How Bajaj managed to shed its ‘scooter maker’ image and discovered the zen of motorcycle marketing.

Vespa scooters have re-entered the Indian market. Yamaha has showcased a new line-up of ‘made-for-India’ scooters. Suzuki has just launched the Swish 125 scooter range. Mahindra’s two-wheeler division is betting big on Rodeo scooters.

So what about the original king of the scooter market, ‘Hamara’ Bajaj? “We don’t even track that market now,” says K. Srinivas, President, Bajaj Auto Ltd.

That’s right. The company that once ruled Indian roads with its iconic scooter models, the company which once enjoyed a waiting list of more than a decade, is no longer even interested in scooters.

India’s oldest, and once largest, scooter maker is now convinced that the future belongs to motorcycles.

“It’s like this,” says Srinivas. “Maybe there are more pizzas selling in India, but McDonalds’ focus is on burgers.”

The ‘burger’ he would like a big bite of is the 10 million-unit-per-year-Indian motorcycle market.

“At present we have 24 per cent share of the market, and would like to focus on motorcycles alone,” says Srinivas firmly. There is no excitement in the scooter segment, says he, adding, “It has become a ‘me-too’ category.”

That’s a polar shift in attitude for Bajaj, which was clearly a me-too player in the motorcycle segment back in the 1980s.

In the mid-Eighties, several Indian companies formed joint ventures with Japanese majors such as Honda (Hero), Suzuki (TVS) and Yamaha (Escorts) to roll out their 100 cc bikes.

Bajaj was the last to join the fray. It teamed up with Kawasaki of Japan to launch its KB 100 in 1986. But scooters were still its priority.

The inflection point came almost a decade later, when fuel prices shot up after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and sparked a global fuel crisis. Petrol prices surged – and kept rising. Demand for scooters started tapering off as buyers switched to the more fuel-efficient motorcycles.

“That’s precisely when we started shaping ourselves to be a major player in the motorcycle segment,” Srinivas said.

That posed a huge brand challenge for Bajaj. The company had to virtually undo its earlier brand image and positioning as a scooter manufacturer, in order to be a big player in the motorcycles segment.

It was no cakewalk, Srinivas admits. Initially, it made a few mistakes. But, it quickly learnt from them. “When we started making bikes, we did everything exactly opposite to what the market leader (Hero Honda) was doing. It was a good strategy. Everyone sat up and noticed us.”

Bajaj finally arrived in the motorcycle market in 2001, with the launch of its first ‘Pulsar’. “It established Bajaj as a motorcycle company,” says Srinivas, who attributes the success of Pulsar to Rajiv Bajaj and his aggressive marketing strategy.

Automotive industry observer Murali Thalor says when the Pulsar was launched, Rajiv Bajaj wanted it to be a brand on its own, and did not want the Bajaj brand behind it.

There used to be a lot of friction between the son and his father Rahul Bajaj, whose personality towered over Bajaj – both within the company and outside it.

A senior executive who was with Bajaj those days quips, “Rajiv used to be the accelerator; Rahul the brake pedal, and I played the clutch lever.”

Finally, it was to be Pulsar, without the Bajaj brand umbrella in the backdrop. After that, there was no looking back for Bajaj. In 2004, it launched Discover - again, as an independent brand.

“Our products create new categories within the motorcycle segment,” Srinivas says, “With Pulsar, we created the sports category; with Discover, we created a crossover category – sports commuter bike.”

Without the benefit of a global brand to back it up, Bajaj turned the positioning on its head in motorcycles. While the others pushed fuel economy, “we focused on style, power and performance,” says Srinivas.

“Fuel efficiency is something that a bike should offer by default. Now, the consumers look for much more than that. They want styling, performance and comfort,” he argues.

Today, Bajaj is the second largest selling motorcycle company.

“We want the brand to be perceived as a powerhouse of motorcycles,” Srinivas says. It currently has the capacity to make four million bikes. And 35 per cent of its production is exported.

Does Bajaj develop products based on consumer feedback?

“Actually, the consumer does not know what he wants till he sees what he wants. We read his mind and design his dream bike,” says R. Chandrasekar, General Manager (Marketing), Bajaj Auto.

It’s this understanding of the consumer’s aspirations, and the ability to act swiftly upon them which have made Bajaj what it is today, says Thalor.

(This article was published on July 5, 2012)
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