Nationalism and the Indian Vehicle Industry

Since Nationalism is a common problem nowadays, I decided to check the certification of our vehicle manufacturers. The criteria? How much pride do you have in your country? The results are disappointing…

Image used for representative purpose only

So what is common between the Chevrolet Tahoe and the GMC Yukon? Apart from engines, transmissions, the whole bloody chassis, and 80% of other components, that is. Yes,, both vehicles are named after places in North America, places which inspire people to adventure and outdoors. Tahoe is the great freshwater lake in Sierra Nevada, dividing California and Nevada while Yukon is the North-western Canadian region bordering Alaska.

These two vehicles are not alone. Detroit carmakers have had a long history of naming cars after American places. GM is pretty good at it. In the current line up, the GMC division has Denali editions of all its SUVs, Denali being the highest mountain peak in North America. There is also the Acadia, a GMC Crossover, named after the combined regions of Quebec and Maine. Then they also have the Sierra, which I – using my creative judgement – decide, comes from Sierra Nevada in USofA and not from the Spanish Sierra mountains. Also, the GMC Canyon ought to have been named after the Grand Canyon because the entire world knows only one canyon.

In fact, the only jarring note in the GMC line-up is the Savana. It’s a place in Madagascar. Not many people buy the Savana. Its showroom brothers make it stand in a corner.

The other GM divisions aren’t too shabby in the nationalism area as well. Chevrolet has the Malibu, named after a place in California. It also has the Colorado, a state of the USofA. Chevrolet also has the Silverado, named after another canyon in the Americas.

Buick doesn’t want to be left behind in the nationalism game either. It has the La Crosse, named after a city in Wisconsin. It also has the Cascada, a small community in the Sierra Nevada region. However, that is where Buick stops – Envision, Enclave, Encore and Regal are all as generic as black labradors. Meanwhile, Verano, the brand’s mid-size sedan, is a place in Italy, quite uncharacteristic for a shabbily styled vehicle.

When the American taxpayers bailed out GM in 2009, a lot of people protested. I say, with the nationalism that GM displays in naming their vehicles, they deserved every cent of that money, maybe even more. Heck who can forget that in 2007, unassuming GM vehicles had transformed into Autobots and saved the world a few times. They have done it three times more since then and I await another instalment this summer.

In the nationalism context, Cadillac is the only problem child for GM. The brand uses meaningless alphabets for vehicle names and the Escalade, the only Cadillac with a proper name, means nothing for the Americas. No wonder patriotic Americans all went into the this-is-Sparta mode and started buying German luxury cars.

GM’s Rivals Cannot Match Its Nationalism
GM’s home-grown rivals pale in comparison when it comes to nationalism. Ford uses boring generic names like Edge, Focus, Fiesta and C-Max for its vehicles. Meanwhile, apart from the Durango, Chrysler’s Dodge division has nothing American. And last I checked, Durango is Mexican, not exactly American, especially now that Trump is in office.

The other division – Jeep – starts showing some promise with a vehicle named Patriot. But Patriot is not American, its generic, and mostly Scottish, Sturgeon Scottish. The brand loses it further with the Wrangler which means jeans, However, it redeems itself somewhat with Cherokee, which though not meaning a place, refers to a native American tribe.

Under severe pressure from GM on the nationalism front, the Chrysler group resorted to bringing out special editions of its vehicles with names of American places suffixed. So we got the Wrangler Pikes Peak edition many years back and everyone was happy, Pikes Peak being one of the highest peaks in the Rockies.

But then they did the Wrangler Sahara and lost the nationalism race forever.

Royal enfield himalayan

Indian Vehicle Industry and its Poor Nationalism Record
That brings us to India. I hardly find any Indian vehicles named after Indian places, or Indian tribes, or Indian peaks. Vehicles are not nationalistic and I dare say that they may be leftists hiding under the garb of a capitalistic industry. Heck, the cigarette industry does better than the vehicle industry – they gave us Jaisalmer. There is also the perfume industry – they gave us Jaipur. Not to mention, the Indian street food / fast food industry is exceedingly patriotic – Bikanerwala, Delhiwala, Bengali Sweets, Rajasthani Thali, Awadhi….you get the point.

