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Successful mindsets: A witness account

Product success

What are the factors that define a product successful? What should be a brand’s strategy to make a product successful in true sense? Does a successful product need to be the best product? How crisis situations create opportunities for companies to rejig product portfolios and harness success?

Do you ever wonder what is that aspect of our working as planners, developers, designers, marketers which needs the highest attention and create the maximum impact on building product success stories?

Well, it is true that one is generally looking for new models, tools and processes, however, I would urge to instead, pay attention to another area which focuses on how we think as an organisation and how that impacts the performance of products and us collectively.

The significance of ‘Organisational mind-frame’ has been quite understated and ignored more so in the auto industry. This is the softer part of our characters. Are our products complete without the softer soul? They aren’t!

Possibly, this is the most significant aspect which plays both a leading as well as a decisive role in determining our product successes or failures.

Products don’t succeed alone

We all know what marketing gurus have talked about 4 essential Ps of marketing-mix namely – Product, Price, Promotion and Place and later on, added at least 3 more – Physical, People and Processes. Well, this is the modern management understanding, which lays equal emphasis on multiple factors. My personal belief is that it is the People who come in first and come at the very top of the hierarchy of factors influencing successes in all fields.

Products can’t succeed alone; products succeed because of a set of people who come together, pool in their unique mindfulness and form a living organism we call the ‘organisation’.

Without healthy brains, even the best products don’t survive well, at least not for long. Besides, the right-thinking most desired in leadership, it needs to be all-pervasive in every nook and cranny of the organisation. It will be right to say here that it’s our collective-thinking which succeeds or fails and not the products.

To me, products are like empty bottles which unless filled with great thinking and followed up by rigorous actions are as good as nothing.

It’s the uniqueness of varied thinking-frames of leadership and their teams which determine what kind of products an organisation churns out or will churn out in future. Broadly, we can divide it into the following three types –

  1. A ‘Disruptive-thinking’ organisation is perpetually in a start-up mode (pharma-research companies, new tech companies, space organisations). Such an organisation is always looking beyond the acceptable conventional boundaries, always aspiring to pioneer a new future, breaking new grounds.
  2. Such an organisational-mind set leads to the invention of new businesses e.g. the future companies engaged in AI research today.

So, here is a question to all from my end –

Despite being already a global company, do you have any part of your business, function which is trying to cause disruption – trying to follow a ‘Star Trek’ kind of journey- exploring a new world where no one else has gone before? Please check?

3. A ‘differentiated organisation’ instead, is always thinking about building up its uniqueness through incremental or substantial improvements over its rivals. And in the process, it is constantly doing value additions to the users of its products. It believes in continuous product improvement and stays ahead of the rest of the pack. It does face the risk of disruption by unknowns like IC engines may face threat from EVs and other technologies over the next few decades. A large percentage of organisations, worldwide belong to this category.

Rest of the organisations share a common thought, a ‘Me-too’ mindset – in survival mode of doing the same things, the same way, repeatedly. Clearly, they have a ‘status-quo’ bias and are unwilling to change – rather, they resist change. Such organisations, sooner or later, fall to the bottom of the pyramid. It is not a place for companies, willing to grow, would like to be at.

Would you like to conclude at your end by asking yourself and your colleagues which category you fall into, largely? And, check how much your products reflect your organisation’s thinking-frame?

Now, coming to successful products – successful products need not be ‘The Best’ products.

As such, the best products definition is imaginary – the best products can exist only in an ideal environment.

Rather, products achieve greatness, relying on the mindfulness and care of several people dealing with it.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in the market do not allow the ‘status-quo’ to remain for long. Whether we like to change or not VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) compels us to change.

And, such a change calls for openness towards change – a mindset to willingly accept changes and even lead changes proactively.

Successful products too, do exist in plenty – some surviving for generations. Brands like ‘Roohfza’, CocaCola and many others have survived and thrived through decades of market and culture shifts.

I term a product successful if it satisfies 2 conditions.

  1. If an organisation is able to maximise thinking and planning, in anticipation, of all the changes required in future. Is it realistically possible to have this kind of anticipation? Maybe not!
  2. Then, at least, it should be able to respond ‘winningly’ to unanticipated events and demands.

