A RIDE TO REMEMBER
By: Sapna Nair-Purohit Dated: January 27, 2015
It has been close to three decades since brand Hero Honda, now Hero, came into existence. It changed the game in the two-wheeler market with the introduction of Splendor, the largest selling motorcycle from the group thus far. How did a company that once manufactured bicycles become a global two-wheeler brand to reckon with?
This is one brand that is an inevitable part of our lives — we either own it or watch it whiz past us every single day or see it in a cricket stadium or in a parking lot or on TV. Its advertising has sought to depict a sense of patriotism, togetherness, and inclusivity — be it ‘Desh ki Dhadkan’ or ‘Hum mein hai Hero’. A cycle manufacturer from Punjab to the world’s largest two-wheeler company, it has been a rather heroic rise for this company.
Creative Brands chronicles the journey of Hero Honda to Hero, the resulting challenges, its communication which has always been strategic and Indian in essence, its renewed youth focus, and more.
A ROARING START
Hero Honda was the result of a joint venture between Hero Group (originally the manufacturers of Hero Cycles) and Japan’s Honda Motor Company. By the mid-80s, Hero had grown to become one of the largest bicycle manufacturers in the world. This was the same time that Honda was scouting for a partner in India for its motorcycles business. Hero had an all-pervasive presence across the country and Honda had experience and technology. It was a great match, one that created a big flutter in the market.
During the period, however, India’s favoured two-wheeler was the scooter. Over 80 percent of that market was dominated by scooters (Bajaj was then the most preferred choice) and two-stroke motorcycles. Hero Honda decided to challenge this by launching a four-stroke motorcycle.
The other, and more important, aspect that Hero Honda leveraged was fuel efficiency. And this feature became a part of its brand DNA. Hero Honda shook the market by bringing in new technology and riding on the ‘value’ platform, which gradually propelled the brand towards leadership position. Some of the motorcycles launched during the time were CD100 and Splendor — the largest selling product from Hero thus far.
Its campaign ‘Fill it, Shut it, Forget it’ has been rated as one of the finest two-wheeler campaigns ever. The company deepening its presence by strengthening its dealer networks, service points, and spare parts outlets, making it a very accessible brand.
Hero Honda worked towards becoming an ‘inclusive brand’ with a largely Indian appeal with its ‘Desh Ki Dhadkan’ campaign. “It meant that the brand belonged to the country and not to any particular region or people,” says Anil Dua, former Senior Vice-President, (Sales and Marketing) of Hero, who spent eight years in the company. (Note: At the time of the interview, Dua was serving with Hero.)
By 2001, Hero Honda had become a brand to reckon with. Soon, it faced competition from newer brands. While being an established brand had its merits Hero Honda lacked the newness and dynamism that newer brands flaunted.
“It was like ‘the bike of yesterday versus the bike of tomorrow’. We realised that the newer players had better styling and features. So, we decided to make our brand younger and not rest on our past laurels,” Dua recalled.
From getting one new motorcycle out in three years, the company made seven-eight big changes in its products — launching a fuel injection technology, a new model, new colour, or disc brakes in order to remain in the minds of the consumer. “The idea was to look dynamic and happening,” said Dua. In 2006, when 85 percent of the market was crowded with motorcycles, Hero Honda launched a scooter, Pleasure, targeted at women.
The brand was made more visible and accessible. By 2005, the company had 2300 outlets across the country, a number that has now tripled.
There was, however, a problem: despite launching several new motorcycles, some of them in the premium segment, Hero Honda became synonymous with Splendor. “We realised that we can’t be a Splendor only company,” Dua pointed out. The focus, therefore, over the last decade, shifted to building individual model brands, such as Passion, Glamour, HF Deluxe, Xtreme, Hunk, Karizma, Impulse, and Pleasure across segments.
The corporate brand too went through a dynamic overhaul with the high-decibel ‘Dhak Dhak Go’ campaign during the Diwali season in 2008. A three-minute TVC featuring actors Hrithik Roshan and Priyanka Chopra was created. “It was a transition with fresh energy infused in the brand. Such was the impact of the campaign that we had to actually control crowds in our dealerships. That was a record of sorts in sales. And we didn’t beat ourselves for many years to come,” Dua recalled with pride.
The company has been actively associating its brands with properties and mediums that cater to the youth — sport, music, and adventure. Be it cricket (IPL) or hockey (IHL) or other sports tournaments, music shows and festivals, or TV properties, Hero makes itself conspicuous on all of these platforms.
In December 2010, Hero Group and Honda decided to part ways. And the group was faced with the challenge of re-naming the brand, conveying the change to all its stakeholders, and moving forward.
Given the scale and size of the company, this was a mammoth task. “We had to not just change one office, but 4,500 touch points across the country, and almost 100,000 people down the line — mechanics, dealers, vendors, and employees… We had just celebrated the ‘5 crore bikes on Indian roads’ milestone. Imagine how much Hero Honda visibility existed already! And we wanted people to address us as Hero,” Dua exclaimed.
Both companies had agreed on a transition period of three and half years. This meant Hero Honda could continue to use the brand name on its models till June 2014. “Any company of such size employing thousands of people, must always work on a time span which will ensure that the company’s future is secure,” Dua pointed out when asked about the rather long transition. In reality, the company took less than a year to do it all.
