Meet the EV upstart from Chhattisgarh playing to enter the big boys' club
Meet the EV upstart from Chhattisgarh playing to enter the big boys' club
An EV upstart from Chhattisgarh is trying to break into the big boys' club by positioning electric two-wheelers as a 'family scooter'. Can the challenger brand Eblu give an electrifying fight to biggies like Ola, Ather, TVS and Bajaj as EVs enter an exciting phase in 2024?
Rajiv is based out of Delhi-NCR and writes stories on startups, corporates, entrepreneurs of all kinds, and yes, marketing and advertising world. His ‘historic feats’ include graduation in history from Hansraj College, master's in medieval Indian history from Delhi University, and PG diploma in journalism from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Another forgettable achievement was spending over a decade at The Economic Times as his maiden job. For the first seven years, he learnt the craft on the desk, and the remaining years were spent unlearning and writing for Brand Equity and ET Magazine. What keeps him going, and alive, apart from stories is the heavenly music of immortal legend RD Burman.
Mr Hyder Khan, CEO, Godawari Electric Motors
Image: Rachit Chimnani for Forbes India
Raipur, Chhattisgarh. Hyder Khan was well aware of the flip side. The auto veteran—he spent close to 25 years across multiple companies such as Bajaj Auto, Piaggio, Mahindra Rise, Force Motors and Kinetic Green Energy—was heavily stacked against intimidating odds. The biggest one was that of an unknown brand. “Why should consumers trust a little-known brand either in electric vehicles (EVs) or internal combustion engine (ICE)?” was still the big unanswered question for Khan when he was in the midst of a hectic EV two-wheeler rollout for Godawari Electric Motors in September last year. “Don’t worry, there will be buyers,” was what he used to constantly remind himself and tell the sceptics who based their gloomy prediction on conventional wisdom of buyers staying away from lesser-known brands. “We were taking a huge leap of faith,” he recounts.
Back in 2019, Khan was taking a big punt on himself. All his life, the auto professional mastered his craft from Pune and Mumbai. Now, in 2019, he got an offer from Godawari Electric Motors in Chhattisgarh to relocate to Raipur and take care of the EV vertical. The maths didn’t make sense for two reasons. First, the promoters of Godawari Electric Motors were a Raipur-based industrial conglomerate who had been in the business of mining, iron, steel and power generation since 1999. The clout of the promoters, who have Godawari Power and Ispat as one of the listed entities in their stable, was comforting but the fact that the industrial house didn’t have any track record in auto operations and manufacturing was a red herring.
Second, the initial idea of Godawari Electric was not to make vehicles but to roll out an EV leasing business model which included buying EV three-wheelers, leasing it out on daily rent and creating self-employment opportunities. After a few months of success—the three-wheelers could be spotted in Delhi-NCR, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh—the pandemic disrupted the business model, and the leasing business was shuttered. Now in 2023, Godawari decided to take a plunge in the business of manufacturing EVs by rolling out the mother brand Eblu. It started with e-auto and e-cycle in March, and in September was getting ready to roll out EV two-wheeler scooter Feo.
The task was not easy. Godawari was making a switch from e-rickshaws to a full-stack EV player by rolling out scooters and had plans to get into e-loaders as well. The two-wheeler part, though, was the trickiest one. Five things compounded the problem. First, there was an unknown brand in Eblu. Second, Godawari was one of the last movers in the cluttered EV space, which already had Ola taking pole position, followed closely by TVS, Ather and Bajaj. Then there were others at the bottom rung of the pecking order such as Okinawa, Okaya, Kinetic Green, and Greaves. Third, Eblu was not playing a price war. With scooters carrying a price tag of Rs 1 lakh—Rs 99,999 to be precise—the upstart and the challenger brand was in no mood to play to the gallery. Fourth, constricted EV financing options were a big impediment in EV ownership. And lastly, it was tough to make auto dealers see value in retailing EVs. “We were one of the last ones to get into the game,” says Khan, who roped in top guns from the auto industry, beefed up the R&D department and set up a manufacturing facility that was spread over 1 lakh sq ft in Raipur.
Being a last mover was definitely not a disadvantage. Khan had a pulse of the industry. Look at the numbers, he points out, notched by Bajaj and TVS, which entered the EV market in January 2020, and ended 2023 as second and fourth biggest, respectively. While in FY21 and FY22, Bajaj reportedly sold 1,375 and 8,187 units, respectively, TVS had retail sales of 1,061 and 10,773, respectively. “EVs take time, but if you have got the right ingredients, you will end up building a solid story,” says Khan.
Khan, meanwhile, started hand-picking the right ingredients for Godawari’s EV gambit. The first element was right pricing. “It shouldn’t be too steep or too cheap,” says Khan, who wanted to match the price with the best in the industry. A high-quality product, he underlines, must have the right price. The second element was positioning. With most of the rivals targeting GenZ and Millennials, Godawari decided to take a ‘family ride’. Eblu was pitched as a ‘family scooter’, seasoned actor Neena Gupta was roped in as the face of the brand, and comfort and ease of the ride were highlighted as differentiators.
The third element was about identifying the right kind of markets. Though Eblu was based out of Raipur, Khan decided to make a splash across the top metros. The idea was simple. The brand awareness and pull, he underlines, always percolates down from the top. Making the right kind of noise in the cities will create ripples which can be felt in the next tier towns. The last element revolved around the crucial branding, advertising and marketing. Khan picked up television, and decided to roll out the campaign during the India-Pakistan cricket encounter in the recent World Cup. “High-decibel advertising has to be seen at the biggest sporting event of the year,” he says.
Three months into the launch, the gambit seems to be paying off. Eblu, claims Khan, is on track to cross the sales mark of 2,000 units by March 2024. The brand, Khan maintains, has managed to attract enough interest among retailers and by March the numbers are expected to rise from 55 to 100. “We spent around Rs 6 crore in advertising during the cricket World Cup,” says Khan, adding that the company has got enough firepower to invest in operations as well as take care of advertising and marketing. The EV industry, he lets on, is mirroring the growth trajectory of smartphones which have not only become better in quality but also extremely affordable. “Presence and acceptance of the brand in top cities will have a cascading effect across the country,” he says, justifying the retail move to stay confined to the top cities in the early phase of the rollout. In spite of an encouraging rollout, Eblu will have to navigate a fair share of challenges over the next few quarters. The first one lies in dealing with a life without subsidy, which might soon be withdrawn by the government. “Though consumers will feel the pinch of Rs 20,000-25,000 whenever the subsidy ends, EV makers can do product and design engineering to eventually bring down the cost,” reckons Khan. The biggest challenge for Eblu, though, would be to maintain the intensity of advertising and marketing. “It’s a new brand, has to be visible round the year, and can’t afford to be lax,” reckons Ashita Aggarwal, professor of marketing at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. Having taken a pan-India approach in terms of visibility, she underlines, Eblu will have to ensure that it seeds the market with sufficient supply. The problem with a new brand, underlines the marketing expert, is that it lacks customer stickiness. So if the brand is not available, the buyers will quickly switch. “Striking a delicate balance between generating demand and ensuring supply will be a tough act,” she adds.
Khan, for his part, maintains that Eblu is well equipped to handle the potential challenges. “It’s still early days for the brand but we have made the right move,” he says. The EV player from Raipur, he underlines, is ready to play a long game. “The headroom for growth is huge, and Eblu is set for an electrifying ride,” he signs off.