So, here comes the need for developing an agile, a winner mindset and open mindset in the organisation – which is prepared to take on the unforeseen situations.

The sudden wars, pandemic and other calamities do create opportunities for the countries, companies to rejig their product portfolios and harness success even better.

Have you taken any advantage of recent pandemic in some ways?

We should always include in our teams super-planners, forecasters, scenario-developers, people with far-sightedness. Embarking on a product-launch journey without this kind of thinking and without these kinds of people is likely to fall flat later or sooner. We should respect such people in our teams.

Now questions for you?

Well, the products, like living beings, take birth to serve a purpose, to perform single or multiple functions, and need to be nurtured before allowed to vanish. They follow the same pattern, similar trajectory as any ‘being’ passes through multiple stages needing different mental-cradles and hands to support it in its journey. That’s why any product launch, too, is a journey and not an event.

Conceiving, nurturing hands need to be healthy, skilled in mixing the right ingredients with precision and be able to anticipate future needs in post-birth time. In the product development world, it is a stage of building a fully functional product with a SMART strategy to be implemented in the next stages. SMART is akin to planning the future state of a child – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely goals. It is an imagining stage of the life-cycle. It is the foundational stage for products – a small mistake here and there can become an incurable defect for life. So, planners, developers be, ultra-careful.

The presenters need to showcase the product to the world proudly and should know the ins and outs of a product thoroughly. They need to be able to communicate the right message for it. Currently, it is the balance of ‘Push and Pull’ that works better as compared to the ‘Push’ strategy of earlier times. So, marketing and PR should work together to create success-stories on the ground and communicate in an exciting way to occupy the customer’s mind share in an optimum manner. This is the time to impress customers by giving away your time to them. Be with them as much as required otherwise, they will be with you.

The nurturers, third in the stage, take care of the wear-and-tear part of the product, optimise- performance for its users to delight them. These are the people who freeze the final product positioning in the market. It is the point in life when friends and teachers began playing a bigger role in letting us stand on our own. A product too needs nudging and scaffolding to gradually be able to hold ground in the market on its own. It is the stage where a sustainable product pull is desired. This is for sales, service personnel and the people engaged in product-upgrades.

The pruners work on removing what has become redundant and burdensome in a product. They ensure that the product departs gracefully and creates space for the next one. It is essential for the rejuvenation of companies’ image and to stay ahead.

Now, a little bit of product objectives.

Some elements of product-success goals/parameters in all three types viz. Disruptive, Differentiated, Common remain similar while some are very unique. For example, disruptive products are primarily transformative and look beyond granular goals of sales, profit, ROI, MS% while differentiated products can seek additional vanity goals like brand image, new markets etc.

The product goals can transcend to cause a major shift in industry structure, can break free markets from monopoly or even cause the same, result in changes in people’s habits or trigger major socio-cultural changes.

Regardless, until the life journey is completed ‘as planned in a winning way’, the products cannot be termed as successful. At best, they may be called partially successful.

3 questions to know:-

  1. Would you like to pick any of your products and re-look at the product goals/objectives recorded in your archives – first check if, were these archived at all? I am sure you would have your own Product Journal.
  2. And, how do these goals differ from other competitors?
  3. Do you like blending some vanity-goals with your hardwired product objectives?

Starting in the late 90s, in the post-liberalisation period, 4 World CV giants from Europe decided to come to India, one by one.

All of them shared a common large-sized market in Europe, originated from 2 places – Germany and Sweden, not too far away from each other and belonged to a European culture block.

Over the decades, the product differentiation among these 4 had narrowed down, their market-innovations too were being cloned easily by each other. To a European customer, they were competitors in the same space. To a typical Indian customer too, they sounded and seemed similar and were all beyond reach.

Despite being generally perceived as having more similarities than differences among themselves, each of the companies followed a different approach and met a different fate in India. 2 of them turned out to be the clear winners and while others got exasperated, hitting a wall and even have departed.

Regardless, the entry into India has been a pilgrimage for most of them as they learnt important lessons in dealing with a large, complex market in the developing world. Volvo and Benz, for sure, would not have been able to launch and dominate in other developing markets, against their traditional rivals from Japan, without their Made-in-India products.

What made the difference?

