Aishwarya Ramesh
Interviews

What are Maruti Suzuki's top executives doing in an ad for Vitara Brezza?

Shashank Srivastava and CV Raman unabashedly spell out the SUV's specifications in a 3.5 minuter. We asked the former all about his strategy.

The Vitara Brezza first made its debut at the 2020 Delhi Auto Expo in February. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way cars are bought, sold and viewed, and Maruti Suzuki has also been affected by this. However, as India attempts to ‘unlock’, the carmaker has taken the opportunity to release an ad campaign.

The campaign’s tagline ‘The power to be wicked’ is about how the company wants the car to be perceived. The ad features fashion influencer Rochelle Rao Sequeira, and former VJ and fitness influencer Yudi Yudhishtir.

Surprisingly, the ad also features Shashank Srivastava, chief marketing officer at Maruti Suzuki, and CV Raman, the first Indian engineer to head development of a product for Maruti Suzuki.

During a conversation with afaqs!, Srivastava mentions that the appearance in the commercials is a bid to lend credibility to the product being advertised.

Edited excerpts...

Can you tell us about how this campaign was conceptualised, and how it came together? Why did you choose this format?

We shot and completed this campaign in Goa in February, before the lockdown began, and shortly after the Auto Expo ended. In a bid to amplify our digital presence, we have been airing some cuts of the television campaign. Unfortunately, we couldn’t air the campaign in April because of the lockdown.

Now, we’re increasing our vehicle availability, and getting a good response from our consumers. So, that is when we thought it would be apt to run the ad on social media.

Our idea at that time was that if somebody, who owns the product, makes a small video explaining the features of the product and uploads it, it will generate interest. People already do so in the case of smartphones; it’s very common.

In India, buying a car is a discretionary purchase. People do look hard at the performance and specifications of the vehicle, and the value that it can give, rather than just going by an image, or a video.

"In India, car buying is a discretionary purchase. People do look hard at the performance and specifications of the vehicle and the value that it can give rather than just going by an image/a video."
Shashank Srivastava

This is the first time we're seeing a carmaker's CMO and product head star in a commercial. Tell us more about that.

In India, a car is the second-biggest purchase you (will) make during your lifetime. That’s why we need to put down the hard facts about the car, explain how it performs, and so on.

What companies normally do is they make ads that run on traditional media, or digital platforms. The ads focus on building the brand image. When it comes to explaining the hard functionality of a product, they opt for a video review, or a piece that talks about the specifications in detail (collaborating with an influencer.) In this ad, we tried a format that encompasses both.

If a celebrity, or model talks about the performance of a car, its torque, or the car’s fuel efficiency, it does not come across as very authentic. This is something we found from our consumer research.

That’s why we decided to merge both models. While talking about the features, performance, etc., it makes sense to hear it from someone who is already in the business. But how do you convey in an ad, that these guys are in this business? You can communicate that by showing that these people are in this business because they work for the company.

Raman, the senior executive director seen in this particular video, and I have taken care of the functionality part. The other part about power, looks, etc., is captured by the influencers.

If you look at toothpaste ads, you normally get a model who looks like a doctor, wearing a doctor’s coat because they want to communicate that this person is an expert who can talk to you about the basics of dentistry. Of course, when you want to show a nice smile, there’s a model…

"While talking about a car's features, performance, etc., it makes sense to hear it from someone who is already in the business."
Shashank Srivastava
Shashank Srivastava
Shashank Srivastava

On the digital medium, attention spans tend to pose a challenge for marketers. Why did you choose a long format for this campaign?

The way we’re viewing digital for this campaign is that it’s only an amplification medium. We’re expecting people will have seen our earlier campaigns, and will express interest in this ad, too.

You’re right about the attention spans. We have cut shorter clips of this video, which focus on specific functionalities of the car. The basic theme remains the same, but different clips will talk specific features like the engine’s power, the look of the car, etc.

India is ‘unlocking’ after one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. Can you elaborate on how the consumer might behave differently after the lockdown ends?

