Sunil Kant Munjal, the youngest son of Hero Group Founder Brijmohan Lall Munjal, and the Chairman of Hero Enterprise, has recently released a book titled The Making of Hero . Published by Harper Collins India and unveiled by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, the book traces the life story of Munjal brothers and the business empire they have created. This is an edited excerpt from the book. The Making of brand Hero
The ‘hero’ archetype is common to most cultures and exemplifies dependability, strength and selflessness. Psychologists have said that all of us have an inner hero, which we channel from time to time and, thus, the ‘hero’ figure resonates with us across all geographies and demographics.
It follows that building the Hero brand should therefore have been a breeze, more so because every product that rolled out of the Munjal factories emphasized soundness and reliability. This wasn’t of course, the case. A brick-by-brick effort and enormous toil over the decades created the brand equity Hero enjoys today. It figures in every list of the most trusted and valued Indian brands and the logo in all its various avatars is recognizable in some fifty countries across the globe.
Yet emotional associations with Brand Hero extend beyond the narrow attributes of the company, its logo, its products or its leadership position. In the first decade of the new millennium, independent studies carried out by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) on customer and other stakeholder perceptions revealed that Hero as an organization enjoyed strong public support and was seen as one that possessed a modern global mindset. At the same time, it was perceived as a quintessentially Indian company with commensurate values and traits. In the minds of those surveyed, Hero stood for qualities such as ‘Respect for the family’; ‘The Spirit of India’ and ‘Spirituality’. It was also perceived as an organization that sought to ensure happiness for all stakeholders.
These perceptions about Brand Hero didn’t evolve overnight, nor were they conjured up through smart marketing. They evolved organically, from the closely held beliefs nurtured by my father and uncles and the examples they set at work and at home and in their personal interactions. Effectively, over time, these values and practices became the attributes of the brand itself, and in this chapter, I have tried – with the aid of people who were actively involved in the company at the time – to capture some of the human and emotional experiences that shaped Brand Hero.
By the early 1980s, the Munjal brothers, through their learnings and experiences, understood the truth behind the old marketing epigram, ‘the manufacturer makes a product, the consumer buys a brand’. The Hero bicycle was a workhorse, with a reputation for consistency of quality, low maintenance and durability among consumers and dealers alike. In subsequent years, through the Hero Honda motorcycle, the company had divined the kind of commuter vehicle India needed and found a way to manufacture the best possible product at the least possible price. It was increasingly felt that a strong brand would be a value addition, in terms of commanding customer loyalty and protection against competition.
Hero’s foray into advertising had begun on a quiet note with National Publicity, a Delhi-based firm owned by a distant family connection. The proprietor introduced uncle Om Prakash to a freelance film-maker by the name of Harish Oberoi and these two highly creative people clicked.
Harish wrote a jingle for him and shot an ad film around it. The clip ran in cinema halls, then the most popular mode of audio-visual advertising (VCRs were few and far between and cinema was the most widespread form of entertainment). The Hero Cycles promotional film, Chale Hawa ki Chaal (Rides like the wind) trilled melodiously before every film. It was an instant hit. The power of advertising had transformed the Hero bicycle into a veritable Pegasus, giving people ‘wings to fly’.
Having realized the power of advertising as a tool for market outreach, the Munjal brothers now decided on an image-makeover that could turn Hero into a household name. To this end, they began hunting for the sharpest minds in the ad world. Uncle Om Prakash asked around and was told of an advertising virtuoso by the name of Nikhil Nehru, who haunted the by-lanes of Jhandewalan near central Delhi.
A call was placed to Nehru, then the head of Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA) in Delhi. The agency had earlier handled the Atlas Speedomatic account, with indifferent results. The ad industry had not yet addressed its creative skills to bicycles and two-wheelers. HTA dispatched two young men, Colvyn Harris and Sunil Gupta (who eventually went on to head HTA in India), to meet with Om Prakash Munjal. They had already been vetted by K.V. Suri, who was my father’s right-hand man in Delhi.
Gupta has described his encounter with the Brothers Munjal in a book, Living on the Edge. He writes: ‘As events of great significance are wont to do, Hero entered my life very quietly, almost nondescriptly. As likely protagonists in a love affair (for it can be called nothing short of that for me), we were as suited to each other as dal makhni with noodles, but I have no qualms in saying here and now that as clients go, very few gave me as much professional satisfaction and personal affection as they.’
