Designing Brand “Nano” – A Car for the Indian Consumer:
An Ethnoconsumerist Perspective
Alladi Venkatesh**
University of California
Seema Khanwalkar
CEPT University
Lynda Lawrence
University of California
Steven Chen
California State University
(**Contact author – [email protected])
(To Appear in Qualitative Marketing Research)
Designing Brand “Nano” – A Car for the Indian Consumer:
An Ethnoconsumerist Perspective
In this paper, we present the design and branding considerations pertaining to “people’s
car” or “Nano” which is an affordable car targeted to the Indian consumer. The question
we pose in this paper is what are the consumer issues and branding/design considerations
that have gone into the development of Nano? We examine this question from an
ethnocousumerist perspective.
Designing Brand “Nano” – A Car for the Indian Consumer:
An Ethnoconsumerist Perspective
In this paper, we present consumer issues and branding/design considerations
pertaining to “people’s car” or “Nano” (Figure 1) which is billed as an affordable
passenger vehicle designed for the Indian consumer for driving in the Indian setting.
Recently, there has been a lot of publicity given to the introduction of Nano in the local
and international press (Automotive News 2008, Bhanot 2008, Tata Motors 2008,
Kurczewski, 2009, Chacko, Noronha and Aggarwal 2010). It has now been put on
display in Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum and given a celebrity status for its innovative
design (Patton 2010). In this context, we have seen much recent work on branding issues
in the Asian context (Cayla and Eckhardt 2008) which are relevant to our study.
Figure 1 (Nano Car)
In general, automobiles are mostly designed in highly industrialized and developed
economies although manufacturing plants exist all over the world. Automobiles are
complex technologies and it has not been possible for less advanced countries to design
their own versions of an automobile although they have manufacturing facilities for some
premier brands. This is bound to change in the future as these countries catch up on auto
design. It is in this context that we present research ideas and design considerations
concerning Nano – which is billed as a people’s car for the Indian market – totally designed
and manufactured in India (Chacko, Noronha and Aggarwal 2010).
The central question we pose in this paper is the following: what are the consumer
and design issues that have gone into the development of Nano which is a low priced
automobile targeted toward the Indian consumer in the middle to lower middle income
group and in urban and semi-urban settings? We provide a cultural interpretation of this
design initiative and its execution. Thus the main issue is, what is the cultural model that
has gone into Nano brand and what are the ingredients of the cultural model? How has
this taken into consideration the “Indian consumer point of view” (Bijapurkar 2008,
Srinivas 2008, Varman and Belk 2009) and changing Indian economic and cultural
geography (Sen 2003, Shumer-Smith 2000)? In pursuing these issues, we use an
ethnoconsumerist framework (Meamber and Venkatesh 2000) together with cultural and
emotional aspects of design (Norman 2004, Sparke 2004) for our study.
Although the eventual success of the car in the market place and its performance
as a successful innovation can be debated, this paper does not address those specific
issues except to say that many well informed sources believe that it should succeed
(Chacko, Noronha and Aggarwal 2010). Our focus is to examine Nano as a people’s car,
the cultural underpinnings of its design and its position within the consumer context.
The data for this study were gathered primarily from research publications, and
public sources and press clippings. In addition, inputs were received from a designer with
intimate knowledge of Nano.
Conceptual Framework - Ethnoconsumerism Perspective
We use an ethnoconsumerist approach to this study. Ethnoconsumerism is a
methodology for doing cross-cultural research (Venkatesh 1995, Meamber and
Venkatesh 2000). It encourages the researcher to study culture not merely as providing
the context for the study of consumer behavior but to study consumption itself as
culturally constituted behavior. In principle, the ethnoconsumerist perspective goes
beyond the distinction of emic and etic research approaches. The etic approach
encourages the researcher to interpret phenomena from her/his point of view. On the
other hand, the emic approach directs the researcher to examine the same phenomena
from the subject’s point of view. Ethnoconsumerism advocates the next critical step,
which is to then develop knowledge from the overall culture’s point of view. Thus the
research incorporates a view of the culture informed by the culture itself as demonstrated
by its text view and field view (Meamber and Venkatesh 2000). In this paper, we look at
the design of Nano from the Indian cultural standpoint.
We examine the Nano playing field from macro to micro, from historical to
contemporary, from luxury to necessity, from expensive to affordable, from a twowheeler to four-wheeler social transformation, and from the point of view of Indian value
Tata Motors: Manufacturers of Nano
Tata motors is a family of pioneering industrialists whose origins can be traced to
the mid-to-late 19th century beginning with shipping interests under the British colonial
system followed by a more than a century of major investments into steel plants,
commercial vehicles and consumer products (Mukherjee 2009). It is considered a mega
economic empire. Tatas are also local representatives of Mercedes, a German auto
manufacturer, and Tata Mercedes is a large manufacturing company of commercial
vehicles under German collaboration. Tatas are known for their philanthropy, and are
founders of world class educational and advanced scientific institutes. They are one of the
most trusted if not the most trusted conglomerate in India and their reputation is
legendary. Thus Nano’s initial reputation as a trusted brand would remain intact.
