Why you shouldn’t write off the Tata Nano just yet

Vivek Kaul

A little over three years after it was first introduced Tata Nano is being widely touted as a flop. The car which was supposed to cause traffic jams all over India is not selling as much as it was expected to.
Between January and July this year 55,398 units of the car have been sold. This is 13.3% more than the number of units that were sold during the same period last year. So even though the numbers are looking better this year they are nowhere near the installed capacity that the Nano plant in Sanand in Gujarat has, as an earlier piece pointed out. (You can read the complete piece here).
Numbers of reasons are being pointed out for the Nano flop show. Let me discuss a few here. In the book The Little Black Book of Innovation Scott D Anthony, who is an innovation consultant, points out a conversation he had with a colleague in late 2009. ““Here’s a provocative perspective,” my colleague said in late 2009… “I think the Tata Nano is going to be a disappointment.”… So why was my colleague being so skeptical? “Look at it from a customer’s perspective,” he said. These people could already afford to pay twenty-five-hundred dollars (or around Rs 1 lakh as the Nano was expected to be priced initially) for a perfectly good used car. Instead they consciously chose the scooter.”
Ratan Tata had the idea to build a car like Nano when he saw a family of four struggling on a two-wheeler on a rainy night in Mumbai. But despite the safety hazards people still preferred a two wheeler to a Nano. “Why would consumers choose a scooter? It wasn’t that these people didn’t care about their family. Rather, they didn’t have the space to park a car, or they found scooters that fit into tiny gaps on India’ chaotic streets a much more convenient form of transformation,” writes Anthony.
Another major reason being pointed out for Nano’s failure is it’s positioning. As Rahul Shankar points out in a blog post titled “Why did the Tata Nano fail as a disruptive innovation?” “The Nano was essentially branded as the world’s cheapest car…The truth is that no one wants to own a car that is thought off as cheap. Very few people treat a car as just a machine that takes them from point A to point B. This is basically what the Nano has been reduced to. People want to brag about how awesome their car is and how it kicks their neighbor/friends car’s butt….The advertisements that I have seen for the Nano have unfortunately come off as bland and catering again to the theme of affordability.” (You can read the complete post here)
These are valid points that have been raised. Even Ratan Tata has admitted to mistakes having been made. “We never really got our act together…I don’t think we were adequately ready with an advertising campaign, a dealer network,” Tata remarked earlier this year.
But these reasons notwithstanding, it’s too early to write off the Nano. Nano is what innovation experts call a disruptive innovation. This term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that transforms an existing market or creates a new one by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability,” is how Christensen defined disruptive innovation when I had interviewed him a few years back for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA).
An important thing with disruptive innovations is that they tend to work out over a period of time. As Christensen said “It is initially formed in a narrow foothold market that appears unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents.”
A great example is the Apple personal computer which took around a decade to establish itself. As Christensen put it “A great example is the Apple personal computer. The incumbent companies of the time were those like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) that made minicomputers, which were big machines that sold for lots of money and could handle very complex tasks. When the personal computer burst on the scene, it sold for significantly less money than the minicomputer did…the PC wasn’t as good as the minicomputer for the market as it existed at that time. Apple made a wise decision and first sold the personal computer as a toy for children. Over time Apple and the other PC companies improved the PC so it could handle more complicated tasks. And ultimately the PC has transformed the market by allowing many people to benefit from its simplicity, affordability, and convenience relative to the minicomputer.”
Given this any disruption does not come as an immediate shift. “Disruption rarely arrives as an abrupt shift in reality,” write Clayton Christensen, Michael B Horn and Curtis W Johnson in Disrupting Class —How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
This is something that Nirmalya Kumar, a professor at the London Business School (LBS) agrees with. “What I know about is radical versus incremental innovation. The more radical the innovation is the longer the time customers take to adopt it. People think of Nesspresso as being as a great radical innovation, but what they don’t know is that for 20 years it did not sell a whole lot and then the sales went up in a spike,” Nirmalya Kumar had told me in an interview I did for the Economic Times. Nespresso is a cappuccino maker sold by Nestle.
