SUVicide by design III: Mahindra’s marketing nanonos

Finding Xylo: A fishy marketing story

Finding Xylo: A fishy marketing story

One final twist of the dagger into the vast flesh of the XYLO, if only to mark the launch of its doppelganger, the nano. I’m also mindful of getting hauled up by Mahindra for violating the restrictive and arbitrary Indian blogger code, which extends a Chinese wall of protectionism for the establishment and the erring classes against the questioning masses.

Segmentation, Targeting and Positioning

Ever since the advent of the now-discontinued Maruti 800, small, affordable cars have dominated the Indian market – with minis and compacts consistently accounting for about 60% of passenger four-wheeler sales. Mid-sized sedans are more aspirational and limited to only 15% of the market. In the commercial passenger sub-segment however, little cars don’t do as well, again for obvious economic reasons. There, SUVs, jeeps, mini trucks, maxi cars and the like are worshipped for their cramming ability. It’s not like us Indians to let any excess capacity go waste – if paying passengers can manage to hang on while riding on top of trains and on the sides of buses, so be it. UVs (Utility Vehicles) and MPVs (Multi Purpose Vehicles) account for almost 20% of total passenger four-wheeler sales and certainly for an inordinate share of actual passengers.

sardines, anyone?

sardines, anyone?

The XYLO is purpose built for this mass-market – it follows in the grand tradition of great people movers like the Ambassador, various members of the Tempo family, and even the wildly popular Qualis – which some speculate proved a victim of its own success when it was pulled off the market to allow Toyota the opportunity to upshift its brand image.

And therein lies the rub. Although the XYLO is a product that competes smack against the Qualis’ replacement – the Innova – and as it looks set to make a serious impact on the taxi segment, it has been erroneously positioned as a personal vehicle for the kind of individuals who adventurously (and, I would imagine inadvertently) drive their ungainly TATA Safaris off a cliff in order to reclaim their lives.

Whereas it has been described in its marketing material variously as a ‘penthouse on wheels’ and a ‘six-packed luxury land yacht’, the XYLO has a feature set which is far more prosaic: Fuel efficiency of 15 kpl, Capacity 8 pax, a solid chassis and suspension as required by our offroad in-country roads, low maintenance costs with Mahindra’s reliability and an attractive price ~ Rs. 7 lac … this is the stuff that taxi operators die for…and once they get their hands on the XYLO, they will return the favour by killing the vehicle’s image, modding it out with cheap embellishments, running it down to the bone, rendering it unfit for the vain office going road warriors and their gaggle of life-reclaiming friends at which the XYLO claims to be targeted.

hey...if the president of the united states can do it...

hey...if the president of the united states can do it...

Logic would suggest that Mahindra is using a standard trickle down marketing model – where a high-end, fully loaded variant is exclusively promoted and used to price-skim and cast a halo around a more widely sold, low-end workhorse. However, if this were the case and if the intent was to fill its showrooms with buyers aspiring to keep up with the Joshis – shouldn’t the XYLO’s advertising then at least make sense to the larger intended target audience?

Does anyone imagine that the image of a bland, sub-European bunch of partying professionals, passing a disco-ball around and having a very-sad seeming ‘time of their lives’ will resonate with anyone, let alone the private-taxi-owning set? Could you seriously believe that the an erstwhile farmer supplementing his income by running day trips to Shirdi will be watching late night UTV World Movies, attentively mindful of the fact that XYLO has sponsored the French Cinema segment?


I suspect that the problem is a typical case of Conspirational Client-Agency Hubris (COCAh) – wherein each party has convinced the other that the product they are working on is far more glamorous, impressive and unusual than it could safely be said to be. In an industry used to dealing only in superlatives – the slightly remarkable story holds no water. Thus the planner or account person entrusted with enthusing the creative department about the job at hand gets the ball rolling with two cents of exaggeration – and from there on it’s a slippery slope to sedan-crushing bluster. The imagineering process for the Xylo seems to have been: it’s a box, but if you put it in a box, it’ll definitely look less boxy

FCB Ulka, the agency behind this campaign has an established record of getting its auto clients high on their own fuel supply. Riding on the success of its 1996 Indica launch campaign (which intriguingly offered ‘More Car Per Car’), Ulka, through conflict shop Interface then embraced the challenge of shape-shifting Mahindra – a tractor making company – into a passenger auto giant with the launch of the Scorpio.

It is easy to see why Mahindra – seeking to redefine itself in the image of its new suave and worldly Managing Director – would be happy to go to town wearing the emperor’s new clothes. The homegrown Scorpio – spawn of the farm-favourite Bolero and the upcountry Armada series – was a definite first step into the big league of passenger automakers, but the first few iterations were unrefined and reminiscent of homegrown competitor TATA’s clumsy foray into the passenger club, with the lugubrious and ragtag Safari and Estate models. It is also interesting to note that Ulka’s sell for Mahindra, even then was ‘Cars will now suffer from low self-esteem’.

In order to make good on that promise, Mahindra vehicles were shown in a variety of compromising positions involving the same sub-European female models – potentially signifying elegance, wealth and globe-dominating power. There’s an inadvertently hilarious ode to the Scorpio campaigns here.

The Logan signaled the next step in Mahindra’s evolution – and it remains a mystery why the highly anticipated first-offering from the Mahindra-Renault partnership was another design disaster which only its parents could love. Renault vehicles are marked by their continental flair – but this one seemed to have lost a lot in translation.

Saatchi had the advertising mandate and started out well enough with a practical pitch – fuel economy, wide rear seat (which produced a seriously wide booty), price, etc. Kunal Kapoor was drafted as brand ambassador – using his honest and humble appeal to reach out to the lower middle-market in selling the poor man’s sedan.

But the product failed and ended up (where it probably should have been born) in the private taxi market. Interestingly, Saatchi/Mahindra have made an odd return to the Ulka/Indica playbook by sponsoring the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and touting the new and improved Logan with a half-assed “More Space. More Mileage. More Art” message.


And so, based on a simplified reading of the complex history of Indian auto marketing, the recommendation seems to be that Ulka’s approach works. Cue the fog machine and bring on the dancing Ukrainians. At the end of the day, the car will probably succeed –  it won’t be because of the marketing, which more than anything else resembles a sorry attempt to please the chairman’s wife. That is, until she sees the original ad it’s loosely based on…


One comment

  1. 1. Large fonts please….Reading while being driven to Shirdi…tiresome.
    2. More, more of such needed.
    3. Hero Honda seems to have seen your earlier piece and now re-show that soul crusher every 15 mts.
    4. Do your pieces reach Ulka-type chaps? How to?

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