But once the company embarked on the new journey, Dua said, there was no looking back. After announcing the separation in December 2010, Hero Honda announced its tie-up with global brand expert Wolf Ollins, for a new logo and by April, got advertising agency Law & Kenneth on board to work on the new communication.
In June 2011, the company announced its new name — Hero Motocorp. On 9 August 2011, the new brand identity was unveiled in London. “It also in a way signified the arrival of brand Hero on the global stage,” Dua pointed out. On India’s Independence Day, the new communication ‘Hum Mein Hai Hero’ was launched and all the consumer touch-points, around 4500 (now 6000) bore the new branding and new look, by September 2011.
THE NEW IDENTITY
The choice of ‘Hero’ as the new name was not met with unanimous agreement. Experts advised the company against it, simply because Hero had traditionally been a bicycle brand and Honda gave it the technological edge; with Honda gone, what happens to the technology and engineering aspect of the brand, was their worry.
“If we had done this transition in the early 2000s, this would have been a serious problem. But the brand had been through a transformation over the decade which added to the image of innovation and technology. We had thankfully come a long way to be unduly worried for the flipside of this decision. But it also made us conscious,” Dua recalled.
In the new logo, the old Hero Honda colours (red and black) were retained for the ‘positive legacy’ they carry. “There had to be continuity with the past. The colour scheme is one such bridge between yesterday and tomorrow. The other bridge is the name Hero itself.”
A three-dimensional logo (denoted by the letter H) was designed in order to bring out the modernity and engineering aspect of the company, while the name Hero was written in simple font. “People thought it was very warm and nice. No sharp corners, well-rounded. It carries forward the human touch and emotional appeal of the brand and compliments the emblem,” he explained, adding emphatically, “We combined technology, modernity and youth appeal with human touch. Had we not gone with Hero, what would have been the difference between us and a start-up company?”
SING THE CHANGE
Crafting the new communication for Hero was like a makeover, Dua said. The company looked at two ways of communicating the change — one was saying ‘we are heroes’ since the company has been the market leader for years, or be contrarian and say that there is a hero in everyone.
“We could have thumped our chests and said that we’re heroes. But we said, hang on. Aren’t we just starting on our global, independent journey? Who are our customers? Ones turning 18 and planning to buy their first motorcycle... They are at the thresholds of their lives, they have dreams,” Dua said about arriving at the ‘Hum Mein Hai Hero’ idea.
The two-minute long TVC showed people from various walks of life — a gymnast, a boy participating in a TV show, a man jumping off a cliff, a lady pilot, all in moments of realising their potential, with a motivating song playing in the background, created by renowned composer A. R. Rahman. The ad was directed by Anurag Kashyap. “Our brief to A. R. Rahman was to create another Vande Mataram,” Dua recalled.
What really made people a part of this corporate change was the UGC (user generated content) activity, ‘A Billion Voices’. People were asked to merely mime the ‘Hum Mein Hai Hero’ anthem or sing along and upload their videos, with a reward of getting an opportunity to be featured in the new TVC. 26 TVCs were created out of the thousands of videos received, in several languages, of which six went on air.
“It was a people’s anthem. It is not just about any Indian but every human. When we went to other parts of the world like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Spain and France, we realised it resonated with everyone. It is a basic human emotion. Therefore, we created this song in several languages — Indian and international,” Dua added.
Each of its individual models is governed by a different marketing strategy. The communication for HF Deluxe, an entry segment 100cc motorcycle, has high mass appeal, like the latest ad which was based on electing the right candidate. While an ad for Glamour is loaded with style and chutzpah. Similarly, its ad for Pleasure questioned societal norms and asked, ‘why should boys have all the fun?’
For its scooter Maestro, launched recently, the company got on board actor Ranbir Kapoor as the brand ambassador. Scooter is a difficult category to dive in, since it is considered to be a choice of either women or old people. And Kapoor being ‘the quintessential boy’ was roped in to make Maestro look cool.
“The company doesn’t employ a ‘one glove fits all’ kind of marketing strategy. Many competitors show hard metal, steel, technology and gears. Hero is not about just technology — it’s also about being human. That’s why the ads have human stories and the human touch. I won’t say it is India versus international. I would say very human versus only cold technology,” Dua explained, when asked about Hero’s advertising which seems to be rooted in Indianness, as a matter of differentiation.
Apparently, the company’s ad spends have remained the same over the last decade. Its marketing spend is 2 percent of sales, but the big change is that the business has been growing. In 2006-2007, Hero was an Rs. 8000-crore company, and today it stands at Rs. 25,000 crore.
As international brands have been increasingly establishing themselves in India, Hero is investing in and building its own technology. The company has bought 49 percent stake in US bike maker EBR (Eric Buell Racing), giving it access to the high-margin markets of America and Europe. The company has also tied up with AVL, an Austrian engine developer and manufacturer, Italian two-wheeler design company Engines Engineering and with Magnetti Marelli.
The company is poised to take on the global market with its new ‘futuristic’ launches in the segments of diesel bikes, racing bikes and hybrid scooters. Additionally, Hero Motocorp is setting up assembly plants in markets such as Bangladesh, Turkey and Kenya.