Youth is the new mantra at Toyota Kirloskar Motor

by Murali Gopalan 01 Dec 2020


Naveen Soni is clearly upbeat about the new energy levels at the Bangalore-based Toyota Kirloskar Motor (TKM) being unleashed by youth power, both at the retail end and within the company’s eco-system. 

“We have created a new youth task force comprising people across job functions in the organisation — be it sales, spares, logistics. They are young, largely under 35, and understand Toyota’s values and systems,” says the senior vice-president (Sales & Service) of TKM. 

These employees have been associated with TKM for a long time and are absolutely familiar with its “culture and philosophy”. According to Soni, they behave like a typical Toyota buyer and reflect his/her attitude. “They are the customers we would like to attract,” he adds. 

What is really going on at TKM, one may wonder. The reply to that can be traced to the Toyota-Suzuki global alliance and the opening up of a new customer base in the process. For instance, the recently launched Urban Cruiser compact SUV has paved the way for a whole new set of young buyers, pretty much on the lines of the Glanza hatchback which debuted last year. 

Both products are a result of the Toyota-Suzuki partnership, where the emphasis is on India and other emerging markets. For now, Maruti Suzuki’s Baleno and Vitara Brezza have been re-engineered and sold by TKM as part of the product swap agreement. Going forward, there will be more such product swaps, initiatives in clean fuel options, shipments to markets such as Africa and Latin America and so on.

Thinking young
A big start has been made with TKM retailing these two popular models from the Maruti Suzuki stable under its own brand. Quite unlike the customer base it has been accustomed to for the Innova MPV, both the Glanza and Urban Cruiser are attracting a new set of buyers who are younger and think quite differently.

It is here that the youth task force at TKM will play a role in taking the script to the next level. “These people come out with ideas or activities that need to be done. We listen to them well since they know a lot more when it comes to buyer needs in the B segment,” says Soni. 

It is his belief that these young employees better understand the mindset of the customer that TKM is seeking to attract. “We respect their thinking and know that these employees have a special bond with Toyota. They are enthusiastic and appreciate the fact that the company is seeking their views,” he adds.

TKM knows only too well that the Glanza and Urban Cruiser customers, as well as Toyota’s own Yaris, have to be handled differently and cannot be done by those “selling the Innova". As Soni says, B-segment (the compact category) buyers need creation of special teams at dealerships who can meet their requirements.  

New learnings
In the case of Urban Cruiser, the learning has taken a big step forward from the time of the Glanza which was an all-new experience for the TKM team. The company is now confident that it is equipped with better marketing tools to be able to woo the new buyer for the Urban Cruiser.

“We have named this customer Karan and the objective of the sales team is to ‘Find Karan’ online,” says Soni. The idea is to take care of this customer and interact with him/her in a manner that is not intrusive. “Karan is 30-35, someone who has made the right choices and decisions in life, made a mark and earned respect,” he explains.

In an effort to attract young urban Indians, TKM chose actor Ayushmann Khurrana as its brand ambassador for the Urban Cruiser SUV. 

This forms the brand philosophy of Urban Cruiser and also puts in perspective why TKM chose Bollywood’s Ayushmann Khurrana as the brand ambassador for this SUV. He has made it big on his own without any family connections or seeking the help of the proverbial godfather in the Hindi film industry. Today, Khurrana is a well-known face who has carved a niche for himself and fits in with the credo for the Urban Cruiser: ‘Respect shall follow you wherever you go’. 

The focus on youth and seeking inputs is only one part of the strategy for TKM as it goes about the task of wooing new customers. Soni is quick to point out that the Urban Cruiser goes beyond just a product launch or new category. As he says, Toyota as a company has “kind of mastered the craft” of taking care of Indian customers at the higher end of the market with products such as the Innova, Fortuner and Camry.

“It is at the lower end where we are beginning to understand what the customer wants and this is big learning for us. In this category of buyers, it is very difficult to understand and assess why he/she is coming to us, what is the trigger to buy a Toyota when there is a similar product existing in competition or otherwise,” explains Soni.

For instance, when the company started the retail exercise with the Glanza, the team was surprised with the customer response and why they were “coming to us”. First-time Toyota buyers accounted for 50-60 percent of total new Glanza bookings. 

“That was a unique thing for us to understand and grapple with their requirements. These buyers have different expectations . . . more than demographics, even behaviour patterns are different between two customers,” says Soni. 

Brand matters
It was clear that it was not a product but the brand that the customer was buying. This also explains why Toyota was cautious in approaching these buyers since they “have a different set of expectations” from the brand. “This is somebody who values us and therefore opts for us. In the Glanza and Urban Cruiser, the customer seeks certain values and virtues in the brand which attracts him/her to Toyota,” he adds. 

Product differentiation is doubtless important because this customer would not like to be sitting in a car which looks like another but is still more concerned about the kind of personalisation that is on offer. From his point of view, he/she is getting a Toyota and buying into a brand “that will take care of you”. 

It is precisely for this reason that Soni insists it is more important to differentiate the experience the customer gets while buying a Toyota offering. He also believes there is a lot to learn from Maruti Suzuki when it comes to handling customers and how frugally “you ensure that they are satisfied” with the brand. 

The Toyota buyer, on the other hand, is looking for “certain virtues” coming in from the dealership whether it is service, aftersales, or the brand promise and warranty. “In the same demographic, there is a psychographic which is different. India has many layers of customers and if we satisfy one, we can get another through him/her,” says Soni.

By the end of the day, buyers are aware of what they are getting into when “they come to us . . . we are positioning ourselves to take care of them”. The messaging is simple: the company is not just asking them to buy a car that is less than Rs 10 lakh but will assure a Toyota experience. “That is the differentiator . . . the brand promise and delivery is important to us,” reiterates Soni. This goes beyond selling cars to offering a certain experience as a global brand.

Engaging with a new set of customers
The challenge lies in the fact that there is a new set of customers “who have never visited us”, which means the company needs to be really careful on “what we are offering” and how to handle them. If a particular buyer has a frugal mindset, he/she may be more interested in repair than replacement of parts for instance. “This is where we need to be very cautious since the thinking pattern is different for these customers,” points out Soni.

It is here that the brand takes over, given that the purchase of a product is a one-time process while services are repeated. “How we take care of customers during these visits is the differentiator. It is not about the interiors or front grille but the overall experience,” he explains.

Clearly, this is not an easy task by any stretch of imagination but an imperative for TKM to stand out in the customer’s mind space. As Soni says, he/she would have to be handled in such a way that they are not overawed by the experience in a dealership. 

“The key is to deliver a casual and non-intrusive kind of experience because the customer is comfortable this way because of his demographic. . . interacting well is the key in the showroom and handling them online becomes critical. It has to be a unique selling experience,” he elaborates.  

For now, TKM's efforts seem to be paying off with the Glanza averaging 2,500-2,800 units per month while the Yaris is also “improving in the right direction” and returning to levels of 500 units a month post-Covid. These are early days yet for the Urban Cruiser but the response from the market seems to suggest that the script is working well.

Customer sentiment overall in the car market is also on the rebound. Soni says enquiries are coming back, which is music to a salesperson’s ears. “There is a bigger need for personal mobility as evident in used car sales and the growth in the A and B segments. We can hope for good times to return after October,” he signs off. 

This feature was first published in Autocar Professional's November 1, 2020 issue.