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BW Businessworld

Fast Forward To The Past

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The year: 2010. The place: Yokohama, Japan. The Nissan headquarter was a beehive of activity. Renault-Nissan Alliance (RNA) chief Carlos Ghosn was chairing an endless series of meetings to home in on the markets that were expected to bring in the cash for the alliance over the next decade.

Smack in the middle of preparations for the launch of the hybrid Leaf across the US, the deliberations saw Ghosn referring to markets that were underserved by the automobile industry — yet were in serious need of  aspirational and affordabale cars. The hours of brainstorming led Ghosn and his team to decide to revive Datsun, an iconic Nissan brand until the eighties. In the mid 1980s, all cars were rebadged ‘Nissan’ to strengthen parent Nissan Motors’ presence in the US.

Ghosn then handpicked Vincent Cobee, a Nissan Motors veteran, to head the Datsun project. He also put Cobee in charge of producing cars for ‘first-time’ buyers in emerging markets, based on his previous stint as the global sourcing head for the Sunny and the Micra.

In many ways Datsun will try to pull off what Maruti did in the eighties — attract the salaried class. That love affair has lasted more than 30 years, with Maruti Suzuki today accounting for 38.43 per cent of the 2.62 million domestic car market, despite stiff competition. “The reason we revived Datsun is because a large part of the population in heavily populated countries does not have the luxury of choice,” says Cobee, vice-president and head of Nissan’s Datsun unit.
“We should learn to make good things with limited resources, which is what India and growing economies need”
Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan Alliance
Frugality in Being
At present, three cars are undergoing structural and commercial viability tests at Renault Nissan’s Technical Centre in Chennai with the help of Hinduja Group’s technology firm Defiance Technologies. The first platform, codenamed ‘K2’ and similar to the Micra platform, will compete in the B segment with cars such as Ford Figo, General Motors’ Beat and Maruti’s WagonR. Nissan would not confirm this, but sources say that this platform will launch cars at an ex-showroom price anywhere between Rs 3.75 lakh and Rs 4.50 lakh. The second platform is codenamed ‘I2’, and will compete with the Hyundai Eon and the Maruti Suzuki Alto 800. Sources say this car will be priced between Rs 2.50 lakh and Rs 3.50 lakh. This car will be priced slightly above the Nano and will be the cheapest A segment car.

The K2 and I2 will hit the road by 2014 and 2015, respectively, though the former will be unveiled this month. These are the volume segments where Datsun wants to play, targeting close to 200,000 cars a year.

The third platform, which will hit the market by early 2015, will be a long wheelbase hatch similar to the Maruti Suzuki Ertiga. It will be priced between Rs 4.50 lakh and Rs 5.5 lakh. According to Cobee, Datsun will see a great deal of localisation, with support from Nissan for its sourcing and distribution strategy. Nissan is also building an 850cc diesel engine in Chennai. If it is fitted in the K2 and I2 cars, it will be the lowest displacement diesel engine in the country. Cobee, however, reveals that a petrol engine strategy for Datsun is more likely.

The Competition
So, what competition will Datsun face? In the A segment, Maruti Suzuki’s Alto and Hyundai’s Eon command a marketshare of 68.9 per cent and 21.3 per cent, respectively. Even the Tata Nano occupies 8.6 per cent of the segment, which saw negative growth of 12.93 per cent in 2012-13. In the B segment, Maruti Suzuki’s Swift and Ritz and Hyundai’s i10 and i20 have a marketshare of 32.08 per cent and 23.15 per cent, respectively. This segment saw a negative growth of 6.89 per cent. In the utility vehicle segment, Mahindra & Mahindra has a 45.08 per cent share with its Quanto, Xylo and Bolero. Maruti Suzuki has garnered a 28.98 per cent share with its Ertiga.

Datsun will be relying on its history when it hits the market with not just the cheapest cars in a given segment but also cars that meet aspirations. In the 1950s, in the US, it positioned itself as a brand which had style, power and space, and which appealed to first-time buyers. Now, the very same attributes are in demand in countries such as India where buyers are looking for cars that aren’t just cheap but also have features of higher-end cars such as good acceleration, ground clearance and mileage.

“When I see the engineers building our cars in Chennai, I am reminded that it’s people like them who are our target market. It is they who are aspiring for modern styling, better acceleration and quality,” says Cobee.

