07 January 2016 11:09:08 IST

Timekeeper stops ticking

As HMT shuts shop, take a look at the lesson you can take away from it

“Buildings age and become dilapidated. Machines wear out. People die. But what live on are the brands.”

When I first came into branding, I thought the above statement was gospel truth. It certainly had an element of truth in it, as brands like Pepsi, Coke and Marlboro have lived and flourished for over a hundred years. In fact, these brands are still going strong.

Yet, in the same breath, one must acknowledge the fact that once dominant brands like Kodak and Sony Walkman have walked into the sunset. The fact that brands need not live on forever was reinforced once again, when I read the announcement of the closure of HMT, which was, at one time, the market leader in India, and proudly called itself “The Timekeeper of the Nation”.

India wears HMT with pride

When I passed my matriculation examination way back in 1968, I was gifted a HMT Sona watch by my grandmother. I wore it to college with infinite pride. But I was not alone.

India swore by HMT mechanical watches. In fact, it was the only brand that you could get in the country, though a few who travelled abroad smuggled in the odd Seiko watch, much to the absolute envy of ordinary mortals like me. India, in those dark days, was a completely closed economy filled with suspicious Customs officials who thought every Indian was a smuggler.

HMT ruled the roost and, in all fairness, came out with a range of watches that were functional, accurate and more than adequate for the choice-starved consumer of pre-liberalised India. HMT had a good advertising budget, a fine marketing team and factories in different places. It was what one would call a model public sector undertaking. HMT also commissioned a quartz plant, as that was the future.

Enter Titan

Yet storm clouds were brewing as Titan commenced operations in 1985 and launched its brand with great fanfare in 1987. Here’s the breakthrough commercial that captured the imagination of the Indian markets as Titan came in with a range of 250 Quartz watches.

There was a media blitz on national TV, newspapers and magazines, and the Indian consumer went berserk. I saw one of them come to a Titan dealership with a clipping of the ad, pointing excitedly to an elegant watch that he coveted.

HMT, in comparison, seemed dated and looked like a sixty-year-old trying to hold its own with a ravishing 21-year-old in a beauty contest. The results were swift and disastrous for HMT, as it started losing market share. Titan came up with even better and more expensive Quartz watches, and more eye-catching advertising including the concept of gifting that it pioneered in watches.

The decline and current demise of HMT watches is a source of regret to many happy customers like me. In fact, even recently there was a rush to buy some rare models of HMT watches, whose production was going to stop.

So what can we learn from the HMT debacle?

Failure: the great teacher

In marketing and management, people tend to talk only about their successes. While that is understandable, in my view, learning happens from understanding failures, particularly of others. HMT, like most market leaders, underestimated the power of the competition. I am reminded of Andrew Grove’s bestselling book Only the Paranoid Survive . Successful marketers are paranoid about their competition.

HMT also read the consumers and their aspirations wrong. They wanted choice, elegance, style — you name it. And that was exactly the gap that Titan filled in more than adequately. HMT also failed to capitalise on its years of near monopoly, where it could have built an almost impregnable position. HMT was adding to its capacity in mechanical watches even as the market was moving towards Quartz.

Being in tandem

I used to head an advertising agency that did the work for HMT and was proud of our efforts for HMT Roman where we suggested that the market was ripe for a rugged, macho man’s watch to counter the almost effeminate yet elegant image of Titan. The advertising was great, the product brilliant but when the consumer went to the store looking for the brand, he couldn’t find it, as the marketing and production didn’t see eye to eye. For a brand to be successful, all the four Ps of marketing — price, product, promotion, and place — must work in cohesion, but sadly they did not.

HMT not alone

HMT is not alone in failure. BPL, another market leader that I had the privilege of working with for several years, lost its way due to a variety of reasons. Ensure that your brand is not added to the growing list of failures in the marketplace. Not for nothing do they say that wise people learn from the experience and failures of others. Here’s hoping that your brand keeps ticking!

To read more from the Third Umpire section, click here .