Four years ago when Ashok Leyland found itself caught in the middle of a commercial-vehicle slowdown, the truck maker realised it would have to do something dramatic to survive the trough. Volumes in the medium and heavy commercial vehicles (M&HCV) market, where Ashok Leyland was a key player, had dropped 26 per cent in 2012-13, putting most firms including leader Tata Motors on the backfoot.
A slowdown typically sees branding activities gain steam as companies clamour to ensure brand recall for their products and services. The rationale here is that sales should not slip when the chips are down.
While Tata Motors still had the Tata name backing it, ensuring it was not unknown to consumers across the country, that wasn't the case with Ashok Leyland, which suffered at two levels. It had no brand recall on the national stage owing to its regional prominence largely in the south. The second was its presence in a B2B (business-to-business) category like trucks, which ensured lay consumers had no knowledge of it at all.
Executives at the Chennai-based firm admit there was need for a radical change in perception of Brand Ashok Leyland both at the B2B and business-to-consumer levels. A strong brand-building campaign that positioned Ashok Leyland as one that partook of the growth of people was the need of the hour, said Vinod Dasari, MD, Ashok Leyland.
It was then that Ashok Leyland came up with the unthinkable. It chose to move out of its comfort zone of the south to launch a national campaign - Aapki Jeet, Hamari Jeet - for the first-time ever in its six-decade history. This was in financial year 2012-13.
That wasn't all. The campaign used a brand endorser for the first time in cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni to speak to not only to truck drivers, but also fleet owners and mechanics. "It was important for us to address a wider audience rather than restrict ourselves to truck drivers alone. In essence, we were speaking to every stake-holder in the system to ensure we did not miss out on anyone in the value chain," Dasari said.
This, he says, ensured Ashok Leyland could pitchfork itself comfortably as a company that was keen to aid its target group with its business objectives. "While commercial vehicles are a B2B segment, the audience in that category has to be apprised from time to time of the options available to them. Dealerships no doubt do their job of promoting the product, but we also needed a larger umbrella to string everything together," Dasari says.
The best measure of the success of a brand campaign is the impact on sales, experts say. Ashok Leyland's market share in the last three years in the M&HCV category has consistently improved from 26.1 per cent in 2013-14 to 28.6 per cent in 2014-15 and 30.6 per cent in 2015-16.
Tata Motors, on the other hand, has seen its market share slide, especially, in the last two years (from 57.17 per cent in 2014-15 to 54.95 per cent in 2015-16). This comes even as the category begins to see signs of improvement.
The M&HCV segment, represented largely by Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland and VE Commercial Vehicles, has grown over 24 per cent in the April 2015 to May 2016 period, driven mainly by replacement and fleet additions.
The growth kicked in from September 2015 and the segment as a whole grew by 16 per cent in 2015-16. Experts say the segment is projected to see an even higher growth this fiscal.
Against this backdrop, Dasari says the company will raise the pitch, targeting not only consumers, but also investors, employees and allied stakeholders. It has also hired branding agency Interbrand to help it in this endeavour and is also launching new products. The new initiative will see Ashok Leyland position itself on the plank - Living the Brand - across media for the next two years.
Continuation of a national campaign is important since challenges remain in M&HCV category. While the segment has now grown for nine straight months, in absolute numbers it is still down from the peak. According to data with the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, over 40,000 medium and heavy commercial vehicles were sold in March 2011, the peak month. In May 2016, only 20,615 vehicles were sold. Experts say the industry is seeing an improvement in capacity utilisation and volumes will go back to its peak in a year.