Rajesh Mani, Ashok Leyland: It’s all about creating trust
Like most other companies, Ashok Leyland had to expect the unexpected during the Covid pandemic. How did the second-largest vehicle manufacturer in India manage, sustain, rebuild, and strategise its brand? How challenging was it to build trust in an adverse environment? The company’s Head of Marketing and Corporate Communications, Rajesh Mani, tells CW in a video interview. Here are excerpts.
How has the Covid pandemic impacted your business and how did you, as brand custodian, strategise around your brand?
You may remember that as soon as the lockdown happened, there were trucks stranded all across the country overnight.
Like most other companies, Ashok Leyland had to expect the unexpected during the Covid pandemic. How did the second-largest vehicle manufacturer in India manage, sustain, rebuild, and strategise its brand? How challenging was it to build trust in an adverse environment? The company’s Head of Marketing and Corporate Communications, Rajesh Mani, tells CW in a video interview. Here are excerpts. How has the Covid pandemic impacted your business and how did you, as brand custodian, strategise around your brand? You may remember that as soon as the lockdown happened, there were trucks stranded all across the country overnight. That impacted our brand and our products more than anybody else's, because we had our stakeholders━the truck and our fleet owners, drivers, mechanics. So we had to get into action mode immediately and there was no time for respite. We needed to respond and reach out to these people. We needed to ensure that these people and the products that they were carrying were safe. We had to ensure that we could get them to some location. All this meant that we had to act immediately. What did we do? We got in touch with all our network colleagues across the country, set up helpline numbers that anybody could reach out to. We would have a GPS system to help locate the nearest dealer, nearest network associate, nearest after service associates, and then act immediately to help. What did they need? They needed some kind of financial assistance, some kind of price assistance, stay and food. We were there for them. Once we did that, what changed for us was that we had a supply chain issue. It was affected very badly, and we needed to get the confidence back in the system. We needed to get the supply chain back to for us to start moving again, so we approached all our supply partners, worked with our fleet owners and customers to ensure that we could smoothen the whole path and get supplies moving not only for us for the supply chain in general, because we are part of the transport industry. As a brand, it was important for us to show that we walk the talk. As a brand, you need to be authentic, and then reach out and tell people what we're doing. And I think that is what we as a brand put together and have been able to navigate the pandemic━still navigating, it's not over━and emerge stronger than what we were initially. In these days of interactive digital media stories, have companies lost some of their control over brand creation? How do you go about controlling the uncontrollable? Brands have realised that we definitely do not have as much control as we used to have before this world of social media, where everybody is controlling and talking about your brand and it's not just you who are putting out stuff around your brand. A brand is a living entity made up of experiences people have with it, and those experiences determine what that brand is and each of those experiences add to or subtract from what the brand stands for. Therefore, I think what is important to understand is that the brand needs to do the right thing at all points of time. That will reflect in the brand, regardless of who controls it. A brand also needs to have a purpose that we are driven by and put out in an authentic form, listening to our customers with our eyes and ears to the ground, and acting on the basis of what we hear. I think control over a brand is going to only diminish from a marketer's point of view as time goes by, but you need to do the right things. A couple of things that definitely work for Ashok Leyland: One, listening to consumers and customers. What we found was that customers even in the trucking industry were looking at the solutions, which were very specific to their needs. A transporter in Jharkhand has a specific requirement based on the terrain he operates in. It may not be the best of terrains. But he may require a specific mining application that requires a customised vehicle, and what I'm putting out may not suit the expectations of that customer. Therefore what we learned from the customer was that he wanted a product which was very suited only for that specific application and that he wanted to design by himself so that he looks at what the road terrain is, what engine of power should be, what the comfort level should be for the driver because that might be a hot and humid place therefore promotes design a product which is far more specific to his exact needs. So we launched the first modular platform for trucks. You launched a 14-wheeler truck recently and a modular truck platform last year. In the age of tech-driven Industry 4.0, is technology a competitive differentiator for you? Technology is indeed the cornerstone of our brand. One example is the platform I mentioned where, for the first time, we are offering [customers] the opportunity to make their own products. This is not done by anybody else in this market. So that's a differentiator in itself and helps the customer ensure, for example, the best total cost with the lowest total cost of ownership with the highest profit. It is important to see how technology helps: Having the most reliable product in the market is a differentiator. Reliability is something customers will buy. So quality , reliability and quality go hand in hand [with technology]. An example of this [combination of factors] is that consistent delivery of quality means the lowest possible downtime. How fast can we get [the vehicle] back up? And so the lowest downtime is what the customer is looking for. Second, and very important, are solutions, especially digital solutions. We have an array of solutions. Our i-Alert technology, provided to fleet owners, acts as a simple GPS, but more importantly, you can monitor 42 health parameters of the truck sitting in your office or home. That kind of technology helps in prediction and prevention. Ashok Leyland has showcased some sustainable practices including a large reduction in carbon footprint, thanks to the recent implementation of your 75 MW Sivagangai (Tamil Nadu) solar plant. What is the price—literally—to pay for sustainable practices? We are not worried about the ‘pressure’ on sustainability because we believe we should be a caring brand: We should care for the environment with sustainable practices. We ensure we have products that are compliant with the latest in the emission norms. About 60% of our power source right now is from renewable energy. We are moving all our staff buses to an electric platform. So we have invested in switched mobility, rainwater harvesting, afforestation, community work such as our Road to School programme. We are also working with the Hinduja foundation on water projects. One of the initiatives is “water ATMs” in the remotest parts of the country which have helped people get clean water at a price which is one maybe one-tenths of what they were getting before. These are some of the smaller more things which we can do in terms of sustainability. I wouldn't say that these initiatives will impact pricing. I think these are the things which branch should I do and I don't think there should be consideration of pricing and therefore what I should do and what I should not do. You can't do projects that are not affordable, but at the same time should do the right things in the right way. Image Source