The country’s oldest car maker is trying hard to get younger. From changing its design language to jazzing up showrooms and integrating latest technology with its vehicles, Maruti Suzuki is going all out to become a trendy, youthful brand.

That’s the auto major’s vision for 2020. But the big question is: can Maruti do it?

“Being an affable brand was important in the past. Now you also need to appeal to the flashy guy who wears his brand on his sleeve. I don’t think we are shy of the mass market tag. We have to show to people that there is aspiration in this tag,” says Vinay Pant, Associate Vice-President (Marketing), Maruti Suzuki.

While Maruti has been trying to attract young customers for a long time, what lends urgency to its efforts is the rapidly reducing average age of car buyers.

For the company itself, the average buyer is now 37 years old compared to 43 years old in 2010. And what should worry Maruti is the fact that the average buyer is much younger for rivals like Hyundai India and Honda Motors.

“Our buyers are between 25 and 35 years of age irrespective of the vehicles they choose. Hyundai, globally, is a very young company with a very young product line-up. Many of our products, including the iSeries, have been launched in the last one decade or so. The brand is synonymous with youth aspirations,” says Rakesh Srivastava, Senior Vice-President (Sales & Marketing), Hyundai Motor India.

Four-pronged strategy In contrast, Maruti’s buyers have stayed with it for three decades, upgrading their vehicles. But their children are not necessarily patronising brand Maruti. And it is this younger audience that Maruti wants to tap through its four-legged strategy. “We are focusing on design, technology, engineering and experience,” Pant says.

The change in Maruti’s strategy is already visible in its design language. Its Vitara Brezza, rolled out in March 2015, comes in a range of dual tone colour schemes, a first of its kind in the segment.

Baleno, launched in October last year, is based on the liquid flow design – curvy, smooth and flows in a natural progression from front to back.

Digital connect “Our newer designs are showing repercussions,” Pant says.

Maruti’s other focus area is technology and its integration with vehicles to catch the eyeballs of GenNext. It is the first car maker in India to offer Apple CarPlay, an interface that allows the driver to use one’s iPhone through the car’s in-built display and voice control system to get directions, make calls, send and receive messages and listen to music and audio books.

“The younger buyer is looking at vibrancy, digital connect and this is what we are offering him,” Pant says.

Nexa showrooms For improving the experience of customers considering a Maruti car, the company has set up upmarket Nexa showrooms, which offer luxury car buying experience.

“Over 80 per cent of the people visiting Nexa said they were not considering Maruti and then they changed their minds,” he says. In one year since launch, Nexa has grown to 150 showrooms in 80 cities and over one lakh customers.

“Today, between Baleno and S-cross, 10 per cent of the total volume is coming from Nexa,” Pant points out.

The company aims to close this fiscal with 250 Nexa showrooms and is looking at 15 per cent of its revenues to come from them.

While the numbers seem to be looking up, the image makeover for Maruti will take some time.

V G Ramakrishnan, MD and managing partner, Avanteum Advisors, says Maruti needs to have a robust portfolio of cars between ₹6 lakh and ₹10 lakh as that is the range within which buyers in their mid to late twenties usually make car purchases.

And that has been a traditionally weak point for Maruti, best known for its entry level cars.

“The right products can convey youthfulness. A company can attract younger clients on the basis of product features that are relevant for today’s customers,” he says, adding that Maruti seems to be speaking the language of the youth going by the design and features of its recent launches.

“The youthful look oriented on styling, top-end audio system, options for infotainment and interconnectivity have led to a fantastic package,” he adds.

But while products may exist in its portfolio, brand consultants believe Maruti’s marketing and advertising strategy needs to be more comprehensive.

“Maruti is a brand you trust but it is also fuddy duddy – a brand meant for the older lot,” says Sunil Alagh, founder and chairman of consulting firm, SKA Advisors.

Their advertising, compared to others, is not contemporary and trendy at all.

“Their ads look old and straightforward,” he says, adding that there is no point in having great products without creating the right imagery around them.

So he advocates a 360 degree approach encompassing, TV, digital, and so on.

“It won’t give immediate results as image building takes a minimum of 18-24 months. It is a strong company and a strong brand and there is no reason why they can’t do it,” Alagh says.

And when Maruti can master that strategy, not only will it have younger customers, it can hope to increase its market share well beyond the present 47 per cent.