Product Offering and Brand Positioning
Tata Motors announced the commercial launch of the Nano in 2008, the low-cost
compact model powered by a 2-cylinder engine (see Figure 1 above). It was introduced
into the local Indian market from June of 2009 (Kurczewski, 2009), and as shown in
Figure 2, personally presented to the first buyer family by the CEO of Tata Motors.
Figure 2 First Tata Nano delivered to proud Indian family by the Chairman of Tata Motors
With a length of just 10 feet, width and height of about 5 feet, the Tata Nano has
the smallest exterior footprint for a car in India. Nano is 20% smaller than the cheapest
car on the Indian roads right now, the Maruti Suzuki 800. It nevertheless offers a
spacious passenger compartment which can seat four adults and offers a high seating
position. Its small size coupled with a turning radius of just 4 meters, makes it extremely
Tata motors planned to make 250,000 initially and expected eventually to sell 1
million annually (The Hindu 2009). The Indian auto market is very vibrant, as economic
growth lifts incomes and wealth in the country. Ford, Nissan, Fiat, Suzuki, Renault were
all planning to increase production in the Nano space over the next few years. Indian
economy is expected to market 10 million additional cars on Indian roads in five years.
Nano is designed and being marketed as a first car for the working middle class
although it is conceivable it may be purchased by higher income groups as a second or
third car in the family. It is targeted toward the consumers who own two-wheelers and
expect to buy an automobile. The two-wheeler industry in India has grown rapidly in the
country since the announcement of the process of economic liberalization in 1991.
Current Indian Transportation Scene: Traffic Conditions – Design Implications
In general, the traffic conditions in Indian city roads can be crowded and may
appear a bit chaotic. With so many different vehicles using the same roads, from big
trucks, to passenger buses, to luxury automobiles to two wheelers, the traffic congestion
is a more a rule than an exception ( Figure 3).
Figure 3 – A Typical Traffic Scene in Urban India
Under these conditions, the design and introduction of Nano is both a marketing
decision and an emotional decision. It is a marketing decision because there is a demand
for an affordable small car among the middle class households and an emotional decision
because it taps into the national pride. The semiotics of car design and marketing touches
on various aspects of Indian social, cultural and emotional life. The whole enterprise is
reminiscent of the introduction of Model-T Ford in the bygone era.
From Public Transportation to Private Vehicle
Many Indians travel in crowded public transportation.
The spatial distance
between passengers is very small in these congested environments. It is not uncommon to
designate gender based spaces so males and females may not sit together. This gives
some relief to females in crowded interiors. But this does not solve the problem
completely because there are always more passengers than seats and people have to stand
in crowded buses and commuter trains. However, Nano addresses this issue by designing
a privately owned affordable vehicle.
Interior Space and Nano Design:
From Two Wheelers to an Automobile - First Time Car Ownership
In terms of Nano design, the problem of space is addressed in the following way. Since it
is not a public transportation but a private vehicle, there is no issue of traveling in the
company of strangers. Second, although the space in the Nano car is not luxurious, it is
comfortable and better compared to the alternative i.e. public transportation or riding a
two-wheeler with other family members. That is, the most common vehicle for most
Indians is a two-wheeler and it’s not uncommon to see a family of three or four riding a
motorized scooter or a motor bike (see Figure 4). In terms of macro conditions, we note
that more than 40% of the Indian population would be in this socio-economic category
(Bijapurkar 2008). Thus Nano provides an affordable and safer alternative for millions of
those first time buyers who want to experience car ownership for the first time.
Figure 4: Two Wheelers as Family Vehicles
Of course, many working professionals male and female-- do drive fancy automobiles
(see Figure 5). They are not the intended target market for the Nano car.
In sum, the design and conceptualization of Nano car was a major coup in the
consumer context. Although modest in size, price and performance have captured the
imagination of many Indians as well as foreign observers. The automobile as a passenger
vehicle is a luxury for a majority of the Indian population but is potentially within their
Figure 5 Driving among Professional and Upper Income Class
Discourses of New India – The Emerging Consumer Society and National Pride: An
Ethnoconsumerist Perspective
Colonial Past and New Indian Pride
Although India gained freedom over sixty years ago, it has taken a while to give
up its colonial mentality. In the last twenty years, one of the major psycho/social/cultural
developments has to do with the rising Indian pride. This is particularly true of younger
generation (especially those under 30 years) whose sense of pride and achievement has
lain to rest all residual colonial obsessions and negatives (Varma 2006, Bijapurkar 2008).
