For the past one week, we’ve been riding on TataNano ads telling us Now you can…which stir up a confidence reminiscent of US President Barack Obama’s Yes, we can election slogan.
While I ticked off all the things I could now do driving this dinky, jelly bean of a car that’s also the world’s cheapest, I couldn’t help thinking about another small car that dwelt on its vulnerabilities rather than its strengths many decades ago to become a cult brand.
Also Read Marion Arathoon’s earlier columns
Creative legend Bill Bernbach threw conventional wisdom out of a car window when he positioned the Volkswagen Beetle as a lemon of a car in an ad campaign that became famous.
Celebrating uniquely small products in advertising can involve self-deprecating humour, especially when rival brands sprawl over glossy ads in full length. Global marketing guru Al Ries tells me that when you have a product that’s unique (such as the Tata Nano), it’s often helpful to play up the negative. “In other words, make fun of the fact that the vehicle is very small,” he says.
When the Volkswagen Beetle was introduced in the US market, says Ries, the car maker ran many ads making fun of it. The company also made fun of the fact that the car was ugly. A typical headline: The 1970 Volkswagen Beetle will stay ugly longer. It was ugly, but it was reliable.
“It was a bold statement of standing differently with no qualms. An attitude that has till date stayed with the brand,” says Priti Nair, joint partner and national creative director, BBH India. “The brand was built on celebrating small and safe in a very tongue-in-cheek, differentiated manner.”
Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, or BMW, also introduced the Mini Cooper by making fun of the fact that the car was small, says Ries. It bought 20 big sports utility vehicles, or SUVs, and put the Mini Coopers on top of these SUVs. Then it had the SUVs driven around the 20 largest US cities. People were shocked and surprised to see the tiny car on top of the big SUVs, he says.
Small products should not just be positioned on their price and value for money, stresses Nair, because that’s just a number game which can be challenged by others. She says small products should build equity on smartness, or even on the advantages or power of small. “It could also be around the person who opts for small. Give that person an edge over the flamboyance of going for big.”
Small-product marketeers need to think smart. Scott Goodson, founder of the US-based agency StrawberryFrog, which is handling the US launch of three Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd vehicles, draws an analogy with the theory of nano-physics, which is intimidating to ordinary folks.
The challenge with the Tata Nano is somewhat similar, he says. “The Nano has caused a global public relations coup—everyone has heard about it and expectations are huge; now the challenge for this brand is relevance,” he says. What’s more, its tiny size means it’s different and, therefore, scary to the average buyer, he adds.
He shares lessons from StrawberryFrog’s launch of one of the smallest cars, the Smart (an acronym for Swatch Mercedes ART), in the late 1990s. When it was working on the launch, the target group was urban opinion formers in the 25-35 age group (unlike the Tata Nano’s target of the ordinary man)—people who set trends and fuel culture. After the first year, their average consumer was 65 years old and had a second car as a Porsche. The Smart was immediately iconic but its user base wasn’t.
Everything about the brand was, however, iconic. The sales channel wasn’t your average car dealership, Smart cars were housed in skinny glass towers that looked like vending machines. Initially, it was suggested that the Smart should not be sold as a car; rather, they wanted people to subscribe to the Smart.
The reason was that the Smart wasn’t launched as a car, explains Goodson. It was launched as a “mobility concept” with the Reduce to the Max slogan coined by the car’s creator, Nicolas Hayek, owner of Swatch Group Ltd.
His vision for the Smart was an urban mobility vehicle that revolutionized everything from parking to traffic. “In the end, the vision was too complicated, the portfolio of smart cars were too off, but the original two-door has endured,” says Goodson.
But, when it was finally ready, the Smart failed the famous elk test in Sweden—the test that requires one to avoid hitting a moose on the roads while driving at moderate speed. The Smart flipped over. It was rejigged, the next test was a success and the car was launched.
But the enduring challenge of safety initially kept many younger drivers away, he recalls. These days no one thinks it is unsafe since it’s got a central protection pod. Even in the US—the land of big cars—Smart sales are good, says Goodson. His point: Small cars sell. Safety is an issue, but it can be overcome.
Marion Arathoon is Mint’s advertising editor. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org