The cult of the Royal Enfield

S Muralidhar | Updated on December 13, 2020

The story of an iconic Indian brand and its loyal followers

An oft-repeated cliché about India’s favourite sport is “Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties”. One could have rephrased the quote for Royal Enfield motorcycles of the past and it would have been apt.

For a brand that has had a chequered history and has been replete with stories of passionate riders and their bond with their bikes, ‘Cult’ is the right word to describe Royal Enfield (RE) and its followers. How else does one describe riders who would have taken out their ‘Bullets’ with that sense of delicious anticipation every time. The riders knowing that it was an imperfect machine and yet revelling in its uncertainty has been the stuff of legend.

Very few brands can claim to be blessed with a base of customers that is not just as forgiving of its faults, but also eager to reinvest their time and resources. RE bikes have been notoriously capricious, while also being plagued by the more common quality and mechanical problems like oil leaks, electrical failures, early rusting, a prematurely failed clutch, etc.

The legendary brand loyalty that RE enjoys hinges on its history and the aura of ownership that has been built on a symbiotic relationship with its customers. Most of us have read about passionate RE owners, their journeys and their stories. The RE club fraternity, the company’s own events like Rider Mania, etc., have been a rich source of information about the bikes and the shared passion amongst the riders.

But it was not until the book The Indian Icon — A Cult called Royal Enfield by Amrit Raj landed on my desk, did I realise that the inside story of the company and its revival from near bankruptcy has never really been told. Quite surprising for a brand with so much history and context in today’s ‘Glocal’ business environment.

For a bike brand that was born in Britain in the 1950s, embraced by India’s armed forces and in equal measure by its people, to have swung from almost becoming a BIFR (Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction) case to becoming one of the most profitable and successful Indian automotive brands, RE’s story is a unique roller-coaster ride.

The book attempts to capture the nuances and the upheavals during the last three decades of the company, a time when the Eicher Group and its charismatic management leaders planned, executed, stumbled and picked themselves up to create one of the most iconic brands of India.

The book traces the evolution of the company after Vikram Lal’s Eicher acquired a majority stake in Enfield India (originally Madras Motors). Coinciding with the opening up of the Indian economy, the first few years were spent in just stabilising the operations of RE. The book goes on to describe in detail the transition from father Vikram to son Siddhartha, their differing management styles and how the company really blossomed under the latter’s young and dynamic leadership.

Lessons in management

For students of management, RE’s story is many case studies wrapped into one. How to rationalise assets and bounce back from the brink. How to benefit from the diversity of opinion that a professional management brings to a family-owned business. How to go mass while staying within a niche that you own. How can Indian businesses successfully go global? The answers to all these questions are in the book, of course, from RE’s perspective and its experiences.

The book recounts the trials and tribulations of a brand that was desperate to survive and take on the might of the Japanese commuter bike invasion of the 1990s, and its transformation into a Indian bike maker that took on halo brands like Triumph of the UK and Harley-Davidson of the US and won.

The book’s 23 chapters follow a chronological sequence with convenient sections within that profiling the key decision makers in the company during the last 20 years. The author, previously a scribe in a prominent financial newspaper, has adopted a simple writing style and brings a journalist’s balance in his unbiased recounting of events. A point to note is how much of the in-depth research for the book had to be done independently by the author, because the company’s top management was extremely reticent to share details. Over the last decade, Royal Enfield has grown to become a mass-market brand from the comfy niche it occupied for decades earlier. From being the bike of choice for the ‘fauji’, the ‘doodhwala’ and the farmer, it has today become a lifestyle statement amongst metrosexuals, and the brand’s recall is many times more than its owners.

But, in the quest for numbers, brands often lose sight of their core philosophy. RE has managed to stay the course despite the temptations to stray. It has also benefited immensely from the coming of age of the Indian bike buyer and the strong economic growth of the last decade. The slowdown of the last two years has shown that RE needs to reinvent itself time and again to tackle the new challenges.

Like the book points out, to stay on the growth path, in the future Royal Enfield will need to preserve its legacy and yet expand its reach to newer audiences in India and markets abroad.

Published on December 13, 2020

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