For all the talk about companies coming to an emerging market like India and setting up shop, no one has been more passive aggressive then the Volkswagen Group. VW is most famously known for its Beetle – one of the best selling cars of all time at over 21 million units. In a bid to move beyond the Beetle, VW in the 90′s started to acquire many brands and their complete portfolio is quite impressive: Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, SEAT, Skoda and VW. The VW Group also owns 49.9% of Porsche and set to take 100% ownership in the near future. The linkage between VW and Porsche goes way back, VW was founded by Ferdinand Porsche. Then Ferdinand went on to start Porsche where his son created the iconic 911. Even today the bonds are strong, the Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg share the same chassis (platform in car speak).
Long Term Commitment
Enough of the history lesson, back to VW’s big bet on India. VW’s foray into India started in 2001 when it launched the Skoda brand and started selling the Octavia. Around 2007, the VW Group also added Audi, Bentley and VW to their Indian product line. These cars were available by importing them individually, however servicing was always an issue since they didn’t have official dealers on the ground in India. In another sign that VW is here for the long haul it opened a massive manufacturing facility in Chakan (near Pune) in 2009 and spent USD $500 million in the process. Towards the end of 2011, VW will add the high-performance brand Lamborghini to the mix. They will most likely unveil the first Lamborghini showrooms when they ship the highly anticipated fire breathing 691hp
Aventador to India.
In the 4 door mid-luxury segment, the market leader for years has been the Honda City. The break out hit for VW has been the Vento which was introduced in 2010 and already has beaten the Honda City as the number 1 selling car in that segment. The Vento’s success is a combination of Honda lagging and VW bringing the right product to the market, namely a diesel engine. With petrol prices only going up VW was right to tap into the Indian psyche of affordability. The Honda City has been around since 1998 and all the brand loyalty it built up went down the drain once the Vento was launched and petrol prices started to rise. Honda hit back in early June 2011 with price cuts by attributing it to “cost reduction efforts in the supply chain” which sounded like public relations speak then reality. But it didn’t matter, by then the damage was done and the Vento took the top spot.
Around the world Audi has always been number 3 when compared to the more well known German brands of Mercedes and BMW. However, that is changing in India partly because Audi was able to capitalize on the new designs featuring the “LED eyelids” that are now copied by every other car company. In addition, the Japanese strategy of not bringing their luxury brands of Acura, Lexus and Infiniti to India was a missed opportunity that Audi used towards its advantage. Toyota which has been in India since 1997 has built a large distribution channel and could have easily used that existing network to seamlessly introduce the Lexus brand but failed to do so. Lastly, Audi got some great mileage with their feel good advertising campaign featuring cricketer Ravi Shastri. Ravi was shown sitting on an Audi 100 on the cricket field when India won the World Championship of Cricket in 1985 where he was selected as the man of the match (most valuable player). Obviously it was unplanned and Audi capitalized on the imagery.
Possibly the only issue with the VW Group’s arrival into India is their market segmentation for their brands. When Skoda first came to India, it’s reputation in the Western European countries was not very high and thought of as a sub-standard product. However, under the VW umbrella it slowly upgraded its perception and in India it’s often thought of as a premium brand. Many consumers gravitate towards the Skoda Superb who want luxury but want to “fly under the radar” and not appear to flashy. With the arrival of Audi and VW the lines of market segmentation have started to blur. The Audi A4, Skoda Superb and VW Passat are all very similar and in fact share the same chassis. And therein lies the problem, if a consumer wants to spend Rs. 30 lakhs on a car which one – A4, Superb or Passat?
Overall, the timing of VW’s entry into India couldn’t have been more perfect as other competitors have been busy with their own problems. The American automotive giants are dealing with their domestic demand issues. The Japanese automakers are taking a very slow approach to India when it comes to their luxury brands – Acura, Lexus and Infiniti. Lastly, the German automakers Mercedes and BMW have been battling for the top spot for number of cars sold in India. BMW took the crown with over 6,200 cars sold in 2010, which is a very small piece of the overall Indian car market. Since the VW Group has many brands and able to target a much wider audience it will most likely lead overall sales in the years to come.