Friday, December 14, 2007

Being first almost makes you a leader

Hero Honda recently launched another new bike called HUNK in the 150cc category. The name says it all - whom the bike is targeted at. And one look also tells you what it is supposed to do. Thrill and excite. In short, it’s a Sports bike and positioned for performance.

As part of its strategy Hero Honda surely has a serious motive behind introducing this bike. It wants to undermine the dominance of Pulsar.

Bikers would easily recall that when Pulsar was introduced some years back, the campaign said ‘Definitely male’. Not just the words, but even the styling meant just that. The bike was the first to come with a huge muscular looking fuel tank. That set the tone for Pulsar and set it clearly apart in the league of motorcycles. A few months later, bikers confirmed that the driving performance was good too. That established and confirmed Pulsar’s claim ‘Definitely male’.

Pulsar wasn’t the first bike in 150cc category. Hero Honda already had CBZ in the market for a couple of years by then. Though critics had applauded the bike, commercially CBZ wasn’t doing that great. Though aficionados liked it, among the general masses it was perceived as a fuel-guzzler, very contradictory to what Hero Honda has always stood for – fuel efficiency and reliability (remember the famous campaign ‘Fill it, shut it, forget it’ in the eighties and early nineties). Also, perhaps the conditions were such that performance bikes weren’t fitting the economic preferences of the bikers at large.

Everything said, Hero Honda was the first mover in 150cc 4-stroke performance biking. CBZ was the only bike in the category and therefore, by default, the leader. The campaign said, “Motorcycling Unplugged” and the ad also featured a guy flaunting the bike to impress girls.

Then the came the competitors, TVS Suzuki with Fiero and Bajaj with Pulsar. Fiero had very little to stand on. The name was good but the looks and the performance belied the name. Fiero was a disaster. As stated above, Pulsar was distinctive. It also had the best fuel-efficiency for a 150cc bike. The bike’s campaign was a clear departure in the opposite direction (from CBZ). While the CBZ campaign showed the rider in a ‘chocolaty’ light, the Bajaj campaign hit a raw nerve - it showed a guy performing a wheelie (read "for his own pleasure, not to impress girls") and conveyed the message ‘Definitely male’. Bajaj had taken a leap.

With 2-stroke bikes being phased out and, Yamaha doing very little to offer anything exciting in 4-stroke bikes, Bajaj captured the ‘performance’ (though I would prefer the word ‘exciting’) biking category. The situation also helped Bajaj – perhaps bikers had been waiting for the right bike and their economic conditions were also improving.

Bajaj firmed its grip with rapid innovation and with its higher end models Pulsar 180 and Pulsar 220.

Seen in this light, does Hunk stand a chance to capture the performance biking market from Pulsar? Pulsar is ‘Definitely male’ and bikers have accepted it. Can there be a second ‘Definitely male’? I doubt. Hero Honda was the first in 4-stroke performance biking but Bajaj was the first to focus on the category. It defined the category sharply and in that sense Bajaj was the first. Hero Honda is still economy and reliability. Pulsar is performance and exciting.

That's why Hero Honda failed with Achiever and CBZ X-treme. The failure was compounded by the fact that people knew Hero Honda was using Honda Unicorn engine in these models. Definitely didn't help matters when Bajaj was perceived to be innovating.

My verdict: Hunk is good, perhaps great. But it’s about creating a new category, being the first in that category and most importantly, focusing on it. Hunk might come second but won’t be formidable enough to threaten Pulsar.

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