Interview: Vincent Cobee, Global Head, Datsun – “Safety is a sensitive subject, should not be misrepresented as a fashion statement”

Vincent Cobee - Datsun Global head interview - the man at the helm of the revived brand shares his thoughts about growth, safety and new products

Added in: Datsun

Vincent Cobee Datsun Head (1)

Starting afresh is never easy in business – even if you have the backing of the most respected and revered automobile brand in the world. In fact it’s all the more difficult in such a case, as the sentiment surrounding such projects is mostly positive. There’s the financial and human resource at avail, there are well-documented learnings from the past to avoid early mistakes and there’s a massive infrastructure to make use of. Oh, and there also are the bean counters who are expecting triple digit growth from the very outset.

Typically, for a fresh, bootstrap organization with limited resource, people within the group brace themselves for the early failures, teething issues, the learning curve and the financial tether that defines the limited scope. In the case of Datsun, the brand that was the very fountain-head of the global car-giant that Nissan is today, the expectations are high. The man at the helm, Vincent Cobee, thus, cannot be imagined to be at ease. The challenges and expectations ahead are huge – huge enough to bog down even the most seasoned players in the game.

Vincent, strangely, seems unperturbed by the pressure surrounding him. He has a casual air about him, blended in with a generous dash of signature French flair. And until he starts talking lucidly about the subjects you may want to indulge him in, you may, in fact, mistake him for another of those highly paid top execs who couldn’t care less. His passion for his work and more importantly for his beliefs isn’t hidden behind any veneers. Vincent believes in what he says, he speaks his mind, and it’s apparent in his fervent tone. 

One of the most candid characters you’d stumble upon in the power-suit clad world of the big-on-cash corporate world, Vincent wears his passion on his sleeve. The global head of a car brand who hitches a ride back home on the Metro after a dinner with international media – that’s Mr. Cobee for you.

An avid sportsperson with a tall, athletic frame – a triathlete and tennis player with interest in skiing and golf as well, Vincent likes to see life beyond the board meetings and growth graphs. His background as someone who has held senior positions in the public sector (in both France and Philippines) forms a part of his vision that transcends numbers and profits. There is a philosophical, philanthropic side to his personality which reflects mildly, yet indiscreetly every time he decides to talk at length about subjects pertaining to society and common good. 

Vincent Cobee Datsun Head (2)

After serving the public sector for a while, Vincent decided to have a taste of the corporate life, having completed his Master’s in Business Administration from Harvard. Vincent started off with Nissan in the Purchase Department back in 2002 and has never felt the need to find another employer. “Nissan Motor Corporation is, by a huge margin, the best and most capable, real global car manufacturer in the world in terms of reach, capability, diversity of people, and ability to adapting to diverse customers’ needs. We work hard to ensure that we always go the extra mile” he asserts.

In his current role as the Global Head of Datsun, Vincent feels privileged. The re-launch of a car brand is something that only a handful of people have achieved in the past 40 years, and he thinks of it as a great opportunity.

We managed to spend some time with the man at two different occasions in Yokohama – once at an informal dinner and at one other time in one of the boardrooms of the towering Nissan HQ building itself. In a freewheeling interview, the Frenchman talked with the Indian media about his vision and ambition for Datsun.

Datsun as a brand doesn’t seem to have done as well as everybody expected; what are you planning to change that?

Well, such things are a part of your life. You can always look at the glass as half empty or half full. And while it’s easy to think that tomorrow will be a revolution, what you sometimes realize is that there is no such thing as a revolution over the night. Are we taking more time than expected to ramp up? Yes. Is that a surprise? No. As journalists, you would know that the launch of any product in India takes time. We think we could have done some things better. I feel that the PR and communication message could have been stronger at launch, and we are working on it, and we are improving.  I think we were too ambitious at the outset from a geographic point of view. If I have to go all over again I will go region by region. Even if the notion goes against the logic and the fact that India is only one country, I think it’s extremely hard to be focused as a new brand, if you are addressing the entire country as a whole.

Can you elaborate on some of the more concrete steps you taken to enhance Datsun’s presence in India?

We have taken lots of concrete steps. The first thing we have done is to refine and clarify our marketing message. You must have seen the ‘Nayee Parampara’ campaign that we are using as a theme for our products.

Another important thing we have done is to clarify the sales message in the short term. How you demonstrate the car to the customer is very important. We have had a detailed discussion within the team about this. We need to make sure that a minimum of 80% of the customers who walks into the showroom, don’t leave without a test drive, and that the car is properly demonstrated to them.