Gupta met O.P. Munjal at the Hero office at Kundan Mansions near Delite Cinema on Asaf Ali Road and was given to understand that the company wanted to outstrip its competition (notably Atlas Cycles). To begin with, my uncle was a little fazed by HTA’s heavy charges but decided to take a chance on them. Culturally, the Hero and HTA teams seemed to be like chalk and cheese.
The HTA team struggled with Hindi and were taken aback by the absence of a marketing department at Hero Cycles. The warm and congenial atmosphere of the Hero office, the deference with which employees and younger members of the family addressed the patriarchs and the paternal affection with which they responded, must have been a bit of a culture shock. They were particularly impressed by the sensitivity of the staunchly vegetarian Munjals in laying out a non-vegetarian spread for their guests!
Gupta gives an evocative description of his first encounter with my father, the ‘paterfamilias’: ‘He was infinitely more serious and almost stern in his manner. O.P. kept referring to him as Bade Bhai Saab or Bade Bhrata Ji.’
The first campaign was a flop
Their very first campaign, for Hero Majestic, was a flop. Neither uncle Om Prakash nor my cousins liked it. The ad was not a success, but they decided to give the HTA youngsters another shot. Fortuitously in 1986, a key trade newspaper of the bicycle industry published out of Tokyo, Japan Cycle, declared Hero as the largest producer of bicycles in the world. Soon after, the Guinness Book of World Records reported that Hero had set a world record in manufacturing cycles (a spot it has never since relinquished). So, HTA developed a logo incorporating Hero’s pole position as a mnemonic: the ‘Hero No. 1’ logo, which would henceforth appear on all Hero Cycles communications.
My uncle was thrilled with the design and lauded the HTA team: ‘Yeh hui na baat. Ab mujhe pata chala ki aap badi agency hain.’ (You’ve nailed it! Now I can see you are a big agency.) Mike Khanna, CEO of HTA and one of the doyens of the advertising industry, had heard so much about Om Prakash Munjal and his penchant for breaking into urdu sher o shayari, that he sought a meeting. Like the Munjals, his family had been displaced by the Partition and this struck an immediate chord.
From then on, Hero and HTA developed a synergy. The youngsters from HTA forged a bond with Ashok Bawa, my uncle’s personal assistant and with Mr Rai, who Gupta describes as, ‘the genial head of production’. For the final sign-off on the campaigns, of course, my uncle involved four or five people, including my father and myself.
In 1982, colour television (TV) was introduced in India. Doordarshan (DD) had a monopoly over the Indian airwaves and had started its national colour telecast in anticipation of the Asian Games held in November of that year. From that point on, DD became a desirable platform for advertising on a national scale.
Along with the tinsel crowns, blingy costumes and special effects, TV audiences subconsciously registered the Hero logo and during the commercial breaks, they were introduced to Hero’s iconic television commercial. In terms of brand-building, it was sheer gold. Along with developing a superior product, in terms of technology and functionality, the Mahabharata spot made Hero the premier name in bicycles, outdistancing competitors by many a mile. It also helped in opening up a whole new market for what were popularly dubbed then as ‘fancy cycles’.
Demand went through the roof. The Indian bicycle industry had not witnessed something like this before. Dealers were lining up to place orders and were more than willing to make payments ahead of product delivery.
A whole new range of bicycles was launched, covering all consumer segments from kids to ladies to high end. Suddenly there were all kinds of variants in the bicycle sector. Our people on the shop floor and the creative geniuses at HTA worked in tandem to bring about the transformation of the bicycle industry in India. ‘Engineering satisfaction’ became the catchphrase of the company.
More to the point, Hero had introduced the ‘wow factor’ into cycling, romanticizing what until then had been a symbol of the working classes. The new range became a lifestyle statement, introducing consumers to the idea of the cycle as a recreational vehicle and an adjunct to good health. Unlike brands that had acquired dominance in a monopoly situation, it had done so in a competitive environment.
