. We also roped in Channel V and MTV," Ghose says. For the Samsonite team, 'The brand is a 100 years young'.