Aishwarya Ramesh

"Product differentiation is diminishing in the auto sector": Rahul Pansare, FCA India

FCA India's vice president of marketing, Rahul Pansare, on the marketing challenges facing the auto sector today. He also talks about the challenges of selling a car to a modern Indian consumer.

FCA India, manufacturer of SUV, Jeep Compass, recently added a new range of diesel variants in its line up. The Jeep Compass Diesel Automatic is positioned as ’Urban off-roader’. The latest TVC campaign, created by Leo Burnett India, has a black and white tone, backed by a retro Bollywood soundtrack and a neo-retro visual style. The campaign media mix includes TVC, OOH and a major digital push through OTT channels and other digital platforms.

Edited excerpts from a conversation with Pansare:

How was the campaign conceptualised? Can you tell us about the consumer insight it was based on?

The new ad is for Jeep's diesel variant. When we looked at the product offering, we realised the strength is in its diesel engine and the technology it harnesses, which makes it a good fit for urban involvement. So, the brief to the agency was to differentiate the product – that offers different functionality, but is still a Jeep Compass. We have to differentiate it for our customers because on the surface, it may look like a regular Compass, but under the hood is a completely different story.

The whole objective was to position this car as an urban SUV. When the agency took the brief, they came back with one thought – that when you talk about Jeep, you can't really remove the off-roading part from the communication since that’s a part of the brand’s core. To differentiate the campaign, we had to do something that looked visually different on the screen, so the black and white look was a result of that.

There's news that FCA India is looking for a new agency partner. What are your expectations from incoming agency partners?

The core expectation is that the agency team behaves like a partner. We don’t have a strict client-agency relationship as such. Moreover, I think that the business understanding and a little bit of understanding of the category, and what's happening in the segment adds a lot more depth to the discussion that we will have with potential agency partners.

Rahul Pansare
Rahul Pansare

What do you have to keep in mind while briefing the agency? How do you ensure that you have the most effective communication and brief them accordingly?

The brief that they (the agency) are given should be absolutely open-ended. It should have a clear information on what is expected from the campaign. When I say that it has to be open-ended, what I mean is it can't have strict guidelines and the agency should have enough freedom to go out there and explore different possibilities. The moment you put a lot of rules and guidelines on the creative thought process, you end up restricting the creativity altogether.

We tell the agency that this is what our product is and this is what our consumer does and at the end of the campaign, this is what I expect to achieve. What happens in between is the creative process. The briefs are open-ended, the creative teams are more engaged with the products and consumer insights to ensure that we have the best end product and that’s how we stay true to the brand’s core values. You don’t forget what the product offering is and stay true to what the consumer is actually looking for.

What are some of the marketing challenges that Jeep has been facing in the wake of the economic slowdown?

Our marketing challenges are on two fronts. First, at the product differentiation level. Every OEM is trying to enter the SUV space. What’s happening in the rat race is that product differentiation is really diminishing. It’s hard to tell the difference between two SUVs or hatchbacks of different brands. What’s happening is that manufacturers are closely studying cars that became ‘success stories’ and trying to replicate it.

As a result, most products today have identical features and functionalities. For some products, it's just an SUV in shape and nothing else – meaning that apart from its physical form, the car does not have any of the core SUV functionalities and that becomes a challenge because the consumer doesn’t see the differentiation. As a marketer, it’s a challenge to create that differentiation in their mind.

In this case, the product and the brand plays a major role in helping the consumer decide whether he opts for something or not. The challenge is that it's no more about glamorous marketing – it's all about talking about what your product can deliver and how your brand can differentiate.

We have seen one of the worst times in the second half of 2019. We were hoping to see some uplift, there was some hold up from the consumer point of view because of the transformation from the BSIV to the BSVI movement. Post the budget, we saw a little bit of an uplift, but it's not enough to recover from the past losses that we’ve incurred. The challenge is to not only recover what we’ve lost, but, as a segment, grow and attract new consumers.

How have consumer expectations from automobile brands evolved in the past decade?

What has happened is that today’s car buyer is well-educated, well-researched and smart. He knows what he wants and where to put his money, and he will only invest when he is convinced about the product offering. It’s very easy to attract the buyer with glamorous advertising and writing good copy, but if a product lacks substance, it will not convert into a sale. Today's buyer knows as much as the sales consultant or a company personnel because of social media, and auto journalists do a fantastic job of reviewing the cars. Basically, now the information is out there in the market. You can’t really fool a customer today, your product and brand has to do a much bigger (better) job in converting that prospect into a buyer.

To sum it up, how would you sell a car to a modern Indian consumer?

A modern Indian is a smart buyer who's concerned with the product offering. If the value proposition delivers to his expectations then he will buy the product. When it comes to my own brand, it is about delivering on the product promise and if the brand is worth it. He’s not only buying four wheels, he’s buying a promise. When a prospective customer comes to a showroom or meets us at an event then we make it a point to demonstrate our product offering to him so he knows exactly what he’s buying into.

We have a database of Jeep consumers in India, and we meet and interact with our customers on a regular basis. We had the customer profile in mind while designing this campaign. An average customer of ours is 30-45 years old and 80 per cent of our customers are male. The campaign is intended to cater to that kind of profile.