Advertising, Branding, Marketing

Tata Nano. A huge marketing blunder?

One year after I published this blog comes the concurrence from the great man.

I guess enough has been written about the car. From an amazing engineering and business feat to a marketing disaster: all shades and forms of opinion have been expressed. So why my two-penny bit?

Simply because Nano is too big an idea to fail.

Since its inception, the overriding impact of Nano has been its Rs 1 lakh price tag. That is sad. Because the real genius of the Nano platform should have been its ingenuity in creating a new idea in urban transportation. From a stylish new transportation paradigm, that is fashionable, hugely practical and an affordable personal city run-about to a safer and more technologically advanced vehicle to replace the auto-rickshaw. Available in petrol, gas and electric version.  Nano is an idea of freedom from the tyranny of space-stealing bigger cars that have dulled our imagination to finding a better solution for crawling through 5 kmph traffic and getting exasperated not finding large enough real estate to park! As much as it is an idea to have a better and safer means of personal transport than a two-wheeler. The manifestation of this idea needs a complete multi-fuel, multi variant portfolio at different price points replete with tax benefits and exclusive parking options for electric versions. That would allow people to match their style, need and make a statement with their Nano. Much like how we choose the iPod: from the Shuffle to the Touch. Instead what has happened is that the idea of the Nano has been consumed by the ‘cheap car’ perception. Thanks to the initial hype and the product offer.

The idea of a car transcends its utilitarian purpose. That’s why some of the highest forms of design, technology, creature comforts and safety finds expression in the form of a car. It connects with the human desire for a better life, higher social currency and surrounding ourselves with symbols of personal achievement. Our cars not only show who we are but also who we desire to be. This is what determines the context of Nano.

However, since inception, the brand Nano has got tagged as ‘El-Cheapo’! Who would want to be seen with that tag? Coupled with that comes the huge media coverage of Nano catching fire. This is a double whammy.

To be the ultimate car for the masses, Nano needs to ignite desire. To do that does it not need social and technological ‘sexiness’? Then why make people look down upon and make fun of the Nano? Does it not need the emotional credibility of a star? How can Nano earn that image if it is plunged into the depths of the image poverty?

Sure market engineering is a way of getting volumes up. Lower EMI payment, warranties and the lot will impact positively on volumes. It may be argued that these are must haves if Nano has to appeal to the bottom of the pyramid. I hope it succeeds. Except that the Alto which is about thrice the price sold in excess of 32,000 units in November. If price was the issue, why not the Nano?

Instead, what if Nano became the universal object of desire.Down from the top echelons of society to anyone who can afford it. What if people thought of it as an incredible gadget of the 21st century that everyone wanted to own. A cross fertilized product between an automobile and a digital electronic gadget with all communication, computation and networking facilities coupled with performance and efficiency. From Spartan to plush interiors. From cute to cheeky and sexy exteriors. Small would suddenly have a different meaning. It would all have to begin with thinking of the Nano as the ultimate gadget on the road!

Certainly the looks of the Nano deserves it. What it  does not deserve is the poverty of thought!

Yes there is a huge market at the bottom of the pyramid. But that does not mean that their first car has to be labelled as one meant for those with inadequate income. We do not live in an age where we celebrate frugality. It’s the age of indulgence. Have not the motorcycle manufacturers realized that? Owning a car is not about inching up the pole of social respect, it’s about leap-frogging there. And that’s true of every section of society.  If we think of the Nano as a cross fertilized product between an automobile and a digital consumer electronic gadget then the price tag would be the invitation to cool indulgence at one end and rationalization of its utility at the other. It would be the ‘show-off’ of the 21st century. You could access the frugal version or the full monty depending on what you can afford.

Instead why give us a car that shouts ‘can’t afford anything better’.


About Subhabrata 'SG' Ghosh

Untrapping business from the tyranny of similarity. Engineering new context for business and brands.


14 thoughts on “Tata Nano. A huge marketing blunder?

  1. To a westerner resident in the UK, the Nano has served to reinforce the very perceptions that it hoped to change. Over-promised and under-delivered, not as cheap as we were led to believe, in fact nothing much as we were led to believe and now not even ‘safe’.

    The Nano is a great idea poorly executed. Unfortunately this is like so much that emanates from the wonderful country that is India, rising and optimistic, yet still with unsure footing.

    The first role of marketing is to identify the customer, the second is to create desire. The Nano’s competition is the motorbike, not the car. The market should be encouraged to trade up from the bike, not down from any other car. Aspiration is the key to unlocking success, but desire is achieved by seduction, not by the look how cheap i am approach that is old india, not new India.

    It is time to break out of the low cost low quality cycle thinking.

    Keith Johnston

    Posted by Keith Johnston | February 1, 2011, 9:07 pm
  2. Hi SG,
    I always want to be the first to comment on your interesting blogs.I agree with whatever you have written.People who can afford a car don’t want to earn the ‘most affordable car in the world’.Now even after Tatas improves upon some of the features of the product the perception may not change.

    Posted by Bhaskar Chakravorti | February 1, 2011, 9:18 pm
  3. I am a westerner who lives in the west, but who has spent time in India and is a fan.

    To someone like me, the Nano reinforces the very stereotypes it is designed to change.

    From a business perspective the Nano has been over-promised and under delivered. It reinforces a low price low quality image when it could have been so much more.

    From a marketing perspective, the first role of marketing is to identify the customer. The Nano customer is the family on a motorbike, trading up. Not the family with a car, trading down. The second role of marketing is to seduce. This is done by making the Nano aspirational to the target audience, which is done with subtle imagery not by screaming low price.

