The story of Hero MotoCorp and what lies ahead for them.
Note: Originally written in May 2012.
If you happen to be from the western half of the world (provided we keep the division line somewhere in Turkey), your image of the transportation system of many a countries in the East, specially South East Asia would have an acute semblance to a disturbing caricature. Save for Japan, which somehow happened to buck the trend with crazy transportation culture and flawless traffic manners (ironically both at the same time), most other countries adorn chaos as their fundamental right when it comes to their roads. I'm not very aware of Singapore, but Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Indian Subcontinent are all categorically under the same hood. Streets buzzing with traffic, especially of the two wheeled variety, plus an absolute lack of sensibility and good demeanor is a very likely occurrence here. Not a matter of pride for my Indian nationality yet I reckon the Indian road scene forms a classic example for this case. In fact more so, call it a benchmark of hooliganism, where terms like "the right side of the road", "speed limits", "pavements and pedestrian ethics" are astoundingly foolish! Add in the the typical Indian's passion for fuel economy, frugality, and maintainability; and a Motorcycle emerges to be the true Hero of our roads. Sorry about the pun, but that's where Hero MotoCorp, the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer comes in!
Any growing Indian, somewhere before or after the couple of years of prime pubescence, learns to ride a motorcycle. It is one of the basic skills needed to survive efficiently here. A majority of these budding riders do this bit of their training on a Hero Honda. Essentially a JV between the big red Japanese giant, Honda 2 wheelers and India's Hero, it went onto become a synonym for motorcycling in India for a significant amount of time. Back in the late 80s to the early and mid 90s, when people started realizing scooters quite didn't cut it in the Indian scenario (owing to their recurrent mechanical niggles and inconvenient designs), a slow pace has been instilled in the 2 stroke motorcycle market with a lot of Japanese players making their foray through JVs with Indian partners who would provide all the necessary groundwork to run an effective company. Some of these 2 strokes accrued cult status too, while a very minor segment of the buying public developed tastes for good motorcycling products. However, clean and efficient products that catered to everybody's needs and afford-abilities still remained a myth owing to technological, political, and economic constraints. As time progressed, the 2 strokes had to be phased out (sad for the enthusiasts) as they were highly polluting, on the decibel levels too. With every 2 wheeled manufacturing effort taken up so far in vain, naturally, a huge potential existed for a new player who could show India the future. Hero Honda, with their frugal, simple, efficient, and advanced technical deft, with roots in a sophisticated Japanese upbringing, enthusiastically obliged!
Year after year, HH launched a slew of products that appealed to the needs of consumers like berries and ice cream. Products flew off the showroom floors, brand equity surged ahead, and the numbers just kept on coming! The main USP of the brand remained a trusted network of dealers and service centers that spawned to the extremities of the length and breadth of the country, supreme efficacy of the technology which was rather tailor fit to the Indian work condition, simple yet charming designs and afford-ability! HH furthered their cause by improving product line-ups with step-thrus and premium commuters, while slowly acquiring a zeal for experimenting advanced product packages! The pinnacle of HH lies in one of those moments where it gave us products like the CBZ and the Karizma that were legions ahead of the times then. My dad owned three generations of HH products (after riding Enfield 350s, Jawa, Yezdi 250s & RDs) and has one battered old 100cc Splendour which chugs along just fine till date and it still happens to have the smoothest exhaust note that one can expect. I learnt to ride on that bike!
However as time would have it, HH today does not enjoy the much respected position it held in the market, say 10 years ago. Despite it still being the largest maker of motorcycles, both in the country and the world, sales and rapport have gradually and alarmingly been dwindling down. To divulge the acerbic reality, HH no longer stays the primary option for a consumer looking for a new motorcycle in the Indian market. Gravely this scenario seems to remain intact for sometime to come. I'll dwell slightly into the reasons. In the past decade, a lot of foreign players have directly initiated their operations in India (owing to a much awaited liberalization of the Automotive sector) and brought in the better portion of their wares with them. Honda itself couldn't resist this new channel and setup shop in India, separately as HMSI, where they would bring in different iterations of products from under the HH logo, some engineered better, some not, along with some ingenuous concepts too. Markets matured and consumer tastes diverged thereby creating new segments and niches too, thus spurring manufacturers to bring in a sprawling range of bikes, scooters, mini sports bikes and heavy imports leaving HH in the wake of products that far exceed its own in terms of design, market positioning, performance, public cult, rapport, et al. Meanwhile, HH's internal JV has itself remain impaired for the past decade where in, despite market demands, all HH would do was launch and relaunch new iterations of generally the same product, in each segment of the market. Due to reasons fairly ambiguous, HH's products of the last few years were essentially badly refreshed styling upgrades, which were sometimes terribly limited to sticker upgrades. Technology remained the same save for very faint refinements; and the simple charm and identifiable appeal that these products had, dwindled down as competitors ate progressively into the pie of market shares and public accolades. Appending to the turmoil, is the absurd overpricing of HH's products.
