Sujit Patnaik
Guest Article

It’s all about SUVs in India, lately

We say the customer is the king! Especially, the SUV customer in India, says our guest author.

One of the biggest changes the Indian auto market has seen in recent years, is the shifting preference towards SUVs. When I say SUVs here, I’m referring to the widely accepted definition of SUVs in India, i.e., any vehicle with a SUV body style.

We have seen a phenomenal growth in SUVs – 18 per cent market share in 2016 to more than 38 per cent in 2021. New entrants like Kia, MG and even the French car maker Citroen, started their journey in India with SUVs. This trend is not just limited to India.

Today, SUVs make up more than 40 per cent of sales in markets like the US and Europe. The craze is so high that even quintessential muscle car and super car brands like Mustang and Lamborghini, have succumbed to the market demand and added SUVs to their portfolio!

The reasons for western markets to fall in love with SUVs, are quite evident. Most SUVs sold in the western world, have all-wheel/4x4 drive system. They have more space for those long driving holidays and, above all, SUVs fulfil a deep-rooted need of our reptilian brain – safety.

In the US, the soccer mom phenomena, was a social indicator of putting safety over ease of driving that traditional cars offered. (In early 2000s, sales of Humvee/Hummer, the military SUVs, rose when the young moms started using these massive difficult to drive vehicle. Humvee was felt to be a safer choice for their families, compared to regular sedans.)

Just like the west, Indians too have many functional reasons to love SUVs – road presence, bigger wheels and higher ground clearance for those mountain size speed breakers, etc. But what makes the trend interesting in India, are the countless intangible emotional drivers.

The story becomes a lot more complicated, nuanced and deeply intertwined in the socio-cultural fabric of the nation. The roots of our collective fascination for SUVs, can be traced back in history or, perhaps, even to our mythology!

On the surface, we all know that SUVs are about power and dominance. This symbolism is embedded in our subconscious collective psyche. To understand this better, let’s focus on the three specific physical attitudes of SUV body style, and how they contribute in creating this illusionary mental image of dominance and superiority.

Let me muse a bit and try to fathom this cultural symbolism of superiority.

1. Height of the seat is height of supremacy

Remember those innocent 1990s days, when the entire family used to gather in front of the television to watch Ramayan. I want to take you back to one of the scenes in the TV series. We see Ravan, the king of demons, sitting on his huge jewel-studded throne on an elevated platform in his palace. Angad (Bali’s son) enters the palace as the royal messenger of Ram to advice Ravan to give up the idea of war and return Sita with dignity.

Forget about offering a seat to Angad, Ravan, with his overdramatic arrogance, looks down (quite literally) and roars, “I am sitting on this throne and you are standing helplessly down there. I am the king of Lanka and you are just a helpless monkey.” Angad takes offence and the next moment we see him extending and curling up his tail to create an elevated base for him to sit, which is even higher than Ravan’s throne. Now Angad is looking down on Ravan.

It is not just about the change of relative seating height, but the shift in the power equation. Angad took away the illusion of control from Ravan and, therefore, in a way, destroyed the latter’s sense of superiority.

A few years back, I remember speaking to a 28-year-old farmer, as a part of consumer research in Rohtak, Haryana, and he said something interesting. “When I am in my Scorpio and stop at the traffic signal and see a Mercedes… I don’t feel I am any less. In fact, the guy in Mercedes looks small and I feel proud of my choice.”

It is about finding the modern truth in ancient wisdom. In our society, the elevated seating position is about claiming superiority and, in this context, SUVs give an illusion of control, illusion of supremacy.

If we turn the pages of history, we can find countless examples reflecting this social belief system. Pictures of maharajas on elephants in various religious ceremonies, to British officers sitting on chair, while the Indian servant sitting on the floor.

If we look at the traditional cinema halls in the pre-multiplex era, there used to be two levels – the balcony or the deck and the lower level. Those who had money, would buy tickets on the balcony and enjoy a privileged view.

2. Class of the car is a reflection of social class

Somewhere, SUVs fulfil a far deeper primal desire of human existence. It is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche for centuries – it is about that power play that mankind has always seen in social structures. The sheer dimension of the vehicle has a role to play in establishing relative position.

As a country, India has many dividing lines… sometimes the lines are visible, sometimes they aren’t – but they do exist as the undercurrent of social patterns and hierarchy.

There are numerous prevailing duality that can be noticed in our country – educated-uneducated, English speaking-non-English speaking, rich-poor, men-women, north Indian-south Indian, city dwellers-small townies, privileged-under privileged and probably the most dominant one, upper caste-lower caste social structure.

Not that it doesn’t exist in other countries… but there is an uncanny parallel that one can draw between the way we are and our choices. Sometimes, the kind of vehicles people choose is dependent on not just their personal position and preference, but the position of the community they belong to.

This social trend is getting manifested in multiple ways… many uncanny incidents that surfaced in news over the last few years, are about dalit (marginalised class) marriages and the class hegemony which robs away the dalit groom’s aspiration to ride a horse in the wedding procession.

After 74 years of Indian Independence, in Rajasthan's Bundi district, Shreeram Meghwal became the first dalit groom in Chadi village to ride a horse to his wedding. The class divide and structure of the society, give rise to certain unusual needs. This is a signifier of the existing social tension and a strong desire for claiming equality or, perhaps, superiority.

Again, a conversation with the sales staff at a car dealership in Rae Bareilly, revealed an interesting point. He said, “Pehle, Thakur and Brahmins kharidte the, abhi Yadav aur Bahujan bhi SUV aur Scorpio kharidne lagain hain. Woh unka tarika hai, bolne ka, ki hum kuchh kam nahin hai.” (Roughly translates as – earlier the upper caste people used to buy SUVs, now even the relatively marginalised class is also buying to state their position.)

And, there is, perhaps, a symbolic correlation between the ‘mounting a horse’ and stepping into an SUV.

Needless to say, the aforementioned observation may not be as true for large progressive Indian metros. But when we look at the nation at large, we may find the traces of some morally uncomfortable truths that govern people’s decisions.

And, the myriad duality of social structure is based on the power equation, where SUVs become a tool to either claim dominance or compensate for lack of it. In some sense, it helps one assert his position in the equation. It also helps him cross from marginalised side of the dividing line to the privileged side.

The sheer size of the vehicle is a statement of power. On the road, in the mind!

3. Door to the treasure trove of symbolism

The third defining aspect of the SUV body style, is the wider taller doors. Of course, they offer great convenience of ingress and egress, but that’s not what we are talking about. Doors signal a lot more than that… they signal an interesting truth.

Unlike a low slung sedans, SUVs don’t make the owner bow his head down to enter the vehicle. (Again, this may not be true for all the vehicles commonly classified as SUVs, but what we are focusing is the ‘idea of SUV’ people hold in their minds.)

High doors mean affluence, power, grandness… If we look at palace doors, they are tall, as the king doesn’t have to bow his head. And, at some level, the buyer of an SUV is a king in his mind!

On the contrary, if we look at the door of temples in India, most doorways of sanctum sanctorum or the garbha griha, are smaller. Here, even the king has to bow to see the deity. The symbolic meaning makes it interesting. After all, we say the customer is the king! Especially the SUV customer in India!

All these aspects make India a fascinating market to look at. Unlike the west, where decisions are driven by sheer functional and emotional needs, here in India, it goes a lot deeper. Our choices sometimes stem from collective consciousness and centuries of social conditioning.

The author is senior vice president, strategic planning, Ogilvy.

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