By Avik Chattopadhyay
One function that has fascinated me as a marketer in the automobile industry is the “Product Planning” and I was lucky to spend some time in this department
In the 1990’s, Product Planning was purely a part of the Engineering and Product Development roles. Marketing really had no role to play except to accept what was in the pipeline and do its best to…well, market the same.
With the new millennium, the function saw its germination in the Marketing and Market Planning roles. Planners and developers started talking to each other more often, more to understand and appreciate what each did. Concepts like segmentation and long-term product portfolios were born. While specific automakers might have been ahead of the curve, this was the average state of maturity for the industry at large. This was Product Planning 1.0.
The 2020s will see the onset of Product Planning 3.0~
With the 2010’s, the concepts became full grown practices with portfolio management and product life cycle strategy getting entrenched into every vehicle manufacturer’s marketing function. Hand-me-down plans from ‘head quarters’ were not simply accepted. Conceiving and creating vehicles specifically for the Indian customer became the order of the day and not an exception. They were also exported where requirements and applications were similar. This was 2.0.
The 2020s will see the onset of Product Planning 3.0.
This will not be the smooth evolution we have experienced for the last 20 odd years but a disruption in the process. A revolution of sorts. While a lot is being discussed about the ‘new normal’ of automobile retailing, manufacturing, sourcing and marketing, not much is discussed about this fascinating craft. Here is my take on seven specific aspects of its third avatar, post Covid.
- It will become an independent function, reporting directly to the country head, finally getting the importance it deserves, just like in other categories like FMCG and consumer durables.
- It will be a cross-functional team with marketing, research, service, design, product engineering, development, procurement and spares & accessories being represented in equal measure – its leadership might be on a rotational basis reinforcing the contribution of each team member.
- The team will also co-opt domain experts from outside on subjects not mastered internally, like social science, neurosciences, consumer behaviour, culture codes etc.
- Segmentation will have to be totally recast, even if many segments of yesterday get carried over. Changes in requirements, behaviour, applications and the basic need to be ‘mobile’ need to be captured. The product planner has to believe that this is being done for the first time in the market with social scientists and experts on culture codes being invaluable in the process.
- In tandem with segmentation, forecasting should be part of this function as this activity too needs fresh vision. Forecasting has long-term implications on each activity in the entire ecosystem, right from the drawing of a component to servicing the final vehicle. Hence age-old techniques like time series will not work any more as they only map the results of what was done yesterday, not of what needs to be done for tomorrow. Qualitative methods of analogies and scenarios need to be brought into forecasting, away from sales, dispatch and inventory planning.
- The function will see greater user involvement in product definition and detailing, more in the latter to ensure the right list of features and benefits. I foresee functional features taking precedence in the immediate future led by public transport as it wants to reinvent itself. It has to reclaim its regular users as well as bring in the 400 million Indians who move only by foot. Certain features ensuring hygiene will become standard in all modes of mobility. Product planning has to set the agenda on vehicle regulations for the industry and not leave it to policy makers, bureaucrats or vested interests, giving the industry a proactive and progressive image.
- Product portfolio management will become technology-agnostic and solution-focused, allowing shorter gestation periods for extensions and variants as well as the ability to drop or introduce solutions with minimal impact on the bottomline. Augmented intelligence and machine learning, allowing for real-time data and digital interventions will allow for this flexibility in portfolio management, from scheduling the perfect timing for introduction to even a complete exit from the market. This will be the biggest paradigm to change and might be the tipping point leading into the next avatar.
This decade belongs to the Product Planner.
He/she has to be one who suffers from relentless discomfort with the status quo.
He/she has to be one who can challenge conventions and question the holy cows internally.
How each stakeholder in society shall view the automobile industry rests squarely on the shoulders of the product planner – for the citizen to see it as empathetic and affordable, for the activist to see it as sustainable and transparent, for the policymaker to see it as confident and assertive and for the partner to see it as profitable and progressive.
Quite a lot to achieve in just ten years.
But then, the pandemic has built the perfect platform for taking up a good challenge!
(The author is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is former head of marketing, product planning and PR at Volkswagen India.)
(DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are solely of the authors and ETAuto.com does not necessarily subscribe to it. ETAuto.com shall not be responsible for any damage caused to any person/organisation directly or indirectly.)
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