Amazon, which started off as a bookseller is another great example of a disruptive innovation which took time to get settled in. Another great example from the field of cinema is the movie Sholay. The film was massacred by critics when it released on August 15,1975. As Anupama Chopra writes in Sholay: The Making of a Classic “Taking off on the title of the film, K.L.Almadi writing in the India Today called it a ‘dead ember’… Filmfare’s Bikram Singh wrote: ‘The major trouble with the film is the unsuccessful transplantation it attempts – grafting a western on the Indian milieu.”
The Indian audience had never seen anything like this before. And it thus took time to sink in. The film went onto become the biggest box office hit of all time.
What these examples tell us is that it is too early to write off the Nano, despite the fact that the initial planks on which it was sold are largely not true anymore. “A cheap car that’s not really cheap. A safe car whose safety has been questioned. A poor people’s car that poor people aren’t buying. That sounds like a failure, certainly. But really it’s not. It’s par for the course for almost every breakthrough innovation,” writes Matthew J. Eyring the president of Innosight, a strategy innovation consulting and investment firm, on the HBR blog network. (you can read the complete piece here). “In fact, I can think of only one example of a CEO who pre-announced an innovation that was going to change the world and actually delivered it. That’s Steve Jobs of course,” he adds.
Critics point out that a lot of assumptions that Nano’s initial strategy was built on are not turning out to be true. The two wheeler riders aren’t upgrading to the Nano as they were. It’s no longer as cheap as it was initially promised to be. And people are buying it more of as a second car rather than their main mode of transport. But this is again in line with the way breakthrough or disruptive innovations operate.
As Eyring puts it “There’s nothing unusual about a company having to adjust the price, the production process, the marketing, or even the market of a breakthrough offering. The Nano’s price changes, the new maintenance contract Tata is rolling out to assure buyers of quality, the test drives it’s introducing, the new smaller showrooms, and the new commercials — all widely discussed in the press — should not really be news.”
All these things are also happening with the Nano because Tata Motors went in for a full fledged launch of the car rather than a small one. As Nirmalya Kumar put it “When the product development is radical you always do a small launch. They did a huge launch for Nano. They should have done a smaller launch. With radical innovation you need to keep tinkering and figuring out what is it exactly that the customer wants. This is because with radical innovation pre market testing is not really relevant because the consumers are not good at telling you whether they will buy a radical new product because they have no conceptualisation.”
This is something that Godrej & Boyce did with the ChotuKool refrigeratior. “Long before most people had heard of the low-power fridge ChotuKool, Godrej & Boyce spent quite some time investigating people’s refrigeration needs, designing and redesigning the product, and redoing its distribution strategy, carefully, slowly, and quietly,” writes Eyring.
It would have helped if Tata Motors had followed a similar strategy with Nano. As Eyring points out “It might not have been easy, but had Tata piloted the Nano quietly, on a small scale, perhaps through a limited production run in a small city like Durgapur in West Bengal or Ranchi in Jharkand, its engineering, pricing, financing, and marketing might have been adjusted far from the limelight to suit the needs of an optimal target customer… the Nano might have made its debut to the wider world with less hype and greater effect. It might not have been a 1 lakh car or even an alternative to motorscooters. But when it first appeared in the mainstream, it would have been right product for the right price in the right market.”
So now the Nano has entered the tinkering phase. And as this goes along Tata Motors will figure out what works and what does not. And this may be totally different from the assumptions the company started out with.
What still doesn’t change is its low price, despite the fact that it never sold for Rs 1 lakh as it was initially expected to. As Nirmalya Kumar put it “That’s the real startling novelty of the product because there is no car available anywhere in the world for $5000.”
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 24,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/business/why-you-shouldnt-write-off-the-tata-nano-just-yet-429044.html
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])