April 2006 | Cynthia Rodrigues

A brand to watch for

Titan is striving to ensure that Sonata becomes rural India's most preferred brand, with competitive prices and attractive designs

Where whole villages wake up to the crowing of a rooster and activities are timed by the movements of the sun, a watch is hardly considered an essential possession. And yet Titan Industries is bravely making inroads into rural India, seeking to convert the masses into satisfied owners of Brand Sonata.

Following Timex's exit from the Titan stable, the company felt the need to lunch a brand to address the economy segment. The Titan brand had acquired an aura of sophistication and had no appeal for the economy segment. "There was a gap which we, as a company, had to fill," says C Srinivasan, business head — Sonata.

The gap was sought to be filled with Sonata, created especially for the economy-end customers, who accounted for a massive share of the Indian watch market. Since its launch, Sonata's has captured a mere 10 per cent of this overwhelmingly large market, but the number of watches sold in the rural segment is exceptional.

And so, undaunted, Srinivasan has set his sights on exploiting the tremendous potential available in rural areas. Titan has not yet launched products in the Rs150 to Rs199 price range, but once this is done, it will have a far greater impact in the region; Sonata will sell far greater volumes.

At present, the brand is available in all towns with a population of more than 10,000. Srinivasan says that it is not essential to have a formal presence everywhere. "A rural consumer typically goes to the nearest town to buy things like clothes, a radio, TV, watch, etc. This nearest town is the one with a population of more than 10,000," he says. "It is not critical for us to be present in 5,000+ population towns in terms of an outlet. What we need to do is to create awareness in the rural market, so that whenever consumers buy a watch, they buy a Sonata."

The task is a daunting one. Unlike urban areas, rural areas do not have the concept of exclusive outlets. Sonata watches vie for attention with competing products, including those from the unbranded sector. These unbranded products are formidable competition, and are studiously pushed by dealers. So Sonata finds itself in competition not only with brands like Timex and Maxima but also with names like Lamex, etc.

Amid such competition, it is necessary to ensure that Sonata has top-of-mind status. The team needs to connect with potential consumers on an ongoing basis. It cannot afford to talk to them only when it has the money to invest and they have the money to buy. Also, to assume that the rural consumer is unaware about issues of quality would be unwise. The rural consumer is as concerned about quality as his urban counterpart. Srinivasan explains, "For him, the purchase is a bigger investment than it is for the urban buyer."

This strategy helps counter the tactics employed by the unbranded sector. Srinivasan says, "The biggest strength of unbranded watches lies in the margins they offer, enabling dealers to push their products. Besides, they are high on looks. They can give a wider variety at a faster pace and lower prices."

In such a situation, Titan has to strive to establish Sonata's superiority over the competition. To create familiarity with the target audience, Titan organises mobile vans. This is done on a sustained basis so that every village gets covered regularly. Credibility is also built when villagers learn that this is a Tata brand.

Once potential customers experience the watches first-hand, they are more likely to ask for Sonata, forcing the dealer to stock up. Events such as haats and melas are also exploited for the opportunities they offer for interacting with large numbers of the target audience. And though business may not happen throughout the year, Sonata has to maintain its presence in the targeted areas all the time to ensure that business happens when it does.

The market is rather volatile and has its own compulsions. The brand will be rewarded only if it earns consumers' trust. Srinivasan elaborates: "Rural consumers have aspirations which our brand must fulfill and encourage. Also, affordability in their parlance means much more. We evaluate things in terms of how much we are prepared to pay. They think of a purchase in terms of how it serves their needs, how well it suits the family rather than an individual."

The team is working to convince the rural audience that if they own a watch, they will be seen as more progressive. Titan has already studied the metrics that make the rural market tick. Word of mouth is a huge motivator and peer pressure can determine a lot of choices. One satisfied and influential customer can be a better brand ambassador than a host of celebrities.

The strategy to drive volumes also includes reducing the prices. "One year ago we introduced a watch at Rs500, then at Rs395. Ultimately we want to sell at Rs150. Mr Ratan Tata wants us to launch a Rs100 watch," says Srinivasan. To achieve this, the team will have to change the price-performance equation in the consumer's mind.

Titan will be able to build the rural market only in the proportion in which it can help develop rural India. This belief is central to Titan's rural business strategy. The company is looking at forming partnerships with the rural people for creating a network of evangelists for the brand. It believes that this move will not only generate revenue for them but also translate into something positive for the company and general prosperity for the village community.

Some of these possibilities and options are being explored, and the company is already working with the Tata Kisan Sansars to seek ways of improving the lot of the rural population.

Above all, says Srinivasan, "our strategy is to be in constant contact with ground reality." In the coming months, the company will work hard to ensure that Sonata becomes rural India's most preferred brand.

More articles on Titan:

Watch out for Xylys: It's Xylys, Titan's latest watch collection. Exuding style, attitude and power, the watch is all set to storm the premium watch segment in India so far dominated by well-known European brands
Winning strategies: There is no one formula for success in driving business excellence in an organisation, but knowing the route others have taken helps in getting there faster
Timing it right: Titan has rewritten the rules of watch making to emerge as the brand of choice for Indians of all ages and from every strata of society