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Datsun on the brink of Indian debut

Vincent Cobee agrees that the Datsun project has perhaps been the most exciting in his career of over two decades.
“To launch a new global brand along with five cars in four years and across four markets, while shifting the positioning of a global automobile company has been quite an experience,” the Corporate Vice-President of Nissan Motor’s Datsun Business Unit told Business Line during a recent visit to India.
The Datsun Go will be launched in India next Wednesday and will mark an important strategy for Nissan in emerging markets. The brand will also make its way into Indonesia, Russia and South Africa as part of an aggressive rollout plan.
Nissan Motor had clearly decided about five years ago that there had to be a “third leg” in its business which has, otherwise, been largely about the “hedonistic luxury” leg represented by the Infiniti brand and the Nissan brand in the larger automobile space.
“But then we also need to cater to high growth markets and this explains the significance of Datsun. The brand is the third pillar for Nissan,” Cobee says. The challenge now is to ensure that buyers queue up for the car right from India and Indonesia to Russia and South Africa.
The sub Rs 4-lakh Datsun Go has positioned itself as a serious rival to Maruti Suzuki’s established stranglehold in this part of the world. “Of course, we respect the dominant player but it is equally true that the Indian customer is becoming more and more diverse in his aspirations. This means that he is looking for modernity, fuel economy and luxury of choice,” Cobee says.
The message is loud and clear: times are different today than what they were some years ago when choices were limited and customers had to make do with what was offered to them.
Cobee also maintains that the sub Rs 4-lakh segment in India has not particularly seen “great levels of innovation” where the focus has been more on “product renovation”. He reiterates that despite the slowdown in Western Europe and India, brands which epitomised good cars and innovative/attractive features bucked the trend and did well.
“With Datsun, we are bringing an accessible product backed by engineering capability with attractive values,” Cobee says. The brand, in his view, represents a “substantial product expansion” for the first time where tremendous innovation has taken place. “It reflects an aspirational direction and is true to what was stated when the strategy was first announced,” he adds.
The Datsun business unit within Nissan has had different teams traversing a number of Indian cities for a while now. The car has been displayed in shopping malls, and not dealerships, for a few days where Cobee noticed “huge levels of aspiration” in tandem with similar levels of concern on affordability and maintenance. “I find the Indian customer fascinating. It is our job to convince him that he is on the right track with the Datsun,” he says.
Nissan has also factored in the growing role of women as buyers coupled with the fact that they have a huge say when it comes to buying a car for the family. The road shows have thrown up some interesting nuggets where blue appeals to women as a colour while space is also perceived as an attractive feature.
Little wonder that Nissan is so upbeat about Datsun given the immense market opportunities here. Yet, the automaker is only too aware that there is a lot of hard work ahead in making the communication exercise far more structured. As Cobee says, the company has been investing money and energy to build greater awareness and tell customers that they are investing in something which is good and worth their while. This perhaps explains why Nissan is leaving nothing to chance and has recast its distribution business model which was the norm till the not-so-distant past.
Cobee is clearly passionate about his job even though it has its share of challenges and uncertainties especially in a world which is rapidly changing. “There is by definition a romantic aspect to this business because people who buy cars don’t do it because they like technology but because they want this to be a part of their lives,” he says.
The Datsun boss is also not unduly worried about the present slowdown in the Indian car industry since the economy’s “fundamentals are basically right” with the growing middle class and its buying power.
When Cobee was in Delhi last year for the unveiling of the Datsun strategy, he told this writer that India would play a big role in the brand’s global journey. “India is probably the most competitive country in the world for the automotive industry. It does not cover 100 per cent of technology or components required to make a car but it is giving a good 97 per cent,” he had said.
And of this 97 per cent, India is the cheapest, or the second cheapest, globally for at least 80-85 per cent of parts. As he put it, the country is “fundamentally the winner of tomorrow” as the mindset of its people is a combination of development and respect for limited resources.

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