The difference has been their management’s unique mind-make up and individual styles of perceiving successes. the story is about how they went about setting the context for their launch in India and how they dealt with their organisational-biases, failures. Indian customers, at the end, found some worthy and some not.

Disclaimer: Incidentally, I am not connected with any of these companies now and my views should not be taken as the final say on the topic. Though, it is close to a reality witness account.

Let me begin with Volvo’s launch in 1998.

1997/98-The entire Indian auto industry, CV, in particular, experienced a wave of insecurity and scepticism when it heard about Volvo’s arrival here – insecurity, because of Volvo’s world fame and the scepticism because of its products being ahead of time for the Indian market.

Disregarding the noise and buoyed by its successes around the globe, Volvo went ahead with the investment and product launch of its top-of-the-line products with very little changes.

Volvo has had a reputation for being a ‘Worldwide Technology Leader’ and decided to achieve the same in India.

The brand did taste some successes initially, mostly due to certain pioneering, risk-taking, adventurous customers – the start was certainly very encouraging. However, very soon, the unrealistic vision and forecast started showing cracks when the reality of cost-conscious Indian customer began to take its toll. The products were perceived over-engineered for general mass application and expensive to repair.

The Indian customer too went berserk – abusing the trucks with excessive overloading and poor driving habits and the maintenance routines. No matter how much, I might say today, that the company was prepared for this, it did cause a lot of pain – weakened customers’ trust, cash depletion, and many such setbacks began to occur on daily basis.

In the middle of all the noise and chaos, one thing was very re-assuring – the determined faces and agile posturing by the leadership. The leadership team was on the front, keen to resolve issues, listen to various stakeholders. This attitude got transfused into tremendous-humility on the ground. In hindsight, I can say that the company avoided a combative stance with the customers at whatever cost it came – well, it was the price for entering an unpredictable-complex-alien market and above all misreading it hugely.

Volvo team was prompt in seizing the initiative and worked-around changing its portfolio by shifting its focus towards mining-trucking instead of on-road trucks. Though, the success, thereto in the mining segment, eluded it for the next few years but, it did come with sweeter fruits eventually.

It continued to assimilate its learnings of the Indian market for the next 10 years and developed a new product range with a new JV partner which is made for India.

Today, the company stands tall in India and, through India, in many other international markets in the mining segment.

The JV is striving ahead to make a mark in India and the new relationship has thrived over the last decade. It has achieved a sale of 20,000+ super-heavy premium trucks, few thousand world-class iconic buses and earned huge gold on the brand side.

What is the big learning?

“The narrative of the success of a product can be very narrow, limited to ‘sales and Profit’ alone in short term or can be space-wide and as transformative as it has been for Volvo in India, in long term.

It pushed other traditional Indian companies to rejig their product portfolios, raised customer experience and expectations to new heights, expanded the industry, thus, opening space for more foreign players like Hyva and other European truck makers later – and, finally laid the road to break, half-a century-old duopoly in CV market. It built a great rising learning curve though, flattened for a while in the middle for a while.

Moving on, the second experience is about the world leader, Daimler- the big brother of the CV industry – who too was always watching Volvo’s progress in India and learning important lessons remotely.

It did launch its premium truck Actros in India, to compete with Volvo’s premium range in 2005 but very well knew that alone won’t fulfil its desire to dominate the Indian market – across segments.

It began digging deep in 2003 and launched project-team in 2007 for an India-fit mass-market product launch. The philosophy was very clear – launch ‘differentiated products’ and stay ahead. It found a middle ground between basic/lower end of the market and premium trucks.

The current status of Daimler is too well known to all. The success of Daimler in India has opened its doors in exports and deflated the dominance of domestic players decisively.

The roots of its continuing success, lie in its mind-frame of its learnability and adaptability – it had a jump-start in its learning curve, which has been kept rising. Other two being the agility to shock and surprise traditional competition through 360-degree innovations and extensive rigour in realising its product goals through unheard kind of testing regime it built for its products – got a world-class test track facility at Chennai. Above all, it has built tremendous pride in its range of motivating employees and all the stakeholders.

In its core lies a true ‘Winner’ – unstoppable, undeterred mindset.

The stories of the other two players, one each from Germany and Sweden again, are about their endeavours that were not so successful – having completely different learning curves, broken at times.

