A quick chat with Rahul Pansare, head of marketing and PR, FCA India, on how the COVID pandemic has changed the Indian car buyer.
Steering wheels gathered dust and horns fell silent as India locked down to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. After four phases of lockdowns of varying intensities, India’s economy is in the process of ’unlocking’. Consumers everywhere are all set to embrace the ’new normal’, which involves constant use of hand sanitiser, wearing masks in public and, most importantly, working from home (WFM) and refraining from going out.
WFH, online classes, and so on, are an integral part of the ’new normal’, and it has changed the way we commute. Consumers in the ’new normal’ view everything through a lens tinted with paranoia and are attempting to refrain from going out – including travel and weekend getaways.
What does this change mean for car companies, like Jeep, whose messaging relied heavily on the great outdoors and the adventure it had to offer? How will they cope, in the wake of a changed consumer?
It has been four years since Jeep began its journey in India, and Rahul Pansare, head of marketing and PR at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) India, admits that the pandemic has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride.
The pandemic has changed the Indian car buyer. Pansare says that on the journey, learnings have been consistent with the market dynamics. He stresses that Jeep is India’s Most Awarded in recent times, and Jeep Wrangler, a 4x4 SUV, has established its niche in the country as a premium lifestyle product.
“India is a highly reactive market and a complex one, which has been throwing surprising challenges at the auto industry. Our marketing tactics needed changes to keep up with the changing consumption pattern in the market. Maneuvering through this pandemic has been the highlight of these four years. Nothing was tougher in these four years compared to what four months of COVID threw at us,” admits Pansare.
"India is a highly reactive market and a complex one, which has been throwing surprising challenges at the auto industry. Our marketing tactics needed changes to keep up with the changing consumption pattern in the market."Rahul Pansare, FCA India
He explains that the pandemic changed the way companies and supply chains operated. In turn, consumption patterns in the market changed completely. “We had to adapt to the changing trends and, at the same time, ensure a top-of-the-mind recall for the Jeep brand. Everything now is digital, which was not the case four months ago,” he says.
Earlier in May, FCA India announced the launch of its contactless customer experience, in response to continued movement restrictions and social distancing. It made the Jeep retail experience completely ‘touch-free’ for Indian customers by introducing a digital module named ‘Book My Jeep’. Prospective customers can now book and own a Jeep without having to physically visit a showroom, and can also take a test drive with a sanitised vehicle delivered at their doorstep.
Pansare says that the main objective is to keep the Jeep brand close to customers in these challenging times. For decades, Jeep has encouraged people to go out and explore diverse outdoors. But, unfortunately, the lockdown made it impossible for people to venture out.
The Jeep brand is all about heading out, exploring and enjoying the freedom. Pansare talked about the company’s attempt to bring the adventure home with digital campaigns like Jeep Fanatics Quiz, #StayingIndoors Challenge and #IndoorAdventures, as well as social advocacy campaign #WFH Heroes or Warriors for Humanity Heroes.
“We continue to build aspiration around the Jeep brand, making the process of buying easier than before, improving hygiene and minimising risk at our dealerships, and engaging with Jeep communities digitally,” he says.
According to Pansare, buying a four-wheeler is a big purchase decision, which is influenced by family and friends in India. “The aspiration to buy an SUV is prevalent and the confidence to go through the purchase process is slowly reviving. Consistently engaging with customers digitally, and building aspiration, will bear fruit in the coming months,” he says.
"The aspiration to buy an SUV is prevalent and the confidence to go through the purchase process is slowly reviving. Consistently engaging with customers digitally, and building aspiration, will bear fruit in the coming months."Rahul Pansare, FCA India
He also adds that car buying is an emotional experience and FCA India’s approach to marketing has been to keep those emotions stimulated so that the Jeep brand will have a top-of-the-mind recall when the economy recovers.
Even though road travel has reduced in general, Pansare is optimistic about the situation improving in future. “With the tourism industry majorly hit, there are barely any destination options these days, even if one wants to get away on weekends. Work from home is not really affecting the spirit of getting away. Road travel is gaining more preference as private vehicles are the most risk-free way to travel these days,” he says.
Automobile trends are also changing rapidly. “Those who used public transport are increasingly considering purchasing small cars and two-wheelers. SUV is the ongoing trend in India and is the preferred choice by car buyers, who aspire to upgrade. One who owns a small car today aspires to own a bigger car in the coming 2-3 years and this will not change. Additionally, people want to own a vehicle that offers the best value,” says Pansare.
"Those who used public transport are increasingly considering purchasing small cars and two-wheelers. SUV is the ongoing trend in India and is preferred choice by car buyers, who aspire to upgrade."Rahul Pansare, FCA India
He adds that the overall sentiment is that people don’t compromise when it comes to investing in a personal vehicle. “Impulsive buying of automobiles is not the order of the day. Consumption of vehicles also depends on easy loans and repayment options,” he concludes.