The fall in sales in the A segment and the poor show by Nano in 2012-13 are testimony to how the Indian automobile buyer thinks. While the Nano’s sales fell by 27 per cent, Alto’s fell by 12 per cent. Even in the B segment, competition has been intense (see chart). But cars such as Maruti’s Swift DZire have continued to defy gravity. “The A segment has been hurt for two reasons: first, fuel costs have gone up; and second, many Indians felt the A segment didn’t match their aspirations because of the limited choice,” says Kumar Kandasami, director at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, a global consultancy.

Frugal Engineering
Datsun fits perfectly with Ghosn’s concept of “frugal engineering”, a phrase he coined to describe Indian manufacturing. He elaborated on his coinage when he met BW in 2010: “We should learn to make good things with limited resources, which is what India and growing economies need.” In fact, Renault Nissan’s partnerships forged with Bajaj, M&M and Ashok Leyland appear to be aimed at learning from them so as to be able to introduce cars in the A-plus segment. Besides, Ghosn expects the Indian car market to touch six million cars by 2018; the alliance needs a mass market car to tap that opportunity.

Datsun will also give Nissan a much-needed push towards occupying different segments of the consumer wallet. Globally, it has the luxury brand Infiniti; then it has its own brand of cars for the semi-premium customer and, finally, it will have Datsun for the value-seeking customer. “There is a market for low-cost cars if well thought through,” says Deepesh Rathore, MD of IHS Automotive India, a consultancy.

Datsun’s rollout will leverage Renault Nissan’s 130 suppliers in Chennai while utilising the plant’s capacity to the maximum. The current capacity is restricted to 200,000 units for both Nissan and Renault. By the end of the decade, Datsun will double the capacity to 400,000 units. This will be roughly 8 per cent of Nissan’s current global capacity of five million units.

“The Indian market must be understood in the context of the long term. You need to launch cars with the lowest cost of ownership,” says Sandeep Singh, MD, marketing, Toyota Kirloskar Motors. He says that unless the service element is right, a brand cannot win. “You need to keep building your backend to bring down the cost of service,” adds Singh. This explains why it has taken Cobee three years to design platforms that can be launched simultaneously in Russia and Indonesia.
“Using the same platform and engine does not mean that the cars are the same”
Vincent Cobee, Vice-president and head of Nissan’s Datsun unit
Datsun will ride on Nissan’s 100-odd dealerships. It might even have some dealerships of its own in smaller towns. “It is important to convince the customer that the Datsun brand is unique and localised. The Indian customer knows that the alliance’s cars are more or less similar,” says Shrawan Raja, managing editor of

So will this three-brand strategy succeed? Analysts say RNA is better poised to win the customer over with its focus on different consumer sets. It has seven cars in the market which are made in India. With Datsun, the tally will go to 10. In comparison, Volkswagen has three cars, GM and Hyundai seven each, Ford four and Toyota five. Only Maruti has more than 10 cars. In a short span, RNA has hit the market with different products, and it has had some success in scaling up. Renault has seen a winner in the Duster, which sold 39,188 vehicles in the eight months since its launch in 2012-13. Similarly, Nissan’s diesel sedan Sunny has sold 23,988 units, a 40 per cent rise over 2011-12. RNA has also introduced cars built on the same platform, such as the Pulse and the Micra — though there has been a lot of criticism that they are the same cars with a different badging.

“Using the same platform and engine does not mean the cars are the same. The Nissan Juke and the Renault Megane, when you drive them, are different cars,” says Cobee. RNA has everything from a powertrain facility to a vehicle assembly at the Chennai plant to take on its rivals. Datsun’s closest rivals will be Ford and GM and not Toyota or Honda.

The alliance has localised diesel engine production which too can work to its advantage because Toyota and Honda still import theirs. Though Ford and GM have localised production of their diesel engines and platforms, they have had a dull business year. Also, the diesel advantage may not last long with the difference in petrol and diesel prices narrowing.

Datsun will need to do something out of the ordinary to be popular in India. “India is complex and it is with humility that I accept that we aim to be perfect... Japanese companies work with hard facts before we launch a car and this is where we feel that we will do well,” says Cobee.

Ghosn has chosen to keep it simple: make local products for local tastes with a coherent brand strategy. But in aiming for the bottom of the pyramid, Datsun has to tread carefully. The Nano should serve as a stark reminder of where ideas can end up, even if they come with the best of intentions.


(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 27-07-2013)