MAN, the German giant, owning the legacy of inventing diesel-engine, initially got into only a technical alliance with an Indian company, followed by MAN product brand sharing arrangement … gradually, getting sucked into buying full-stake – all that happening in its initial 8 years of a reluctant journey.

Seems, that the company did not have its own mind-frame to enter into India and was viewing things from its JV-partner’s frame. Clearly, its strategic-intent never had India on its radar and that led to the company sinking more resources than it would have spent if it had a clear vision.

My learning, here, are two-

  1. The companies investing in someone else’ mind-frame, which is in incongruence with their values and mission, tend to falter and bleed later or sooner.
  2. Having the best resources is not enough if leadership is not mindful of taking responsibility for its actions. And, this is one such case…

Please examine – if you are stuck in your partner’s mind-frame and what are the consequences?

Scania, otherwise an aggressive and a highly respected Swedish company in Europe, has got frozen in the frame of its parent German company – it has been reduced to play a follower role in India behind Volvo.

Respect and sympathise its current situation and avoid to comment more except that company finds itself stuck in an uncertain future in India.

There are several such companies who walked in blind with unclear minds, lost a lot and had to wind up later or sooner.

Let me take you across to a more glamorous place – into the beverage market.

Curved bottle is the product

Time is around 1960-70s.

John Scully, who worked as VP-Marketing for Pepsi and later on became Chairman of Apple Computers, in his autobiography, ‘Odyssey’ demonstrates the power of a sound mind-frame and mind-shifts.

He is known for having debunked the myth of Coca Cola’s competitive advantage being nested in its distinctive, hourglass-shaped bottle’. The bottle, as such, was indeed attractive, easier to stack, more comfortable to grip and sturdy enough to withstand a vending machine’s drop.

Consequently, being in the strong grip of the curved bottle, the brains behind Pepsi mistakenly focussed on solving the design-problem of Pepsi’s own bottle – on the drawing board, and went on spending millions of dollars over a decade.

Pepsi clearly approached the whole issue within its ‘competitor’s frame’ (what we call benchmarking in our industry). It remained stuck in its ‘packaging-department’ for too long but, with no gains….. It did come out with its own ‘Swirl’ design and made some gains but, could not still be anywhere near where CocaCola stood… Coca Cola was still much bigger.

Scully had to do a major mind-shift for the management by asking his core team to redefine the problem itself by coming out of competitive-mode. He asked them one question “as to how should problems like this be handled at Pepsi? Several more questions were asked which were quite distinctive from knowing what competition was doing – they instead, focused on what customers wanted.

The realization was that Pepsi trapped itself in the competitor’s world and not focussed on the customer requirement. It always came from the mindset of a ‘follower.’

And then came the solution!

Pepsi allowed 350 families to order the soft drink weekly, in whatever quantity they wanted at discounted prices in different sized bottled. The astonishment came when the discovery was made that all families consumed during the week whatever they ordered. Somebody ordered more and somebody ordered less.

Pepsi’s marketers realized – however, much you persuade people to buy, that’s how much they will consume. They know how much to consume. In hindsight, it seems a very basic realization but it wasn’t at that time.

Finally, this new knowledge about customers led to bigger packages, instead of differently styled bottles – allowing people to carry more into their homes for parties and bulk consumption.

Scully has changed the rules of the game through a mind shift within Pepsi- and launched new larger, and more varied packaging….

It also started a new system of documenting its learning from successes and failures.

Here there was a lesson for CocaCola too which remained stuck in the glory of its curved bottle for a bit too long and lost to a disruptive thought by its rivals. Its distance from customers allowed Pepsi to become a very strong rival post-70s and the rivalry is legendary.

We all know the Nokia story, the brand that refused to change its products disruptively and what fate the company met later.

Open-minded thinking leads to brilliant solutions and can do wonders for all of us.

Finally, my Take-Care and Beware Sutras for all those involved in strategic and operational management in companies.

I will be well rewarded if my experience resonates with yours and gives some richness to your thinking. Would like to apply your learning from here in your work too.

Also Read: How women are empowering the Indian fintech sector and way round

(Dinesh Kumar Jain is an Indian auto industry across the spectrum of functions such as strategy, sales & marketing, project and product management with nearly three decades of experience with OEMs like Volvo, MAN, Mercedes and Leyland.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)

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