It was in end-November 2001 when Bajaj Auto launched the Pulsar and has never looked back since. Positioned as the ‘Definitely Male’ motorcycle, the TV commercial showed two ecstatic nurses delirious with joy and yelling ‘It’s a boy!!’ The Pulsar was a clear differentiator in what was otherwise a predictable commuter motorcycle market.
After all, market leaders like Hero Honda decided to make mileage their USP keeping in mind that operating costs were important to the average two-wheeler buyer. Bajaj Auto, as the erstwhile geared scooter monarch which had recently forayed into motorcycles with Kawasaki, was still attempting to make a mark in this category.
And it is here that Pulsar did the trick and positioned the company as a premium player in bikes. Even while the commuter space was the more voluminous segment, it was important for Bajaj Auto to emerge a differentiator. Its Managing Director, Rajiv Bajaj, decided to focus on the brand approach while driving home the message that ‘less is more’.
As he told this writer during the course of a conversation many years ago, “For our rivals, the brand name is the name of the product. In our case, it is the name of the category.” This is where Pulsar was positioned as the sports category bike which could spawn (as it did) a host of other siblings beyond the initial 150cc and 180cc options offered in 2001.
Pulsar helped Bajaj get a new customer base for its motorcycles and the brand continues to be strong to this day. It helped the company hone its focus as a motorcycle specialist and take the brave decision of exiting completely from geared scooters even while diehard loyalists were dismayed by the move.
From Rajiv Bajaj’s point of view, though, this was the only way to stay focused in a competitive market where there were formidable rivals to contend with. The company, subsequently, got a foothold in KTM, the Austrian bike maker, and continued its focus in the premium space. To that extent, Pulsar played a big role in defining this strategy and taking it forward with alliances like KTM and, more recently, Triumph of the UK.
“By the end of the day, the only measure of a good brand is its pricing power in the market. Brands are never built on a diffused strategy. Those companies which have kept the brands sharper are the ones who are profitable. One of the big mistakes is to try and make everything for everyone and put the same brand across segments,” Bajaj had stressed during the interview.
According to him, brand also “does not mean high price but in its segment it can command the highest price, stay there and does not respond if somebody drops the price”. The Pulsar was, therefore, a brand, which was in sync with the MD’s thinking that “products sell but brands profit”.
As he said, “If you want to achieve sales, it is easy — give anything away free and it will sell! But then you can only call it a product and not a brand. This is important for Bajaj Auto and the way forward for us is to create very nice brand architecture.”
Brands, he stressed, must be aligned to segments and products aligned to brands. He also did not buy the oft-repeated theory of finding fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. “In my view, there is fortune everywhere except right at the bottom of the pyramid. I agree that the bottom is bigger than the top, which also explains why more people are naturally there. Yet, you have to stop somewhere,” said Bajaj.
For most people, the word ‘brand’ means familiarity, because it is well known and respected. It comes with history and, therefore, awareness is the key. To Rajiv Bajaj, however, 'brand' meant profit and the ability to price a product at a premium to competition is what mattered.
This is where Pulsar remains an important part of the Bajaj Auto journey and the fact that it is still going strong only means that it remains a top draw as a brand. As its MD told this writer, “The measure of a brand is profit but just because something is profitable does not make it a brand. The reverse is clearly not true.”