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MUMBAI: The last nine months have vindicated Vivek Nayer's decision to leave a cushy marketing job with consumer goods maker Reckitt Benckiser in the UK and return to India to join Mahindra and Mahindra's passenger vehicle unit. In a market where auto sales crumbled for three straight quarters to hit a 12-year low, M&M saw its business blossom. In this time, M&M rode the

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launch of new products such as the XUV 500, reinvigorated staid brands such as the Bolero and pushed hard on the digital front to reach a new generation of constantly networked and aware customers. When Nayer left the comforts of a posh flat in London and moved to the heat and dust of Mumbai, M&M was struggling. Sports utility vehicles, for which the firm is known, accounted for barely 5% of the car market dominated by MarutiBSE -1.04 % and Hyundai. Since that time, Nayer and Mahindra have gone on the marketing warpath— overhauling its product portfolio and launching aggressive ads to steer ahead of competition. As preferences of car buyers have changed, SUV sales have soared to account for 20% of the overall market and Mahindra now accounts for 65-70% of this market. "People don't look at a vehicle only as a means of going from place A to B," says Nayer. "They want it to be a reflection of their personality."

Marketers such as Nayer are, therefore, betting on the Indian market transitioning from small cars (which still account for nearly three quarters of sales) to more spacious SUVs in the long-term. Nayer is burning serious rubber as Mahindra seeks to power ahead of global rivals, sensing the same opportunity. In the past two years, he has overseen the launch of dozens of new campaigns to catalyse sales, culminating in the 'Live Young, Live Free' campaign which provided an all-around view of Mahindra's SUV prowess. Chander Sethi, regional director, South and South East Asia, at Reckitt Benckiser, has known Nayer for over 20 years. "One of his biggest assets is his ability to spot an opportunity ahead of time and tailor his marketing programmes to chase it," he says. The duo worked on multiple marketing campaigns together when Sethi helmed the India operations of the maker of Dettol. "He is able to challenge the status quo in a market, take on entrenched competition and build a winning strategy, despite strong opposition from within and outside the company," Sethi says of Nayer. Nayer doesn't take decisions in haste, say people who know him well. Pravin Kini was a year senior to him at business school and worked with him during two stints in the early and late 1990s. "Vivek is diligent about his strategy and looks for consumer insights before taking any decisions," he says. While he worked on the Dettol brand during its fastest period of growth in the 90s, this ability to keep a clear head also helped Nayer build a unique marketing and advertising campaign for Mahindra.

Along the way, struggling brands have been re-invigorated by Nayer too — the Xylo, backed by a two-phase makeover campaign has sold 100,000 units. "We have positioned the Bolero as an aspirational entry-level SUV," says Nayer. In contrast, the XUV 500 and Scorpio continue to be more premium offerings.

Even as M&M hunts for profitable niches for vehicles such as the Xylo and Bolero (or considers retiring the weather-beaten brands), Nayer is aware that not every one of his moves has worked. For example, M&M burnt its fingers with the Logan (a result of its Renault JV), selling barely a couple of hundred cars in a hotly competitive market. Chastened by this debacle, the automaker went back to the drawing board, ditched its JV partner (Renault has since returned with cars such as the Koleos, Duster and Scala) and rolled out the Verito. A better car, and a stronger campaign has seen sales climb.

"We have some seven million fans on Facebook and around nine million Youtube views... I practically have my own TV channel," says Nayer. As buyers increasingly log on to research their vehicle choices and reach out directly to automakers, M&M's digital edge may be key in reaching these consumers—company chairman Anand Mahindra is among India Inc's most visible faces on Twitter—and his auto unit is keen to follow in his footsteps.

Even as he pushes the digital envelope, there may be real world concerns—slowing sales. A tax hike on SUVs will make buyers think harder before buying these vehicles, while a narrowing gap between the price of diesel and petrol vehicles will only queer the pitch further. How Nayer navigates these unexpected rumble strips and keeps Mahindra's sales growing will perhaps define his destiny. In a market where auto sales crumbled for three straight quarters to hit a 12-year low, M&M saw its business blossom. In this time, M&M rode the

launch of new products such as the XUV 500, reinvigorated staid brands such as the Bolero and pushed hard on the digital front to reach a new generation of constantly networked and aware customers. When Nayer left the comforts of a posh flat in London and moved to the heat and dust of Mumbai, M&M was struggling. Sports utility vehicles, for which the firm is known, accounted for barely 5% of the car market dominated by Maruti and Hyundai. Since that time, Nayer and Mahindra have gone on the marketing warpath— overhauling its product portfolio and launching aggressive ads to steer ahead of competition. As preferences of car buyers have changed, SUV sales have soared to account for 20% of the overall market and Mahindra now accounts for 65-70% of this market. "People don't look at a vehicle only as a means of going from place A to B," says Nayer. "They want it to be a reflection of their personality."

Vivek Nayer: The Man who helped MM zoom ahead amid the downturn - The Economic Times