Bish­wa­jeet Sa­mal

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

The Brand Reporter - - EDITORIAL - By Sh­weta Mulki sh­weta.mulki@afaqs.com

Af­ter a three-year stint in Ger­many as re­gional mar­ket­ing man­ager for Europe, Sa­mal has re­turned to In­dia as head of mar­ket­ing for the brand here. How dif­fer­ent is the mar­ket now?

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. 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. “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. 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,” 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.

THE JOUR­NEY SO FAR

“It has been 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.”

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. He 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.

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.

Re­search in the dig­i­tal era - to what ex­tent does it in­flu­ence briefs? “In the path-to-pur­chase, the num­ber of touch­points 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 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 part of the global team deal­ing with VW’s diesel emis­sions saga and says he learnt ‘how to plan, re­act, rem­edy, and com­mu­ni­cate’ in such sit­u­a­tions.

So, what is the man­date now for the next one year? “Make more peo­ple as­pire for the brand,” he says, promis­ing us that those edgy print ads will be back soon. ■

In the west, peo­ple can be loyal to the same brand for gen­er­a­tions, but here we start with bud­get and switch brands.

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