How Santro rode into India

N Ramakrishnan | Updated on January 28, 2018


Former head of Hyundai India pens a riveting account on the ‘humble’ car’s success journey


Little would Mao Tse-Tung have even imagined when he enunciated his strategies on war that they would be quoted extensively in a book tracing the successful drive of a car model in India. But that is what BVR Subbu, former President of Hyundai Motor India and one of the most well-known faces and articulate voices of the company during his stint there, has done in Santro: The Car That Built a Company, where he describes in good detail the reasons behind the success of the Santro.

An alumnus of JNU, a bastion of Left ideology, where Subbu did his Master’s in economics, he has quoted extensively from Mao, to explain South Korean Hyundai’s strategy in India, as it set about laying the base and building upon it for a solid, profitable technology-driven, customer-centric business model.

An insider’s account

When Hyundai Motor Company of Korea mulled an India entry in the mid-1990s, there were not many here who had even heard of it and those who had, had only a poor opinion of the Korean car major because of its reputation in North America. Subbu gives an insider’s account of how Hyundai came to India and what it did right to become a hit with value-conscious customers.

It is as much a personal account of Subbu’s involvement in the automobile industry, the lessons he learnt at Tata Motors, which was then only making trucks and buses, and how he used that to good effect when he joined Hyundai Motor India (HMI), as it is about how the outsider ‘Tall Boy’ Santro transformed the hatchback segment and became the Sunshine car, and made it easier for HMI to launch subsequent models.

There were not many who gave the Santro much of a chance when it hit the Indian roads in 1998. Its looks, even in Subbu’s own roads, were rather unusual. I distinctly remember recommending the Santro to a gentleman in his 70s because of its ease of entry and egress, especially for senior citizens, and that person’s response was: “But that car looks like a toad.”

This book tells you how, despite the looks, Santro took on market leader Maruti Udyog with confidence and catapulted to the top of the segment, thanks to the technology it boasted and the fact that it was giving upwardly mobile Indian car buyers the latest in global technology.

In global markets, Santro was badged as the Atoz/Atos and how it got the name Santro in India itself is a revelation. Subbu and the Korean executives from HMI’s marketing team were sitting with ad company Saatchi & Saatchi which, Subbu says, had been roped in because of his personal connections, when they were discussing the image they wanted the car to project. The closest description they had was Euro chic.

That is when JH Kim, executive director of marketing and sales, took the first part of the French phonetics of both words in St Tropez, and suggested ‘Santro’. The name stuck.

The book is all about the company’s speed, aggression and technological prowess as it set about challenging not only market-leader Maruti, but demolishing some set notions on consumer behaviour and pricing, and how it pitched technology as its key strength as it sought to storm the market.

While in HMI, first as Director-Marketing, and then as President, Subbu was the go-to person for journalists and the face of the company in the country. He was always available for the media — for a quote or two on a development or a perspective on an issue — and never once missed an opportunity to take a swipe at competition; the best thing was that he would almost always be willing to go on record, unlike most others who would prefer not to be quoted.

Art of making a car

“Manufacturing a car,” notes Subbu, “is a simple business, really. You take some metal, add three parts of engineering, one part of artistry, stir in a lot of passion, and proceed to craft it with care. You pour in the requisite magic with some deft word-smithy, and for garnish you add a little bit of luck. Then you serve it up with humility (albeit tinged with some flourish) and, if you’ve done it right, chances are you’ll end up with an object of desire that dazzles at first glance and then grows into a longing.”

It sure sounds simple, but in reality it is not quite so. When it entered the Indian market, on its own steam unlike other global car manufacturers, HMI had to fight many a battle. It was up against Maruti, global giants Ford and GM and, of course, Tata Motors, which came out with the Indica, a hatchback. Then there was country-rival Daewoo and Fiat of Italy.

All of these were fighting for space and leadership in what was known as the Zen segment, that space where Maruti Zen ruled the roost. The book discusses in detail how HMI took on the nay-sayers, roped in Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan as brand ambassador, came up with the latest technology, took advantage of happenings outside to catapult the car to become segment leader in next to no time.

Written in a pleasing conversational style, the book gives a good account of how the Santro helped HMI become profitable in almost its second full year of operations, a recsord for any automobile company and from where it has never looked back.

Having known Subbu and interacted with him quite a lot during his days in Hyundai, one feels either he has become diplomatic or the book has gone through a lot of heavy-handed whetting. Yes, there are the swipes at competitors and officialdom, but not in the language one would associate with the author, who pays rich tributes to Tata Motors for the lessons he learnt there.

If you want to know about costing, pricing, brand positioning, dealer selection, vendor development, how a car model can help shape the corporate identity and image, and, more importantly, dealing with and cultivating the media and more, this book is a good read.




BVR Subbu was President, Hyundai Motor India. He now manages a boutique strategy consulting firm Beyond Visual Range.

Published on January 28, 2018

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