Fiat fights to stay relevant

Among the earliest and most iconic global brands to make it in India, Italian auto major Fiat, is facing its worst crisis ever in its 60 plus decades of existence in the country. Once a mass-market darling, Fiat is fast disappearing from public view. Sales, have been steadily dipping, volumes dropped 23 per cent during April 2015-January 2016 over the same period the previous year. Fiat sells fewer cars than premium brands like Mercedes Benz in the country today and has no dealers in Mumbai, its Indian headquarters. With the odds stacked so threateningly against its future, the car maker that came to India in 1950 wants to rechart its course; it is launching popular brand Jeep and making a concerted effort to regain consumer trust. But given the exhaustive transformation that the auto market has undergone in India, can the brand regain its lost glory?

Fiat is aware of the task at hand. "The one reaction that we get from people in India is that, 'I am not sure if you are going to stay in India'. There is this constant thing of us being in and out (of the market)," Kevin Flynn, president and managing director, Fiat Chrysler India said. Flynn is referring to Fiat's forgettable record in India. With two failed joint ventures (with Premier Automobile and a distribution venture with Tata Motors) the company has struggled while competitors such as German giant Volkswagen and French brand Renault have raced ahead despite entering the market less than a decade ago. According to Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) Fiat sold 7,001 units in the ten months of FY2016 and has a market share of 0.3 per cent. Volkswagen's share is 1.52 per cent and that of Renault , 2.19 per cent.

Fiat's decline is all the more stark when contrasted with the performance of premium car maker Mercedes Benz whose cars are priced nearly ten times higher. For the calendar year 2015, Mercedes-Benz's sales jumped 32 per cent; it closed the year with 13,502 units. Fiat sold 8,575 units, 37 per cent lower than Mercedes. How did Fiat, despite having entered the market early drive itself into near oblivion?

Falling off the map

Fiat, for the past decade or so, has steered its way around the country with a shaky hand. Its plans have been chopped, changed, shelved and recalibrated numerous times. While competitors such as Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai have launched several new models, Fiat has not had an all-new model launch since October 2014, which is when it launched the Avventura (styled on its Punto hatchback).

It has also run afoul of its dealers. A few have taken Fiat to court over unfulfilled promises. Fiat had promised to launch Jeep, as part of its venture with American auto maker Chrysler in mid-2013 but, the car is still to come to India. "We invested in new showrooms for Chrysler but had to switch to Fiat because Chrysler was not available. That business (however) was impossible to sustain. With sales of five models or even less in a month there was no way we were ever going to make money. We were forced to shut down", said a former Fiat dealer.

Fiat's current India line-up has only four models, one of which is a premium fully imported model. But it is absent in some of the crucial volume-pushing segments like the economy hatchback or compact sports utility vehicle segments. Earlier this month, three years behind schedule, Fiat finally announced it would bring Jeep into India. One of world's oldest US-based SUV brands, the company expects Jeep to give it a much needed boost. "We will unveil our new model strategy in due course. We are not working in a box with the light turned off. We understand what's going on in the market around us", Flynn added.

Reconnecting with the customer

Fiat is getting ready for an aggressive campaign. It wants to emphasise the brand's history in the country and how Jeep is a giant in its category. "In India, some people use Jeep as a term to define the whole segment. It is our name and we will stake claim to it now that we are in India," Flynn added. Jeep, which is a 75 year old brand, will commercially launch the Wrangler, Cherokee and Cherokee SRT in the coming months, all of which will be imported into India.

According to sources Fiat does not have any new products to offer until 2017. It will consolidate its business and focus on the Jeep brand until then. It is working on its own new range that will include models in the compact SUV, compact sedan and multi-purpose vehicle segments. "We understand what these segments look like and we can do better in them. Nothing is off the table and we know where our strengths are".

Fiat, however, has a big battle ahead with its dealers. It presently has just over 100 dealerships across the country while Mercedes-Benz has 83 and Maruti Suzuki, more than 1000. Most dealers are not keen to renew their relationship with Fiat because as one dealer said, they have faced some challenging times. Flynn however is not letting that get in the way of his optimism. He said, "We are aware that we do not have a dealership in Mumbai right now but that will not be the case for long."

  • Fiat set up shop in 1950, tied up with Premier Automobiles, but the alliance came apart in 2001

  • Teamed up with Tata Motors (for sales and marketing) in 2006, split in 2012

  • Sales have consistently fallen; 7,001 units sold between April 2015 to January 2016- 23% lower than the previous period

  • It has four models in the country, competitors Volkswagen and Renault have 6 and 7 respectively

  • To launch Jeep soon, its price yet to be disclosed but will compete with Audi Q3 (Rs 29 lakh) and BMW X3 (Rs 23 lakh)

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel