Tata Motors is driving Ace on the millennial track

Tata Motors ACE Akshay Kumar as brand ambassador is meant to embody self-respect and entrepreneurial capability, qualities the company says that the brand stands for The chota hathi or small elephant is how customers first made their acquaintance with the first small four-wheeled commercial vehicle from the Tata Motors’ stable way back in 2005. Today with two million vehicles and 12 years on the road the Ace is still known as the small elephant but, the brand is getting an overhaul as everything around it has changed, says UT Ramprasad, head of marketing communications (Commercial Vehicles Business Unit) at Tata Motors. 

The economy is different,  environmental concerns are no longer what they were and importantly the customer—the young Class 12 dropout looking for a way to earn his livelihood—is rapidly metamorphosing.  The brand has to find a voice and form to power its drive through the new generation and the changing times. 

Ramprasad says the brand will keep its original premise, that of being a respectable means to a decent way of life. “Our premise has in fact got stronger with the millennial but expectations are more aspirational and the mindset has changed,” he says. To address the new customer ethos, advertisements, engagement initiatives and the product are all getting a fresh coat of paint. 

The big challenge as Ramprasad puts it, “It is no longer a one-box-fits-all scenario.”

Speaking to the young

One of the big asks from brand communication today is creating something that can be heard and recalled. So where the original advertising worked on crafting a memorable image and positioning, present day campaigns are about getting a voice in before the customer tunes out.

Ramprasad gives an example: “How do you make it stick that the Ace sold two million vehicles?” No one wants to wait and register the impYouTube to message was broken down to ‘an Ace is being sold every three minutes’ and the company tied up with sites frequented by the young and with YouTube  to further simplify it to, ‘an Ace (or two) was sold by the time this video loaded’. 

Getting a quick word in is important just as it is to address the social concerns of young drivers. From the very start, Ace was pitched as the fourth wheel of respect. “Status was an important consideration in the original brand promise and is an even bigger discriminator among customers today,” Ramprasad says. The brand has to redefine itself in keeping with the new norms for respect and status. 

The company is also increasingly thinking digital. An online employment exchange for Class 12 drop-outs is in the pipeline as an outreach initiative. And the brand is using Instagram to create a community of drivers. While Instagram may not be a platform of choice for the Ace driver yet, Ramprasad believes that “to own the digital space in his mind I must be there”. A contest asking drivers to upload pictures from some of the fascinating destinations they drive to is being organised; the expectation is that apart from creating a new online community, it will give them a sense of pride in their work. 

Price, respect as differentiators

According to a study by the Harvard Business Review done in 2008, work on the small truck concept began in 2000.  The company realised that its core business could be threatened by the absence of larger (greater than 45-tonne) and smaller (sub two-tonne) vehicles in its product portfolio. Besides the bottom end of the transportation sector that is the three-wheeler segment was booming and it would have been disastrous to miss out.

According to Ramprasad, the simple brief was four wheels for the price of three. And the marketing breakthrough came when the Ace was defined as an entry-level product for the commercial vehicles category and not as a competitor to three wheelers. He says, “Coupled with the fact that the country has the youngest population and according to data with us at the time, 90 per cent were dropping out after Class 12 there were a lot of young people looking for a means of livelihood.” The Ace targeted first time users and even today 75 per cent are first time users. 

Ramprasad calls Ace a liberator brand. It brought respectability and opened up career avenues for the unemployed. Importantly it was a product that a father felt good about letting his son drive. The packaging was as good as a car and it even became a personal vehicle for many, says Ramprasad. But this differentiator may be blunted today, leading the company to look for other ways to make its mark in the crowd. 

The Ace was half the price of a truck when it launched for Rs 2.25 lakh and just a little more than the large three-wheeler. Tata Motors was the sole flagbearer in the category for five years before competition poured in, but even so the company says it has close to 65-70 per cent share of the market today. However the Ace now sells for upwards of Rs 4 lakh and there are cheaper brands in the market.

A face for the brand

Advertising and branding have played a huge role in Ace’s success and that influenced the company’s decision to appoint a brand ambassador. “We wanted someone who could break the clutter and embodied the brand philosophy,” says Ramprasad. Akshay Kumar fit the bill. 

The brand has benefited hugely from the association, surprising many within the Ace team too. Kumar is ambassador for the category as a whole and the Tata Xenon Yodha has seen market shares rise from 3 per cent to 10-12 percent in six months since the association says Ramprasad. Kumar will play a big role as the Ace family enters its twelfth year he adds.

Perceptions matter The ads consistently talk about the brand as a symbol of respect. Its taglines talk about the fourth wheel of respect, about making it in life and so on Never shown alongside a three-wheeler, ads always shot against a colourful backdrop Akshay Kumar as brand ambassador is meant to embody self-respect and entrepreneurial capability, qualities the company says that the brand stands for