As if this stark transition in HH's position weren't enough, another major blow came last year, when Hero and Honda decided to part ways and become independent players in markets everywhere around the world where HH prevailed earlier. To ponder into the makings of this separation is beyond the scope of my blog and my understanding, but plain logic suggests that each party wanted to enjoy a supreme share of market benefits, plausible as is with the market emerging consistently. Another industry rumor infers that Honda has been the culprit in the marriage, constraining the use of effective R & D by Hero for the launch of new and effective models and generally regulating any powers vested in Hero for doing so. To acknowledge the scenario conclusively, Hero is indeed at a point of its life, which is starkly unprecedented yet absolutely groundbreaking. To reckon, strangely as it may sound, this moment has the makings of a new birth and uprising for Hero, which can make them redefine their own DNA and become an ace in Motorcycling, not just in India but all through their current international footprint with serious expansion on the cards too. I might sound overtly advocating in nature, but let me throw a timely disclaimer that this article is being generated only out of a purist belief in one of the many passionate automotive firms in the world whose progress we need!
So, here goes an enumerative insight into why Hero is at a cross roads in its history and what it ought to do to make its work cut out in the future!
a) Product Portfolio - One thing that has now been etched on the facade of the Indian Market is that the customer shall no longer remain a slave to sluggish products that feel to have come decades beyond their time with tacky and exploitative paint jobs, stickers, body panels, and essentially, old, rudimentary technologies. This mindset revision came about when the slew of younger manufacturers started launching revolutionary products with technologies seldom seen earlier by buyers, especially with irresistible market propositions to grab. A few examples include bikes like the Yamaha R15, FZ16, Honda CBR250R, 150R and the quintessential Indian street fighter; the entire Bajaj Pulsar range. Hero Honda, sadly, has been deemed to a certain extent to be a maker of the former type, owing to a pathetic product range that exactly fitted the bill as described earlier. Even their flagship models like the Karizma ZMR have been plagued by pricing issues. Critically, a majority of the products in Hero's line-up overlapped themselves when it came to market segments thus eating into each other's shares. As such, one bold move Hero might have to take up is to scrap off all the redundant models, clean up their product portfolio to feature distinct, identifiable products and plainly speaking, start afresh! For one, Hero has a great chance at it too, given that they aren't exactly short of resources. Technically, what they need are properly distinguishable bikes in the 100cc, 125cc, 150cc, 200cc and 250cc segments alongside a 100cc and a 125cc scooter to begin with. It is absolutely arguable that R & D and production engineering costs for a completely new line up can be gargantuan yet a steady step by step process where, first, they chuck out all the redundant models to leave one model in each segment, and second, they start revamping each model to meet the benchmark (or rather redefine it!), may be adopted. One proper perk Hero already has in its bag is brand names that have become familiar to every household in the country. Respectively, in each segment as stated above, all they need is a new (or revamped) and properly stonking (this is must!) Splendour, Glamour, CBZ, Karizma and whatever, they wish to name their 250 as! To sum it up throw the 2 customary scooters and a sturdy basic 110cc commuter (which might as well be the venerable CD110) for the rural markets. Anything else, shall be basically overkill. An Afterthought: Hero's Impulse, a groundbreaking product indeed is surely a spectacular move, but I am bemused as to the products relevance with the Indian market!
