Shweta Mulki

"We want more people to aspire to brand Volkswagen" - Bishwajeet Samal

After a stint in Germany as regional marketing manager, Europe, for the global brand, Samal recently returned to India as marketing head for Volkswagen here. A quick chat.

It's been 10 years since German car maker Volkswagen arrived in India. It was a cluttered market even then and the brand's launch campaign did everything it could to be heard.

Leading that exercise in 2008 was VW India's head of marketing and communications, Bishwajeet Samal. Now, after a three-year stint in Germany as regional marketing manager for Europe, for the global brand, Samal has returned to India as head of marketing for the brand here.

"We want more people to aspire to brand Volkswagen" - Bishwajeet Samal

Bishwajeet Samal

Reminiscing about the launch days, Samal says that the brand's communication had to be really innovative to stand out in the large crowded space that existed then. "We started with a roadblock on TOI (where there were no other brands featured on that day) of 13 pages ending with a helicopter shot of our plant". The brand's TVC centred on 'Volkswagen for every stage in life'."

Samal was also part of the popular VW Jetta 'Flyboy TVC' that ran a couple of years later. "Post the idea being provided, when we heard the script, it just felt right," he smiles.

"We want more people to aspire to brand Volkswagen" - Bishwajeet Samal

A little over 35, Samal is one of the youngest marketing heads at VW globally. Born and brought up in Odisha, he is a science grad who did his MBA in Pune. "I always wanted to be a brand guy. I was fortunate to be part of Volkswagen and its brand building in India," he says.

So, back after four years - his first observations...

"It's a 'Jio era' I'm walking into. Everyone who steps in as a publisher says - we can do this ad, plus do this event and produce this content. Content is integral and all marketers are also taking social seriously," says Samal.

How has the journey been for the brand in India?

"I'd say a bit challenging. Initially, when we started as a new brand, the acceptability, among Indian customers, was much higher, with the 'German engineering' tag, of course."

The company started with a top-down approach commencing with the ultra-premium Passat and Touareg and then newer products like the Polo and Vento. "With the Polo, we emphasised that it was made in and for India and addressed key Indian concerns like fuel-efficiency and ground clearance."

The market share for VW in India is only 1.7 per cent, but the company has maintained that it will never exit the country. It has a vision to achieve a 3 per cent share in the next 5 years. Samal admits that the current portfolio needs an overhaul, "We are going to bring in more new products. There have been refreshes and feature upgrades on existing ones, but the Polo and Vento have been around for 10 years, so we're addressing that gap." He adds, "We are making constant efforts to better the holistic experience with lucrative after-sales packages and are working on reducing the cost of parts."

There are about 3,00,000 VW cars plying on Indian roads today (Polo being the largest selling) with the brand primarily catering to the premium segment. "The 'aspiring middle class' actually makes up 40 per cent of our sales. They are very well educated, well-travelled, have higher income levels, and they have a taste and aspiration for better brands," Samal points out.

Today, consumers are highly influenced by online research in this hyper-competitive segment, with walk-ins and test drives having reduced over the years. Samal comments, "Globally, at any given time, there's only 3 per cent of the entire market wanting to buy a car and walk-ins per dealership, are down to between one and three. In India too, it's the same. The decision-making is more informed via online research."

Are comparison and review portals stress points for car brands?

"In product comparisons, we really stand out with our transmission, engine, power, build quality, and safety functions so, they can be a benefit. A lot of these strengths are combined with 'overall good cars' and 'fun to drive' phrases that keep popping up in our word cloud," says Samal.

The Indian car owner...

The India market can be difficult, with its peculiarities and challenges. Samal, although understanding the nuances of the market, nonetheless feels the pinch that there are people who don't extend their warranties and such. He adds, "Because of our engineering and finesse, the parts are priced the way they are. Some brands offer three services a year, so if we offer one, we need to make them understand that if you do the math, it works out better. Evolved audiences do understand this now, however." There have been global campaigns stressing on the buying of genuine parts.

Another peculiarity is the loyalty factor. "In the west, people can be loyal to the same brand for generations, but here we start with budget and switch brands accordingly," Samal states.

Samal was also part of the India team that conducted testimonials with VW car owners who had been in accidents but escaped unhurt. Some videos even showed the wreckage. Isn't that bold for a car brand? "Yes. As part of the 'Why only Volkswagen campaign' we wanted to stress on the multiple safety steps in the production cycle. It was appreciated by the global board too," he responds.

Advertising and the brand's 'Twinkle in the Eye' mandate.

"Volkswagen has always communicated - Why are we building this car for you - in a strong way. 'The brief has always been to convey consumer benefit. But the tonality followed at Volkswagen for many years is the - Twinkle in the Eye - charm," says Samal.

There have been 'visual' ads by the brand, but looking at TVCs like that of the Ameo in 2016, it shows that car ads, especially during launch, need to balance human emotions with the wow-factor of features. "That's what we do in our ads. It should be a human story well told. It should bring in charm and position the car in the right way. There will always be challenges - good ideas not coming in or time constraints from our side etc.," he explains.

While TV and print are still significant, most car brands have been leveraging digital for a while now, and VW is no different. "We are definitely increasing our digital mix," says Samal.

Research in the digital era - to what extent does it influence briefs?

"We know our audience and we know our brand so, that comes before research," he says. "In the path-to-purchase, the number of touch points have increased. So you can produce content to engage at any touch point. The global media strategy we follow is 'consumer moment planning' - a progressive system of whether the consumer is in 'search' mode or 'decision-making' mode," Samal adds.

When asked to compare his learnings in Europe to India, Samal says that every car market within Europe also has different perceptions with unique challenges and strengths. He was also part of the process when the company's media agency changed globally - after 18 years with Mediacom to PHD.

On campaign cycles, he comments, "The agency ecosystem in Germany was structured and precise. Campaign planning was done two years in advance. In the Indian market, because of its nature, that won't be so realistic."

Samal was also part of the global team dealing with VW's diesel emissions saga and says he learnt the step by step process in crisis management on 'how you plan, react, remedy, and communicate' in such situations.

What is the main mandate for next one year?

"Make more people aspire for the brand," he says, promising us that those edgy print ads will be back soon.