Last week, I read the news, with a hint of regret, about the Ambassador brand being sold to Peugeot. Mind you, we never owned an Amby, as it was called, but I certainly have fond memories with it.
Good ol’ days!
Invariably, all long distance trips were made in it, whether it was the holidays we took to Kodaikanal with its hairpin bends, the business trips to Chittoor with my team or the pilgrimages to Tirupati in the company of my late boss. It was dependable, could be repaired anywhere and seat at least six people comfortably, not to mention fitting mountains of luggage that most Indians still continue to carry.
It had literally no competition because the only other car you could own in those days was a Premier Padmini, for which you had to wait for four years! Of course, people less fortunate than you were waiting seven years to get an allotment of Bajaj Chetak and invariably re-branded as fortunate when the allotment happened.
Those whose horoscopes were special sold the Bajaj Chetak seven years later for the same price that they had bought it for and maybe even gifted themselves a HMT watch with the ill-gotten gains!
This was the India that some of us grew up in. A land of scarcity where even a pair of jeans had to be imported and watches smuggled in. And I think it is important to remember this fact, even as we look at some of these old brands with rose tinted glasses.
Changing the game
Many brands that had lived and flourished in a protected economy, started facing the heat in 1991, when the country suddenly (and not a moment too soon) opened its doors to international brands. And every foreign brand worth its name came into the country, whether it was American, Japanese, German or Korean!
The Indian consumer, who had been starved of choice and was considering choosing between two car brands, suddenly had a choice of 764! And this choice wasn’t restricted to just automobiles — refrigerators, colour televisions, mobile phones (which came a bit later) television channels, all came flooding into the market.
And the consumer just went bananas! Many brands — like HMT watches that proudly called itself the ‘timekeepers to the nation’, Hamara Bajaj or BPL colour Televisions (which had once been the market leader) — no longer ruled the roost as the consumer looked at smarter, slicker, better advertised international brands.
Ambassador — which is the hero of this piece and had been steadily dropping production, till the numbers dropped to laughable levels — is now on the block, and the price is a measly ₹80 crore!
What happened to all the goodwill, the equity built over the years and customer experiences of families that had used it for years? Why indeed is the ‘iconic’ brand, as some refer to it, being parked in the garage for keeps?
Being an icon is not easy
In this context, it must be said that people tend to get emotional about brands and give them iconic status a bit too readily. It’s a bit like calling Shikhar Dhawan great on the basis of a phenomenal debut series. But where is he now?
It’s easy to confuse form with class, and this is precisely what happened with the Amby, which was probably a flat track wonder that could not manage, as foreign brands swung, seamed and reverse swung!
Let us, in the same breath, look at the truly iconic brands the world has seen. These are brands like Volkswagen Beetle, Harley Davidson and Apple, to name just a few. They are in a different league with evangelists who are passionate about these brands and consumers who don’t mind tattooing themselves with the brand’s logo!
The Amby or the Bajaj scooter never really had this sort of appeal. They were the best available at that time and consumers have fond memories of them. But it’s important to remember that mere happy memories do not make a brand iconic.
What might have been?
And yet, I have an overriding feeling of regret at what the brand could have become. Brands are like children — they cannot grow on love and fresh air alone. They need nourishment. Brands too need sustenance and advertising support; they need to keep pace with times and technology.
They cannot survive on outdated models and poor quality. The world has moved to a different level of quality and sadly, some of our Indian brands have been left far behind, as their owners were businessmen, not visionaries.
Brands need champions and visionaries to guide and lead them and this is precisely where Amby lost out. Birla’s loss is Peugeot’s gain.
Will they have the courage, the desire and competence to revive it to its former days of glory? I wonder!