I wouldn’t have used the word ‘hardly’ in the previous para if it was not for the Royal Enfield Himalayan. With one model, Royal Enfield has redeemed itself of its years of British slavery and scored a goal on the nationalism front. Though the grouchy me still feels that it comes too little, too late in the day. Think of it, a brand which owes a great deal of its success to the rider’s single-minded obsession with the Rohtang Pass gave vegetative names like Electra, Machismo and Classic to its bikes. Then they also had the Thunderbird – a name both gothic and American in context. Even worse was the Continental, a sort of homage to the European continent.

A honourable mention also to Mahindra which has the Thar off-roader. But their remaining brands – Scorpio, Jeeto, Supro, Maxximmo, Quanto etc have nothing Indian in them. But then, not many Indian places end in an O and so I can understand Mahindra’s handicap. Things are beyond repair now as Mahindra has moved to a nonsensical alpha-numeric nomenclature for its models.

There is also the Force Gurkha, an ode to the strength of the Himalayan tribe. It would have worked very well had it not been surrounded in the showroom by vehicles with weird names like Trax, Toofan and Judo.

The Alpha-Numeric Way of Escaping Nationalism
In fact most carmakers have now hidden behind a garb of alpha-numeric names to shy away from nationalism. They think the customer is barely literate and alpha-numeric odes are easy to remember. The Germans started it with the C, E, S Classes, the A4, A6 & A8 and the 3-5- & 7-Series. But this was post-war Germany and moving away from nationalism was a wise decision.

The rest of Europe had similar feelings. Having gone through a major war, no one wanted cars to remind them of places and reek of nationalism. So any such attempts were suitably punished – Austin Montego and Cambridge didn’t sell not because they were crap but mostly because of a reference to places. Meanwhile, UK went on to buy many 205s, 206s, 306s, 407s, C2s, C5s etc etc. killing their domestic car industry all because they were making cars called Brooklands and Oxford.

Maruti Suzuki Gypsy

India – Country of Disappointments
India is a huge country with a rich heritage. Culture is our strength and we could have easily converted that into a marketing weapon. Unfortunately, most vehicle manufacturers want to seek inspiration from outside the country.

My biggest disappointment comes from the market leader – Maruti-Suzuki. Here is a super strong brand that can do no wrong and yet it does little on the nationalism front. All its cars have names that are mis-spelt – DZIre, Eeco – or are made up of a combination of three words within five alphabets – Ignis (Inside Gnome Island?). Some are named after vegetables – Celerio, while others pay homage to unity (Alto) or the shape they represent (Wagon R). This is humour in a very twisted Japanese way.

Only two model names in the entire range make any sense – Gypsy and Swift – and there is nothing in them paying homage to Agra, Bhopal or Vizag. Gypsies are Spanish, Banjaaras are Indian.

Even more embarrassing is the fact that Pak Suzuki finds no problems in naming its vehicles after Pakistani features — it sells the Ravi pick-up and the Bolan van.

Bajaj — Nationalism Pays Whenever They Embrace it
Bajaj started off gloriously with the Chetak, the almost mystical horse of the legendary Maharana Pratap. We rewarded their sense of nationalism handsomely and bought many more Chetaks than NVs & Lambrettas combined. Heck, the NV had more features and the Lambretta more character and still we bought Chetaks.

But the company lost its way rapidly, first resorting to alpha-numeric names like KB100, then mis-spelt ones like Kristal, Caliber & Safire, and finally video games inspired monikers like Pulsar, Avenger and Dominor. Bajaj should learn quickly from the success of the V range. One mention of INS Vikrant and buyers flocked to the showrooms. I wonder what would have happened if the company had named Bajaj Platina as Bajaj Maratha. A Bajaj Munnar could have helped the brand do better in the South Indian market.

Tata Motors – Declining Nationalism?
I had great expectations from the other Indian dinosaur – Tata Motors. They started off pretty badly on nationalism, naming their first passenger vehicle Sierra. The second one was called Estate, purely because it was one. Both bombed because patriotic Indians didn’t identify with them. They wanted a Tata Vindhya.