b) Technology - Now that a reference point for what products are certainly required for Hero's new foray is set, I shall dwell into the technology bit of it. As earlier stated, this is THE arena that motorcycle makers have to focus on today, thankfully succumbing to customer expectations and a suffocating competition scenario. Save for the recent past leading right upto the split, this was never an issue for Hero as Big Red was at the helm and their entire slew of technologies were there to indulge Hero with. Currently, it has been proclaimed that Hero does have access to Honda's technologies for a little while, but, as seen by Hero's rather disappointing show at the 2012 Delhi Auto Expo, all Hero seems to be able to do is re-sticker products from Honda's India line up and call them different names. If Hero thinks it can walk away by fooling customers this way, the customers are surely going to walk away from Hero showrooms and into Honda ones. Hero, thence, either needs a very aggressive R & D division working overtime to save its skin or find a new partner. In a hushed tone, almost clandestine to those overlooking minor sections of the news, somewhere in the beginning of this year, Hero tied up an agreement with a certain American motorcycle company called Buell Racing, infamous in motorcycling & technology circles for their groundbreaking designs, outstanding skill and commitment to racing and technological advances. Buell needs Hero's money and Hero believes Buell can reciprocate through technological infusions into Hero's products. Automotive enthusiasts all around including me are praying overtime that this marriage yields positive results as Buell is one serious force to reckon with. Another speculation one might confidently make is that Buell has never had any serious commercial intentions, atleast with respect to the Indian market, and has primary motives linked to technology solely. That should prevent any mishaps like the one Hero went through with its earlier JV. Essentially, briefings for new products and drawing board-'bills of materials' at Hero's end should ambitiously include names like USD forks, tubular or twin spar frames, petal discs, intelligent engine and exhaust management systems, catchy styling cues and singularly for Hero, more style and less stickers! This way, benchmarks can be redefined (like Hero did with the Splendour, CBZ & Karizma) and through a JV with Buell, Hero surely has the potential to play its cards right!
c) Marketing - Lets talk of advertisements, shall we? A majority of Hero's recent adverts contain a dramatic montage of scenes showing Indians that had their lives touched by the presence of a Hero bike and the customary mass ride-out to an epic locale with the Indian flag flying high, thus idolizing the connection Hero shares with Indians. Even Hero's re-launch campaign with A.R.Rahman providing a beautiful background song, shared the same plotline (albeit shot much better!) and was indeed a smart move! This has indeed been Hero's legend and it deserves that much folklore! However, as they say, heritage is nothing if you just sit with it on your lap. Remember a similar scenario with Bajaj with the "Humaara Bajaj" campaign that took them nowhere unless they took up grass roots marketing through their Pulsar, Boxer & Discover ranges? That is exactly the path Hero should be following. Keep the heritage high, go rave about it all you can, yet focus maximum efforts towards extensive marketing at the grassroots level. Because this is where the game has changed and a neglect on this front can upset Hero's ambitions blatantly. A massive sales and support network already at its disposal, all Hero needs to do now is to restructure the pricing, sort out its product portfolio (discussed earlier), establish notable identities and improve visibility, more so to lose a certain anonymous-ness generally linked to Hero dealers and Hero products by local markets and buyers. Dear Hero, your MBA folks should leave their A/C rooms and start working from the lower echelons!
d) Attitude - In Japanese Industrial standards, there is usually a final step for any improvement process which is considered a priority. Its called Standardization. That is what Hero needs in its attitude, cumulatively, with respect to all the above mentioned points. Unlike earlier, Hero has to absolutely make it a habit to consistently fiddle and improve technology, create worthy products and market them extensively in terms that the buyers can never say no to! No matter however corporate they get, major Indian companies still retain a certain Indian "sarkaari" flair in them; read: sluggish development of projects, ancient rudimentary company-profile philosophies, and outdated marketing strategies. This, Hero should strictly avoid! In many aspects, it would be safe to assume that Hero should follow the likes of Bajaj in their path to resurrection, particularly in terms of marketing and profile.
There you have it, a simple mantra to Hero's resurgence! Before I conclude, here I should strictly maintain yet again that I'm in no way patronizing Hero and denouncing the growth of Bajaj and plead you to ignore any scope of reading between the lines. Honestly, save for the original P180, the only P200 and the exotic P200NS, I've never been a great fan of their products. that's all. Thereby to sum it up, if it plays its cards right, making strategic moves that, sometimes ought to get outright revolutionary, Hero has what it takes to be the synonym for motorcycles in India yet again. Critically, Hero needs someone young spearheading the company's 'ambitions' from now on ala Rajiv Bajaj! Outcomes of this new rendition of the brand would also include invigorated competition in the Indian market(hence, better products) and a better run for Hero on the international front too! Maybe that could only culminate in motorcyclists feeling the same as they felt when they rode astride Splendours in style in the late 90s, which, as iterated time and again by me earlier, was epic. In time, I'm looking forward to a Hero-Buell supersports bike in my garage to stand by dad's trusted old Hero Honda steed!