    SG you are on point as always.

    Keith johnston

    Posted by Keith Johnston | February 1, 2011, 9:42 pm
  4. Dear SG. Thank you for sharing your thinking…at last a decent appraisal of what the Nano should have been… could have been. I completely agree with your point of view. What were the TATA’s thinking when they positioned the Nano as the ‘cheapest car’ in the world!!It is unbelievable that their thinking is so shallow. And you rightly concluded ‘who wants to shout out to the world ‘can’t afford anything better’! I hope the TATA’s read your assessment and do something, before it is too late.

    Posted by CB Ramkumar | February 2, 2011, 1:43 pm
  5. SG. I assume Mr Tata’s think tank must have convinced him that Nano should be a mass (aam aadmi) car. The aim was to build the world’s cheapest car; incidentally this was achieved through some game changing design and technology. Since price tag was the over-riding goal, other achievements and positioning opportunity, which you have rightly highlighted in your blog, have been lost. However, the recent Nano ad, appears to have made a slight course correction – projecting it as a safe and sturdy family car. Perhaps, Nano’s sales and marketing team will still look beyond the obvious -pick your brain- and make it India’s special story for thr 21 century- affordable style.

    Posted by girish rao | February 2, 2011, 2:42 pm
  6. As usual you’ve hit the nail on its head. Nano seems to be a result of typical ‘inside-out’ thinking: “let’s make the cheapest car in the world” and market it as the ‘frugal car.’ If only they had looked at it ‘outside-in’ they would have got the consumer context right. Look at what ‘smart’ has done across Europe – they have made the car sexy, fun, fashionable and eco-friendly – a real smart car for intelligent people. I suspect, after years of selling lorries and vans the folks at Tata Motors can think only in terms of rational economics of owning a car. Emotional context is alien to them it seems.

    Posted by Arijit Ghosh | February 2, 2011, 3:05 pm
  7. Dear SG,

    Agree with your comments. What a see-saw Nano has been ! This brings into focus several issues for learning,

    – Like the approach taken by most ‘engineering’ companies, Tata took the technology innovation or price route vs focussing on consumer desire – this does not work all the time

    – The PR approach(focussed on Rs. 1 lac tag)vs an advertising approach to ‘ignite desire’ (using your words) was a poor decision in retrospect. Advertising should have kicked in much earlier

    Ofcourse, the Indica type product problems this car is facing is not new to Tata. The question is they got a second act in Indica – V2. Will they get one in Nano.

    Warm regards

    Arvind R P

    Posted by Arvind R P | February 2, 2011, 3:21 pm
  8. Hi SG,

    Interesting take. Sure, Tata could do with ‘sexing up’ the Nano’s image and brand placement, and yes it is unfortunate that the car’s price is its calling card. However, there are numerous facets to the car which qualify it as well-engineered automobile with ramifications for the auto industry and the car-buying public at large, which unforunately haven’t been highlighted. For instance, the sheer ingenuity in its thought and design, or the fact that it will spawn derivatives on its platform in the future. Plus, the fact thaqt it is an entirely new thought and approach to car manufacture. In that sense, there is still more to come, not just from the Nano, but from Tata Motors and its partners / collaborators in the years to come.

    Posted by Harmaan R A J Madon | February 2, 2011, 3:29 pm
  9. The Smart has become a style statement. So has the Mini. Both targeted a slightly different customer. The Nano has the potential to do so. For the young student, the early jobber, the first small family car and finally, for those who yearn to own a 4 wheeler but could not. It did get slotted in the last and that was unfortunate. Those who bought the premium versions (and I understand that it was the most popular) had to live down the ignominy of buying the cheapest car in India.

    The problem calls for an immediate image correction coupled with creating variants which would be appeal to other “cool” segments and also creating driving experiences for them to drive the brand promise forward.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.


    Posted by Bijou Kurien | February 3, 2011, 12:11 pm
  10. Hi SG.

    Like the article. This brand could take some lessons from the launch of VW back in the fifties. Although cheap, the people’s car became the badge of freedom, love, smart thinking and hip. I think Tata should study a bit of car history…

    Posted by andy greenaway | February 4, 2011, 7:36 pm
  11. Dear SG,

    The Company got the Concept right. It had interesting attributes in terms of the Product (need is the issue for it to qualify as acceptable),in terms of the Price (demand without purchasing power is a no-no),and in terms of the innovation (economics has a special place for the entrepreneur). It is the ‘reach to the market’ that needs to be worked at. Pradeep Banerjee

    Posted by Pradeep Banerjee | February 7, 2011, 12:50 pm
  12. Well said, SG.

    Bang on, as always.

    Please go and pitch for the account and restore some faith in Brand India.


    Posted by Sumit Roy | February 12, 2011, 1:39 am
  13. Dear Sir,

    Nicely presented piece which opens up mind. I have a gut feeling that Nano is failing because of the simple reason that it marks the rider/consumer apart from the mass. For a high end product its excellent but for a lower end product it very damaging. No one wants to be seen apart from the mass at that niche. The design has failed the product.
    Though the inside is roomy and other but the product moves like a beetle (not the German obviously!) on the street. And the over-hype of 1 lakh car has branded the rider/consumer as a class belonging to that segment. Its not giving esteem to the car owners whereas the segment buying the product would definitely like to simply for the reason that they own a car.

    Kaushik Basu

    Posted by Kaushik Basu | April 19, 2011, 2:24 pm

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