The brand amended big time with the Tata Sumo, named after a great executive of the company. We, the common Indians, completely recognised the link and made the vehicle a roaring success. Then came Indica, which was short for Indian car. Their communication was slow and Indians took a few years understanding what Indica name stood for. We made amends quickly.

Also came the Safari SUV and we understood that it was a safari in Corbett park and not Africa. We bought a lot of them. Also, the taxiwallas could also understand the Indigo name and the Indian influence in that and bought shiploads of them.

It’s a pity that Tata Motors lost its way after that and started taking inspiration from California (Nano), video games (Bolt), clowns (Zest), and also sought influence from Europe (Vista & Tiago). Now at the time when the carmaker is looking for a resurrection, a return to nationalism is what is needed. I wonder if the Nano would have sold much more if it was named Tata Hanuman.

The company tries now and then to redeem itself with Leh and Ladakh editions of its UVs but sadly they stay mostly Auto Expo concepts than regular production vehicles.

On a similar note, Ford thinks Indian places work very well in other countries so it calls one of its SUVs Everest. Surprisingly, it renames the same in India as the Endeavour, choosing not to fight a legal battle to defend nationalism.

Local Sensibilities — They Matter But Do we Recognise Them?
I think a brand should name its products to meet local sensibilities. Learn from the Koreans – Hyundai calls its SUVs Santa Fe and Tucson and not Myohyangsan and Mantapsan, because they want to sell SUVs in North America and a Santa Fe is more palatable than Mantapsan. Similarly, Kia sells the Rio, named after the place many Americans flock to to get knocked up. They also have a crossover called the Sorento and another sedan called the Sedona.

However, I still salute the wily Koreans on nationalism. You see the Kia Soul is an underhand, cryptic reference to Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. Soul is how Seoul is pronounced. A-ha!

Why Don’t We Do It?
I have quizzed many executives on the nationalism issue and none of them had a convincing answer to my questions. Some of them also wanted to know who my meth supplier was. The core theme was that Indians just won’t find a local place tagged in a brand as attractive. Who will buy a Maruti Puducherry hatchback, scoffed an executive.

He may be right – we didn’t buy a soap called Ganga, would we buy a truck called Damodar?

Maybe? Maybe not!

I am with the maybe. As examples have illustrated, nationalism works very well in India and I am not alluding to the current political scenario in the country. In most cases where brands have been named after Indian places or things, the results have been positive – Bajaj V, RE Himalayan and Mahindra Thar all have strong cult followings.

India is known for being rich. ITC positioned Jaisalmer as a premium cigarette brand. Jaipur is a premium brand; so is the mis-spelt Jaypore and trousers called Jodhpurs are only bought by people who can afford a horse.

There are a 100 major peaks in the Himalayas and each has a name more dramatic than Creta; Hyundai just doesn’t give the deserved importance to the Indian market.

It seems the crux of the matter is that most vehicle marketing guys think Indians find anything developed world more aspirational in nature. We just lack self-confidence.

Or is it just the executives? These are the same guys who believe that their brand is semi-premium and then spend endless hours convincing taxi-operators to buy their cars.

The Opportunities
‘India doesn’t work’ is an untested hypothesis with no basis. The country is huge – 1.3 billion people – and we cannot generalise just because you have been too lazy to experiment. The country has a huge list of inspiring places – natural & cultural – and a Maruti Garo may work better than a Vitara Brezza badging. How about Tata calling its next off-roader Kailash, instead of a Matrix & inert gas inspired, neon-lights name like Nexon. Maybe have the Mahindra Saser Kangri anyone as the Bolero replacement? The TUV stcker has as much character as a cabbage.

What is even better is that automakers can also easily use such nationalistic badging to break into markets – a Bajaj Rohtang sticker in place of Dominor would have opened the traditional Royal Enfield market to Bajaj in a flash. And TVS may find it surprising that renaming their performance bikes from Apache (a Native American tribe) to Gujjar may open the North Indian market for them.

Okay, maybe not.

Author: Deepesh Rathore is a Director at Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors (EMMAAA)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not represent those of The Indian Express Group or any employees.

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