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Hyundai upbeat as Santro gears up for comeback

Murali Gopalan | Updated on October 11, 2018

YK Koo believes the Santro brand has strong emotional recall

MD, YK Koo, divulges the story behind the brand’s resurrection

YK Koo was heading Hyundai Motor’s Russia operations in 2014 when he heard the news of the Santro being phased out in India.

It brought back memories of 1998 when the brand wrote a new script for the Korean car-maker. “When I was transferred to India, my first task was to get back the Santro,” recalls the Managing Director and CEO of Hyundai Motor India during the course of an interview in Chennai.

For Koo, this was top priority since he had been involved with the development of the Santro whilst in India over two decades ago. He was witness to its spectacular success, which in turn paved the way for the Hyundai growth story in this part of the world.

It was, therefore, important to get the brand back in India given its strong emotional connect with customers. In January 2016, a month after Koo had taken charge here, Hyundai Motor’s Vice-Chairman had come visiting and that is when the nod to go ahead was given.

“I requested my Vice-Chairman in the car for two things: Sir, I need Santro to come back and, two, we also need a corporate office,” narrates Koo. All this was happening inside a car in New Delhi and the Vice-Chairman okayed both requests immediately.

Incidentally, the need for a corporate office stemmed from the fact that the Korean auto-maker was in a rented premises and realised that the time had come to move to its own place. The new office in Gurgaon will be ready in 2020.

The more important task on hand, however, was to develop the Santro with new height and width specifications to keep pace with market requirements. What was remarkable was that even in the headquarters in South Korea, everyone was delighted that the brand was poised to make a comeback.

“Santro is a very powerful brand and our dealers wanted it back. When we made the decision to build AH2 (as the model was codenamed), everyone was unanimous about it being christened Santro,” says Koo.

After all, it represented a huge success story in India and senior people across divisions in Hyundai HQ welcomed the decision. “Santro is our DNA and we just could not lose our heritage,” he adds.

The sentiments resonated in the huge initiative online where Hyundai sought name suggestions for the AH2. Of the five lakh-plus entries that came in, over two-thirds opted for Santro. It was more than evident that large chunks of India agreed with what Koo had in mind.

A tight deadline

The Hyundai India Chief was also keen to launch the new Santro on September 23, the day the original Tall Boy made its debut in this market 20 years ago. This was, however, not possible because of the pressure on development time and the fact that this was a different product with more features.

Yet, Koo persuaded the R&D team to speed up work in order to meet the Diwali schedule when car sales are very brisk in India. While it was not possible to meet the September request, he still managed to get the other half of the deal, 23rd as the date of launch, even if this was October.

From his point of view, this was important to commemorate the brand, which had done so much for the company in India. If things had gone according to plan, the new Santro would have been launched only in January 2019, which would have meant missing the Diwali season buoyancy.

“For me, this is a particularly emotional moment and I am delighted that we are making a comeback in this space,” says Koo. It also makes perfect business sense since the Tall Boy slot was vacant for four years leaving it open to rivals. In his view, the Tall Boy market is important for a host of reasons, especially for older people who can get in and out of the car comfortably.

“There is tremendous brand recall for Santro, which has an emotional touch with Indians. It has a core value that touches hearts and defines family relationships,” says Koo. The new car has a host of features to appeal to the contemporary buyer and Hyundai will be hoping for an encore of ‘98.

An emotional moment

“October 23 will be an emotional moment for me and our dealers when the car is launched,” he says. Along with them will be Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan who has been associated with Hyundai for two decades now. In the process, he is perhaps the oldest brand ambassador for cars and it is a bonding that has only gotten stronger with time.

Koo makes no bones about the fact that Shah Rukh is an integral part of the Santro success story. The actor was barely aged 33 when he came on board with Hyundai. “We have been with him all these years and value the association,” he adds.

The new Santro is a product for the world even while India will be the main market. Shipments will head out to South America, South Africa, Europe Asia and the Middle-East. “Everyone has good memories of Santro, which is a gift to the Indian market,” declares a visibly elated Koo.

The writer was in Chennai at an invitation from Hyundai Motor India

Published on October 11, 2018

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