So well-loved a client did Hero Cycles become that HTA used it as a training ground. To head a department at HTA, you had to have done a stint at Hero and earned your creative spurs there. Tarun Rai, the group CEO of J. Walter Thompson at the time of writing (HTA became JWT-India in 2002, then went back to its pre-1970 name, Walter Thompson), started his career as a part of the team that played a key role in Hero’s image makeover. He would later say that Hero had taught him what passion and commitment could achieve.
Hero Cycles pedalled along with HTA, with the occasional bumps in their journey together. The group worked with other agencies as well, Lintas among them, but the HTA relationship remained a special one.
The ‘Fill it, Shut it, Forget it’ tagline
Sanjay Dutt became the first of many Bollywood stars to advertise for the many Hero Group products. Rani Mukherjee, Hrithik Roshan and Ameesha Patel would all appear in advertisements for the brand, along with others. The pièce de résistance was Aishwarya Rai riding a Hero in Mani Ratnam’s Guru.
My father, meanwhile, was concerned with the sales of the Hero Honda motorcycles. The two-wheelers had been launched in 1984 with one of the most iconic advertising campaigns of all time. The ‘Fill it, Shut it, Forget it’ tagline – which was originally the idea of my brother Raman – exhorted Indian men to abandon their scooters and heavy motorcycles and ride the CD 100 which promised a mileage of 80 km to the litre. Actually, as per the mandatory pre-launch tests conducted by the Automobile Research Association of India (ARAI), the CD 100 was providing 94 km to the litre. But my father insisted that the campaign should set a lower mileage promise of 80 km, in order to create customer delight and surpass expectations. At a time when India ran on scooters, it was an attractive pitch, revolving around the aspirations of the aam admi (common man) and the affordability of the product. In effect, it involved a massive shift of consumer preference.
By the mid-1980s, the Hero Honda was on the roads, but it was now time to bear down on the accelerator and boost sales figures. My father was keen to capture the urban and peri-urban market and then, the rural heartland. Hero would have to cast a net wide enough to reach every village and town in the country, which required a marketing plan on a never-before-attempted scale for the auto industry.
The ‘heroic’ narrative was low-hanging fruit, with the bait of a macho yet affordable conveyance and a relentless focus on reliability, rider comfort, reasonable pricing and low maintenance – which my father and Ramanji insisted upon.
By this time, HTA had developed a good equation with Hero, by imbibing the Munjal maxim that relationships built on trust and mutual respect were never purely transactional. Tarun Rai remembers, ‘I believe Mr Munjal (O.P.) got the best out of us because of the relationship he had with us. He interacted with us both as the professionals we were and also at a personal level. Inviting us to make a big presentation when he was holidaying somewhere in the mountains of Kashmir or Himachal Pradesh – became an annual ritual.
‘As uncle Om Prakash said, this was his way of mixing business with a little holiday for us. He even wanted us to get our spouses along. He was always concerned about my family. He had met my wife a few times. Once we met at Barog – a quiet hill station near Chandigarh – where we had a nice lunch with him and Mrs Munjal. I was warmly hugged when I told him about the birth of our daughter. Of course, he sent me back with a gift for her.
‘Talking of gifts – we came back from Ludhiana carrying gifts, every visit. Gifts for us and also for some of the creative people who had worked on the campaign we had presented. Small things that went a long way in building a lasting relationship.’
The practice of giving gifts
Incidentally, the practice of giving gifts is an old one in our business family; in fact, we’ve always given practical gifts, ones that are useful in people’s home.
On the strength of the relationship that had developed with my uncle and his team, HTA secured the Hero Honda account. This company was a different ball game altogether, and differed sharply in its marketing approach. Unlike Hero Cycles, it had a full-fledged marketing department headed by Amit Chaturvedi. The Hero Honda account was handled by the HTA team of Colvyn Harris and Navroze Dhondi who developed a great equation with Amit and the team.
The marketing team came up with the idea of the Hero Cup. My father, who followed cricket with a passion, was struck. He would watch games, even in the office, during the lunch break. The staff on his floor would cluster around him and they would watch together and analyse each player’s performance. In fact, over the years, my father developed a close bond with his front-office manager, Vijaya Chaudhry and his peon, Anand, who were completely devoted to him.