During the lockdown, we conducted a survey of 150,000 potential customers, who were thinking of buying a car, or had the capacity to buy one. The data is across a month-and-a-half period, and there were a few interesting insights. Now, we’re waiting to see if these findings will be backed by actual consumer behaviour in the ‘unlock’ phase.

1) People will prefer personal transport over public transport. Shared mobility (via ride hailing apps like Ola, Uber, etc.) may be out for some time.

2) We’re observing a phenomenon called ‘telescoping of demand’. Telescoping is a term used to refer to downgrading of demand. A person who wanted a high-end car may opt for a mid-range car. A person previously interested in a mid-range car may opt for an entry-level one. Someone interested in an entry-level car might opt for a used car.

The demand for a used car might even shift downwards to a two-wheeler. Personal transport doesn’t always mean a new car, it could also mean a two-wheeler, or a smaller car. This downgrade is also happening because of a reduction in income (and potential job cuts) across all sectors.

3) Whenever the economy is stressed, people gravitate towards more established brands, i.e., they become less experimentative.

4) The nature of buying itself has changed. People are not buying cars to upgrade their status. Normally, people sell their old cars to upgrade to a bigger, or better car. People are holding on to their older vehicles for longer.

Replacement buying is principally driven by selling of the old car to buy a new one. What we found is that the time between selling the old car and buying a new one will get extended, as people will hold on to their old cars for longer.

Functional buying (as the requirement for personal transport comes up) is more among first-time buyers. So, functional buying has gone up, and replacement buying has gone down.

There's an air of paranoia right now when it comes to any sort of retail experience. How does that affect your business? How do you deal with that?

When it comes to buying a car, customers now also want to take the digital route. They’re not keen on coming down to the showroom. That’s why one of our strategies is to strengthen our digital platform for consumer transactions.

There are 26 touchpoints between the time a consumer decides to buy a car and the time he actually makes that purchase. These include showroom visits, taking the car out for a test drive, etc. Of these, 21 touchpoints have already been digitised.

Delivery, test drive and finance – these are the points we haven’t digitised yet (since documents need to be shown to finish the transaction). But, we are trying to digitise these points as well.

Delivery and test drive, of course, can’t be digitised, but we’re calling this new experience ‘phygital’. Even in other countries, where the car buying process has been digitised, you still have to physically visit the showroom to take delivery of the vehicle.

What about your marketing messages and communication? How will that change in future?

One is that the choice of media will change, and the other is the communication itself is going to be different. Initially, when we reopened some of our showrooms – some top of the mind concerns for the customers were safety, sanitisation, a contactless experience, and so on.

Our retail share has been increasing since the lockdown began. We did a campaign on the opening of our showrooms to address consumer concerns.

Going forward, there will be an increased emphasis on the digital medium because that’s where we feel media consumption will be happening. Due to the telescoping of demand, we feel that smaller cars might also get more attention from customers, going forward.

We’re also looking at how we can tune our communication accordingly, going forward. Digital will be 35-40 per cent of our spends in future.

"Due to the telescoping of demand, we feel that smaller cars might also get more attention from customers, going forward."
Shashank Srivastava

How big a challenge is negative consumer sentiment, at this point in time?

For cars, the demand always relies on basic parameters of the economy. If you plot the demand vis-a-vis the per capita GDP, there’s a high correlation between the two.

Since buying a car is also a discretionary purchase, there’s a lot of sentiment involved in it. It’s like buying diamonds only when you’re in a good mood. It’s not the same as buying clothes, or food, which is essential.

This sentiment, I believe, will depend on which direction the coronavirus takes. It can be a wild fluctuation from plus to minus – from positive sentiment to negative sentiment. If a vaccine is discovered, you will have a positive sentiment, but the virus can also have a negative downside.

If there is a second wave of the virus, consumer sentiment can turn really negative as well. Because it’s unprecedented, you will see a wide variation in demand patterns, going forward. That’s why as an organisation, flexibility needs to be the top priority.