Removed from the experiences and memories of older generation, they are hardly
conscious of their colonial past nor do they seem to care. In fact, ironically, most Indians
of their generation and even many segments of the semi-urban and rural populations are
learning and attempting to master the English language as a way to participate in the
rapidly rising global economic scene and to enjoy consumerist benefits through better
employment and individual pursuits.
National Pride
At the national level, Nano has become a matter of national pride and an expression
of Indianness. In terms of the world of products, India is known for textiles, hand made rugs,
crafts and spices. In the last 15 years are so, India has become known globally for its
software industry and has become a major player in the global knowledge economy
(Dahlman and Utz 2005). However, there is a distinction between service/knowledge
industry and concrete technological product orientation. Thus Nano represents a concrete
manifestation of a technological achievement.
Indian pride originates from different sources. Its mythology and mythological
heroes, its national pride as an emerging economic power, its democratic form of
government and successful private enterprise in the IT sector and its preeminence in the
entertainment world via Bollywood point to its current economic and cultural strength
(Kasbekar 2006).
Nationalism and Indian Pride – Design Considerations
Implied in Nano design process is the notion of nationalism. Tata motors tried to
exploit the national element aggressively. For example, there was a huge advertisement
by Tata motors when this car was first launched and the Chairman of Tata enterprises
thanked the Indians publicly (The Hindu 2009) (see also Figure 2 above).
The Rising Middle Class and Consumerism
As India is transforming to become an emerging industrial power the aspirations
of the consumers are also on the rise (Bijapurkar 2007). It is true that India still has one
quarter of its population at levels of urban or rural poverty. However, one has to weigh
this against other trends. With a population of over a billion people, the middle class in
the combined urban and rural sectors is considered to be around half a billion (NCAER
2005). They have attained certain levels of education and disposable income. There is
upward mobility, self sufficiency in many aspects of personal and family needs (food,
clothing, education, housing etc).
In the last twenty years, since 1991, India has been rapidly moving towards being
a consumer society (Bijapurkar 2008). With the rise of television in many homes and the
rise of televisual culture, increasing literacy and the production of college graduates, and
the rise of the IT sector along with self-sufficiency in the agriculture sector, India has
certainly entered the world picture. It is one of the four BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia,
China and India), the four rising powers consisting of two-thirds of the world population.
The Target Consumer
The typical Indian member of urban working class travels by public
transportation, or a bicycle, or a motor-cycle which are used to carry multiple members of
the family. The trend of owning two-wheelers is due to a variety of facts peculiar to
India. One of the chief factors is poor public transport in many parts of India.
Additionally, two-wheelers offer a great deal of convenience and mobility for the Indian
family (Figure 4 above). The wealthier class of professionals does own expensive cars
(Figure 5 above). However, as stated earlier, many changes are occurring on social,
cultural and economic fronts. There is now more upward mobility than ever before and
greater urbanization. The urban middle class segment is now 1/3rd of the population
compared to 1/4th only fifteen years ago. The disposable income has risen significantly.
In addition, socially speaking, one can see the changing roles of women who are
making headway in many professions in urban India and whose presence can be felt in
the world of fashion and modern attire and their ability to switch back and forth from
traditional to the contemporary (see Figure 6) (Ghadially 2007).
Figure 6: Indian Women Consumers in Western and Traditional Clothing Styles
Personal Freedoms
The tantalizing virtue of personal freedom is now being embraced by Indians in many
walks of life (Lorenzen and Mudambi 2010). For women, it ranges from economic
independence to choosing their life partners to wearing of non-traditional (Western) style
clothes and using latest technologies but not necessarily totally abandoning their
traditional attire (Figure 6 above). It is all a matter of fluidity and expressing their sense
of freedom through fashion, attire and even driving an automobile (Figure 5 above).
Cultural Factors and Nano Design
Indian Attire and Nano Design:
When an Indian woman wears a sari, for example, and she gets off the car, the
design question is, what is the height that would be required for her to get off without sort
of disturbing the folds of the sari? Nano designers really addressed this issue because the
design question was what can be done to ensure that a car speaks to the Indian female
consumer? In other words, how can Nano make her feel “this is “my” car”? Of course
this will not be an issue for women wearing pants – which probably many younger Indian
women do.
Consumer Aspirations:
In the designing process, a potential male consumer was approached for his view
of Nano. He had never owned a car and was currently an owner of a motorized scooter
and was in his early twenties. He said that owning Nano would increase his prospects of
getting married to a female with higher social standing. Here is what he had to say.
“Tomorrow I can get a better girl if she says, ah, he has a car.” In other words, Tata
motors are getting into the social fabric of the country. In a semiotic/cultural sense the
consumer appropriates the meaning of the car and uses it to his advantage. The consumer
may have a small car, but the small car has a semiotic meaning of bigness attached to it,
and has a major cultural implication in his statements.
