Namah Chawla

"Sustainability over momentary success": Hyundai's Tarun Garg on 24-year long association with Shah Rukh

In 1998, both SRK and Hyundai entered the fast lane. Despite his recent professional turbulence, the brand has retained him. Hyundai's director-sales, marketing & service, on the relationship.

In his book, ‘Santro: The car that built a company’, the former president of Hyundai, BVR Subbu recalls that when Santro was launched in 1998, nobody had heard of the company. Subbu couldn't easily get business appointments and, on one occasion, when he was kept waiting for a long time, the receptionist repeatedly thought Hyundai was Honda.

That’s when Subbu, who then was head of marketing, decided that Hyundai had to get a star to endorse the Santro. There was no other way consumers would take it seriously. That’s how they got Shah Rukh Khan when the little bug-eyed car was launched in late 1998. The association continues even today, 24 years later, and it is possibly the longest between a brand and a celebrity.

The brand’s maiden campaign in April 1998, aimed to build the corporate image and create awareness about Hyundai. Three television spots and an equal number of print ads ran till June that year. They showed the company chasing Khan to advertise for Santro, while introducing the brand. The second phase, from August to September 1998, had Khan posing questions as a consumer. And then came the tag line, ‘I’m convinced.’

SRK was at the top of his career when he endorsed Santro. ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995) had already made its way into the hearts of Indian audiences. In 1998, the actor delivered iconic performances in movies like ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’. But like every Bollywood actor, SRK has also had his share of ups and downs. Despite this, his association with Hyundai has continued till today.

Tarun Garg, director (sales, marketing & service), Hyundai Motor India, tells afaqs!, “From Santro to now launching its latest SUV ALCAZAR, the brand has, indeed, come a long way. SRK and our brand share a very strong heritage. Both Hyundai and the actor have evolved and even grown together through this journey. We share common values and SRK's star value and cult status give the brand an edge. The mutual trust and being a household name is something that we have always shared with the actor.”

<div class="paragraphs"><p><strong>Tarun Garg</strong></p></div>

Tarun Garg

Garg adds that even today, SRK is able to connect with the youth of the country seamlessly.

When this partnership started, both were relatively new, SRK to Bollywood and Hyundai to Indian consumers. Garg states that the actor’s universal appeal has helped the brand to cut through the diverse income groups and demographics.

It must be mentioned that the brand has also used other celebrities from time to time. The 2003 ad featured actress Preity Zinta, who had then appeared with Khan in the critically acclaimed movie ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’. The ad showed how Santro was a ‘sunshine car’, with Khan chasing Zinta in his Santro through deserted lanes on a rainy day.

The Indian women’s cricket team, singer Aastha Gill, actor Amyra Dastur and Korean band BTS have recently made appearances in various ads for the brand. In December 2021, the brand announced golfer Aditi Ashok as its ambassador.

Beverage giant PepsiCo, that also made SRK its brand ambassador during the same time as Hyundai, has changed many ambassadors through the years. It has always been vocal about its positioning - it is a young brand so there's a need to bring in a new face from time to time. We asked Garg whether this approach is category-specific.

“Automobile is a high involvement category. An average Indian consumer holds on to a car for about eight years and ends up buying just 2-3 cars in his lifetime. That is a big distinction we have from a non-durable consumer good. Our association with the actor is not aimed at instant gratification, as it is for a longer duration.”

Garg adds that the brand has been very flexible and agile all this while. Every model and segment has a different strategy, and the communication changes according to what will drive most relevance. There’s no standard yardstick for the brand to use, or not use, a celebrity.

Over the years, Hyundai has developed a vast portfolio of products to serve the evolving needs of the consumers. In midst of the COVID pandemic, Hyundai rolled out 10 cars. The brand claims to have sold more than 10 million cars till date.

Garg shares that when Creta was launched in 2015, the SUV segment’s contribution to the auto industry was just 13 per cent. Now, it is 38 per cent. “Hyundai has been very close to its customers. It has launched and even created new segments as per consumer needs and trends.”

"Hyundai has launched and even created new segments as per consumer needs and trends."
Tarun Garg, Hyundai Motor India

An actor’s success at the box office is, in a way, directly related to his brand endorsements. Since not all of SRK’s movies were box office hits, we wonder if it ever posed a marketing challenge for the brand.

Garg replies, “Hyundai believes in sustainability and has a very long-term approach. We believe in sustainable things, rather than getting carried away by momentary successes. Rough times come and go, but tough people always sustain (remain).”

Expert analysis

afaqs! reached out to Rajesh Lalwani, CEO, Scenario Consulting, to understand the impact on a brand when it sticks with the same celebrity for over two decades. (He has worked with auto brands like Mahindra, Harley-Davidson, Nissan Motors, Ford, to name a few, in the past.)

<div class="paragraphs"><p><strong>Rajesh Lalwani</strong></p></div>

Rajesh Lalwani

Lalwani states that what has not changed in all these years for Khan is his universal appeal and impact on audiences.

“As far as India is concerned, the actor is the most visible and trusted face, and that says a lot about the value that he brings to Hyundai. When Hyundai started its association with SRK, it wanted to cut through a spectrum of demographics, in terms of age, income and regions. It wanted to be seen as a family car, and the actor has remained very constant as the face of a family man through his personal and professional ups and downs.”

As per Lalwani, the brand’s job is to constantly evolve while it does campaigns for new models, features, around the festive season and sometimes around the endorser himself or his movies.

<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>Anushka Sharma’s debut movie ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’ (2008) with SRK cleverly weaved a yellow colour Hyundai i10 in the storyline.</em></p></div>

Anushka Sharma’s debut movie ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’ (2008) with SRK cleverly weaved a yellow colour Hyundai i10 in the storyline.

He mentions that while Khan has seen his share of flops, what is special about him is that his career trajectory has always pointed upwards.

“From a middle class person to a TV actor to a film actor and Bollywood superstar to becoming a successful businessman... Despite various events in his personal life, his visibility has always stayed intact. While it was not a very pleasant situation to be in, the name was still there in everyone’s mind.”

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