As an example, we need to tell the customer how we have tuned the suspension of the Datsun GO to reduce motion sickness. No brochure will say that, as it’s complex and technical to explain. Which being said our target customer segment is such where it’s common for the buyer to have a pregnant wife, or soon to have a pregnant wife for whom that trait will matter. And why did we do it? It’s not because I, sitting here in Japan am saying that motion sickness is important.  It’s because it’s an important aspect for the customers whom we are addressing. So if I don’t make sure that this and a 100 other points are explained in the showroom to the customer then I am failing somewhere. Am I there today? No. But we are improving.

To answer your question, there is a long list of small little things that people like or prioritize or appreciate in their car, and we need to improve on them. Typical example being the small electronic fuel efficiency meter. Sometimes, the customer would like to think that the car doesn’t have the conventional fuel economy just by looking at the number on that screen. We need to educate and demonstrate to our customer on how to use it, how to set it, how to read it, how to reset it so that there is no confusion. This is just one of the things which we are doing to better demonstrate the product.

I think we are quite good at product competitiveness and we are good in quality. We are expanding our sales infrastructure and we are expanding our service solutions. We are also introducing pick and drop solutions for service. We are also increasing the number of banks we have alliances with for easier financial solutions for the customer. We know that the Indian customer wants a 100 and doing 95 is not enough.

What do you have to say about the inclusion of ABS as an option on the Go for safety?

The first thing, and I think there should be absolutely no misunderstanding about this, is that road safety is a sensitive subject. It’s on top of the mind of every customer, and so it should be for you, and for me. Your job and my job is to ensure that safety is not misrepresented as a fashion statement – we need to understand the root causes and find solutions in a deeper way. As far as I understand India, the tragedy of this country is that it loses close to 1,50,000 lives ever year in road accidents.

Now, as far I understand, 80 percent of the people who die are not in a car. Also, as far as I understand, the remaining 15 percent of those who are in the car, if you do a root cause analysis, the reason for the accident is the lack of maintenance, poor visibility, bad driving skills and poor road conditions. Now, before we enter into a very, very specific and particular point of the discussion which is of importance to the media, the government, to customers and us, which is passive safety, I think we should all understand, on which subject we are? We are in a massive tragedy where 1,50,000 people are losing their lives, and we are on a subject where the passive safety plays a very small 5% role in those deaths. Air bags are an even smaller part of passive safety. Please note that I am nowhere saying that we should not address it, but we should be very careful in knowing what is the problem, and how do we make the situation massively change. The point Datsun is trying to make, is that India is a multi player complex environment, but we are willing to actively contribute in a wider way.

Are people mindful of factors such as skill, visibility, comfort, driving conditions, state of mind etc that really determine your safety on road? Now, the car we have put on the road, has the best on road visibility, best lighting, best comfort and best braking. And if you disagree with me, raise your hand, and if you continue disagreeing with me, we will go and drive our car with the competition’s car and make a decision. So what I am trying to say is that before we start saying we will do a car‘s safety assessment through a crash, my question is how to make a crash not happen in the first place.

There are people who are driving for hours in day – does your car have the level of comfort, visibility, spinal support and motion sickness avoidance to make those people remain alert? With the Go and Go+ we are offering a car which has the best comfort, best lighting, best braking in its segment. It’s a sound piece of automobile which is a critical aspect of safety on the road. I am not putting you in a car with a broken leg – I am putting you in a capable car.

All things being equal, let’s talk of driving skills. In most cases, when we talk with drivers in India from an older generation, we find their driving skills are so-so. For e.g. they are still driven by the notion that they should floor the pedal before turning the key. We need to think as to how we can collectively elevate the level of driving skills and maintain it. Sure, the infrastructure and traffic management are very important aspects, but it’s also to do with driving skills. With all due respect we have just 1 to 1.5 percent of the market share, so I may not make a massive difference by myself, but I understand that I have all the responsibility.

One thing we are looking at right now, and we have not been able figure out how to do it in India, is what we are doing in South Africa. We are putting the driving training equipment in the showrooms. We can offer you to go through the driving programme. Two thirds of this training is through the simulators, and one third through the car for half the price of the driving license. So if you go through Datsun’s training, and if you get the driving license and you come back and buy the car we will give you back the money you paid for the training programme.

So if you decide to buy a Datsun product, you get your driving license for free. Even if you don’t buy a Datsun product, you still get your license for half the price. Which is my way of saying, I am a private company, I am not non profit, but I have a role to play.