Behavioral and Reflective Concerns:
From a marketer’s perspective, the ultimate success of the design rests on how
consumers receive the car and whether they actually buy it and invest in it. This is the
behavioral side of consumer activity. But there is also the reflective side of design. That
is, how does the consumer receive a product (or design) that makes the product alive
within the cultural context?
Nano Effect – Euphoria, Hope and Optimism, International Rivalry:
So what can be said of the NANO effect? It’s really about euphoria, hope, optimism,
international rivalry.
Mythological Streams – A Cultural Probe
While India is moving towards becoming a consumer society, Indian culture
continues to play on mythological themes. References to mythological characters as
sources of inspiration and social models do exist and do not seem to conflict with India’s
modernistic ambitions and expectations. The challenge is how to capture the essence of
mythology within the context of a technological product?
Mythical Indian Ethos
While India is rising as an economic power, Indian ethos is celebrating its history
and mythical past. While undergoing modernization, it has not abandoned its cultural
heritage but instead is embracing it with contemporary idioms and overtones while
celebrating it in a profound and significant fashion. Some people have described it as the
Indian renaissance or reawakening. This can be seen in the marketing of India through
travel brochures and the sprucing up of historical sites (Taj Mahal, Nalanda, Konarak,
Mahabalipuram etc), as well as fashioning natural scenic settings as part of the growing
tourist trade. Not only are these sites being marketed to foreign tourists, but they are now
targeted to Indians themselves.
One of the political figures who promoted Nano plant within his state said that
Indians should receive the NANO like Krishna – the child god (see Figure 7). The image
here is almost like a little divine infant that is bringing in a new sense of hope for India.
Nano is likened to giving birth to and raising a child. In that sense it is a delicate mode of
transportation and as a parent loves and nurtures her child, the Indian consumer is
presumed to feel the same way. Parenthetically, one might add that even in the Western
world, some car owners refer to their car as “my baby.”
Figure 7: Krishna as the Child God
Using the religio-cultural metaphor, in India, it is not uncommon to see vehicle worship
on a religious holiday during the months of September and October (see Figure 8).
Figure 8: Vehicle Worship during the Vijayadasami Day
We call this (borrowing from a famous play) “Waiting for NANO.” It’s really the
reflective side. It’s about the Indian marvels, the newborn savior. So the NANO is more
than a mode of transportation; it is designed for social transformation as it extends its
blessings to the owners of two wheelers and aspiring first timers. That is, the driver of
the two-wheeler will now drive a four-wheeler – as part of the socio-cultural
transformation process.
Although India is making headway into the 21st century, Indian mythology is
reflected in communications in advertising in India, because companies exploit
mythological references.
One can see this trend particularly with certain branded
products as in jewelry and saris. This is also reflected in the whole new animation
culture which is bringing back mythological characters. This mythological residue in
India seems to be the DNA of Indian life, and it manifests itself in different forms.
To summarize, the design of Nano car gives rise to the following themes within
the socio-cultural context of India.
Theme 1. Nano is about the cheapest and affordable car.
Theme 2. It is about the small car.
Theme 3.It is about the Indian Car.
Theme 4. Appropriate to Indian Conditions. (Crowded streets, narrow roads, etc.)
Theme 5: Aspirational car: It is a vehicle for fulfilling aspirations/dreams of owning a
car, gaining social status.
Theme 6: Designed for an Indian woman wearing sari getting into and out of the car.
Theme 7: Nationalism and Indian Pride, consumer aspirations
Theme 7: Emotional Design (visceral - appearance, behavioral and reflective).
Theme 8: Euphoria, hope, optimism and mythology
Theme 9. A replacement for a two-wheeler – A family car
Theme 10. The Child metaphor (The divine child - The view of the savior, the delightful,
playful and lovable, small and sprightly yet powerful.)
Theme 10: Comfort of the old with the design of the new.
Theme 11. Features of the car. (Cost-effective, using indigenous parts, combining the
comfort of the old with the style of the new, and a welcoming product appeal.)
Theme 12. Indian resourcefulness (An entrenched Indian value that is adaptive and
transformative with Indian naïveté combined with unfazed personality.)
Theme 13. The Nano Effect (Consists of euphoria as India advances into global
landscape, hope/optimism about the future and consumer welfare and well-being, catalyst
for change (upward mobility of the masses.)
In conclusion, at the basic level, Nano is an affordable transportation for Indian
consumers. Design is no longer merely an organizational or a corporate issue. Nano has
become a cultural/national icon. It raises the issue of economic and political power for
the state. Nano is also a precursor of cultural transformation and may well become a
design model for emerging markets- since the whole world is waiting for their
aspirational ghosts to become a reality.
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Designing *Nano* * A Car for the Indian Consumer