Given Hero’s association with the community, my father and uncles felt it would be a good idea to use sports as a vehicle to build the brand. Cricketing events in the past had been mainly sponsored by either insurance or tobacco companies. Hero became the first company in the consumer durables market to enter the arena of competitive sports. For all his love of cricket, Brijmohan Munjal was not easily convinced. It took HTA many meetings and much hand-holding to convince him to bite the bullet. The cost of sponsorship, they pointed out persuasively, was a steal from the perspective of the traction it would offer. Bear in mind that in the early 1990s, there were only a handful of channels, a lot less money in cricket and very few takers for sponsorship.
My father allowed himself to be persuaded and, in 1993, the Hero Cup made its debut. It was broadcast on the Star TV network. As fate would have it – and to my father’s everlasting joy – India won the cup. It will always be remembered in cricketing history for Jonty Rhodes’ record-setting five catches for South Africa against the West Indies, Sachin Tendulkar’s last over against South Africa in the semi-final, and Anil Kumble’s match-winning six wickets for India in the final against the West Indies. At the end of an unforgettable match, Mohammad Azarhuddin held aloft the Hero Cup at Eden Gardens in Calcutta (renamed Kolkata in 2001).
Hero would become an enduring presence in sports thereafter, sponsoring not just cricket but hockey, football and golf. The Hero Cup whetted the group’s appetite for cricket and the Munjal brothers put their talent for spotting emerging talent to good use. Uncle Om Prakash happened to spot Irfan Pathan’s bowling action on TV in January 2006 when he took a hat-trick against Pakistan. Uncle was so enamoured that he called up HTA and instructed them to sign Pathan up at once.
The agency had learnt the hard way that when O.P. wanted something done right away, he meant it. If they failed to deliver, all his fuzzy warmth would dissolve into an outburst of temper. So when HTA discovered that Irfan was with the Indian cricket team in Pakistan, where it was playing after a gap of fifteen years (the resumption in cricketing ties had taken place courtesy Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s peace initiative earlier that year), they dispatched an employee to chase him down in Karachi. Only after the deal had been signed and sealed did they call ‘O.P.’
‘We had Irfan gainfully employed for the next five years at what today would seem like an incredibly low price,’ recalls Mr Rai.
Our involvement in sports allowed us to oblige our network of friends and business associates – bankers, diplomats, bureaucrats, etc., by inviting them to exciting events. It was the only way we could express our regard for them, because we had stopped the practice of Diwali gifting early on.
Through customer engagement in a very traditional retail environment, my father managed to convey to them what he told Outlook magazine in 2006: ‘Our goal was never profit alone but total devotion to customers; we wanted to give them full value and make them proud of choosing an Indian product.’
My father made it clear, in no ambiguous terms, that all responses to complaints should be time bound, and ensured that the message filtered through the organization. Reputation and credibility mattered enormously to him. In fact, he personally tracked complaint letters from dealers and customers for many years. I remember him getting particularly peeved if a writer ever mentioned Hero’s deteriorating quality, or standards, compared to a previous period.
While my father got less involved in later years in day-to-day operations, he was, till nearly the end, personally involved in the final selection of a dealer. Over the course of a short conversation, he had an uncanny knack of determining a candidate’s nature, value systems, and ability to keep commitments. More often than not, he was proved to be right.
My father believed that ethics, respect and relationships were the building blocks of any business. He often said that relationships were like bank accounts: ‘you will only get what you give’. This was the single most important premise upon which brand ‘Hero’ was constructed. As a ‘people’s brand’, Hero implied a premium on relationships without compromising on numbers.
Ashok Kumar Taneja, chairman of Shriram Pistons, who dubbed Brijmohan Munjal as the, ‘Father Figure of ancillarization’, in India, said that he embodied the true spirit of sabka saath-sabka vikas (one with everybody for everybody’s betterment) long before it became a political slogan. Taneja remembers him as the embodiment of old-world grace, rising graciously from his seat to greet a man half his age, even when he was in his nineties – this was a trait that was imbibed by all the brothers and later, by many in the family.
Just as my father embodied the uniquely indigenous concept of business dharma, Hero exemplifies the modern Indian homegrown brand with a characteristically human touch, an image sustained over the years and across new generations of customers and all stakeholders.That old friend of the Munjal brothers, Kareem Deen the saddle-manufacturer, who gifted them a name, probably could not have imagined the grand success they brought with it.