Branding/Marketing, Writing

Down memory lane

First, Bajaj decided to stop making scooters and now it is dropping the Bajaj name from all its other products, including its three-wheelers. The voluntary withdrawal of one of India’s most long durable and trusted names is an extraordinary step — and one that begs deeper examination. For this a brand that has represented not only itself but an entire generation of the middle class and the values that it held dear.

The Hamara Bajaj campaign was one of those rare instances when advertising crystallises wisps of beliefs, memories and behaviours into a shock of recognition. Yes, that it is us, that is who we are, that is what it means to be Indian, was the middle-class consumers’ response. We could even argue that the use of the middle-class as a self-descriptive label was enabled by this one campaign as it struck a deeply resonant chord by gathering what was hitherto unarticulated sense and presenting it in a manner that made one’s reflection more desirable.

As the focus shifted from the scooter to the motorcycle, the values represented by Bajaj needed to be updated. The second edition of the Hamara Bajaj campaign (Badal Rahe Hain Hum Yahan) is at one level, a reflection of India as it strove to reconcile tradition with the rapidly accelerating forces of modernity while at another, it reveals Bajaj’s contentious relationship with its own past and its increasing desire to cast it off in its endeavour to chart a new future.

Its decision to drop scooters from its product line may have been led by business considerations alone, but this decision to remove the brand from its other products is in some ways an attempt to shrug off the baggage it perceives as being part of the Bajaj legacy. It is not as if there are no other auto manufacturers that lead with their brands rather than their company names, but in Bajaj’s case, something else seems to be at work. It would appear that in the internal calculations of the company its name has become synonymous with everything about the past that it wishes to disengage with.

From an outside perspective, it is not easy to understand why Bajaj should choose to see itself in this way. Discover and Pulsar are well established as product brands, but they hardly enjoy the legitimacy and trust that other auto manufacturer brands do. In this category, the role of the mother brand is key, as it outlines the larger belief system of the brand and gives consumers an overall point of reference with respect to what they can expect from its products. It also makes it much easier to launch new products and gives the company flexibility in aligning its portfolio to changing market and consumer preferences. To voluntarily forego that advantage seems unnecessary and while in the short run, it is unlikely to have any repercussions, in the long run, it might just become a handicap. What it will mean is that the individual brands will need to move beyond connoting a combination of benefits and becoming richer, deeper brands.

But the larger question that this decision throws up is whether iconic brands can harness their past, or must they, every time the world changes, seek to abandon it?

Business Standard 24 January 2011