Now, to answer your specific question on ABS, let me explain that ABS by itself reduces the distortion of braking distance, and does not necessarily improve the braking distance. So to me, to be very honest, when I look at the current road conditions in India, and knowing that ABS doesn’t reduce the braking distance and that the driving speeds are very low, I’m not sold on the necessity of ABS. Sometime down the road, I am very interested in safety features that are broader, but today quite expensive – which have trajectory control. If you really want to address pre-accidents, I’m not so sure if ABS will solve the problem in Indian conditions of bad roads and low average speed. But it’s quite likely that finding solutions on trajectory control would be interesting – it can be called ESP or VDC, but it’s extremely expensive today. Looking forward, I will love to have a solution, I don’t have it today.

Datsun cars for South Africa have a different specification with wider tyres as the road conditions are better and speeds are higher in that market. So will the cars in that market have an ABS?

Today, no. Today we have driver Airbags in India and we don’t have ABS, and it’s the same in South Africa. As I mentioned, today, I am not convinced with the value vs. Cost proposition of ABS. Again, I am nowhere saying that that the passive safety of the car or the dynamic safety of the car is not important. But I want to say that my goal as car developer is to address a very particular type of customer and try and provide something that makes sense. First thing that we want to do is to provide a sound car – which has good comfort, good stability, good driveability, great visibility, good braking and good grip.

Apart from the four markets you are in right now, which other markets are you looking at keenly, and can you share the timelines with us for an introduction of the brand there.

While we are officially present only in India, South Africa, Russia and Indonesia, I suspect you will find our cars in Ukraine. And I am sure you will find our cars in Kazakhstan today. Where are the next markets? Well, there are easy ones and then there are the long term markets. The easy ones are the neighbouring countries of the countries we are present it. Kazakhstan and Ukraine in Russia, Botswana and Mozambique in South Africa, for India it’s Nepal and Sri Lanka, while a decision is likely to be taken soon for Bangladesh, Bhutan and Pakistan. For Indonesia, Vietnam is a key market.

In the long term, we are looking at Latin America / Central America, along with Africa.

So based on this what are your projections for growth?

By 2020, the global car market will grow to a 100 million units annually. Based on the markets we will be present in then, my vision is to address the total market of 15-20 million cars. And we plan to carve out a market share of 6-7% of that number.  Of course we are talking long term here.

What is the differentiated sales and service strategy to keep the customer happy and make him come back to the brand?

Well we have ensured that the Cost of Ownership for Datsun cars will be the best in the country. So the purchase price, fuel economy, insurance, resale will collectively bring the total Cost of Ownership to a very low figure for Datsun cars. We are giving a tailored total package to the customer, with low rate of maintenance and long service intervals.

Another important thing is transparency. We have put the price of the cars on the walls in our showrooms. We absolutely don’t want any games, or any suspicion of games, for a customer who is going to a car showroom for the first time. In addition we have a long list of accessories for the customer to choose from, about 50-70 accessories at prices which are competitive with the aftermarket. On top of that we finance those accessories. Obviously, when you buy a first car it becomes a part of the family. You don’t want to feel that you have overpaid for something.

We want to take the anxiety out of the equation for the first time car buyer. Sometimes the car industry makes buying a car a lot of anxiety. We want to take that feeling out of the experience.

The trend of AMT is catching up in India. What’ your take on AMT?

The robotised manual transmission is of a lot of interest for me. It has its advantages in terms of fuel economy, durability, cost and serviceability in the Indian context. I am ready to discuss this, and I am really interested in the subject. At Datsun, we are somewhat convinced but we really want to understand and hear from you.

The sensitivity of a customer for a variety of automatic technologies is different in different countries – for e.g. Japan is a predominantly CVT market, Europe is mostly Dual clutch, America is still primarily the conventional automatic market. So is India going to be an AMT market or is it just a transition?

In my opinion, the market for AMTs will remain as a minor market 10-15% percent of the market in the segment (sub 6 lakh).

Can you share with us your plans for new models in India?

We promised three cars in three years. You saw one in 2014, the Datsun GO, another one in 2015, the Go plus and in 2016 you will see another one at the Auto Expo

What’s your take on the crossover segment?

To me, worldwide, the border between fashion identity, family life, personal life, outdoors and professional life is becoming less clear. People are looking for interests that can be part of your active life. In that context, I think that the sedan days are over and the crossover days are here. Why? Because you can do more with a crossover. Now you can do a crossover with a broad set of fenders, roof rails, or you can actually do a car that provides real additional benefits like load carrying capability, higher ground clearance and better visibility. If you look at the Indian market it’s a valid solution. I think that’s a trend and it will fit clearly in the Indian scheme, and it’s something that Datsun will also go the direction of. To answer your question, yes, lifestyle is an uptrend and I think it will replace the sedan.

Do let us know your views on the interview via the comments section below or through one of the social channels. 

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