When a friend called and asked me whether I would like to review a book on Royal Enfield, or “RE” as it is referred to amongst its enthusiasts, my interest was piqued. I have had a ringside seat to the brand for almost two decades by virtue of being closely engaged to the brand and riding as well as to several of its protagonists. What could possibly be left to write about, I wondered, given that the brand had literally been written about ad nauseum over the years. Every bit of “content” had been squeezed from it by a legion of journalists, bloggers, copywriters, business analysts and story tellers. So what now? Is it possible that the writer had managed to go beyond the obvious and ferret out hidden secrets of the brand and its mind boggling success over the years? Had he managed to touch its soul and speak to its heart? Perhaps even star gaze into the future?
Unfortunately, by the time I turned over the last page of the book, my hopes were somewhat tempered. It becomes clear fairly quickly that the book sticks to a reporting format, rather than going deeper into insights and analysis. The content is largely based on interviews with company insiders and thereby limited by their field of vision. Not much attempt has been made to understand the emotional and sociological constructs of what represents a biker and how that reflects upon the brand in turn. It’s informative and mildly interesting, without being deeply engaging or thought provoking.
The first part is an averagely engaging company infomercial with a documentary type feel to it. Readers unfamiliar with the RE story would find the trivia interesting, but others would end up skimming through it. Things then start to get interesting towards the second half. Not because it dives deeper into the brand building world, but because things start to go wrong in paradise. The book switches to juicy internal gossip backed by surprising straight talk from company insiders, some of whom still work for the company. There are moments of refreshing clarity and candor and one can see the writers own understanding maturing as he speaks to more people and spends more time with the brand.
I find myself wishing he had persevered a little more in building that relationship with the brand. One wonders if he would realize at some stage that there was one big missing piece from the entire puzzle. The external community of riders, mechanics and enthusiasts who in many ways made RE what it is today. And perhaps therein lies the untold story? At some stage RE obviously became much more than just a consumer brand. It started to represent a way of life, a certain personality, a way to be and a way to engage with the rest of the world. The company and its advertising gurus admittedly spotted this possibility early and gave it plenty of nudges in the right direction. But the real establishment of this brand as a lifestyle happened organically, outside of the company walls. It was driven by its users and predominantly by the strong and close knit riding clubs that emerged at the same time due to a cocktail of cultural and economic shifts in urban India. These clubs defined, built and enforced what it meant to be RE and a RE rider. The company often just efficiently piggy backed. Many clubs bordered on being cults with their own gurus and groupies. Being part of the community meant not just being a rider, but following an unwritten code of ethics and behavior, subscribing to a set of shared beliefs as well as proselytizing to non-believers with almost religious fervor. All of this created a close knit, supportive and emotionally gratifying family which millions of Indian youth yearned to belong to. They were going through an identity crisis and looking to break free from the shackles of a predictable, monotonous Indian middle class life. In that sense the external communities impact was amplified several times over. And not just in terms of brand building. Some of them also contributed to product development and design of models that were later to emerge from the RE stable as indigenous developments. Many aspects were rumoured to be copied or ripped off from prototypes built by the community and never tacitly acknowledged. Juicy stories waiting to be picked. This is such an interesting, layered and important part of the narrative, that it almost seems inexcusable to have blanked it out from the larger story. It also answers the question that must inevitably occur to the author and to all readers. Why isn’t RE able to replicate its roaring success in other countries, using the same formula?
The community is the missing link that the book fails to find.
The book also presents the entry of Rudy and the following internal turbulence within the organization as one of the defining moments that upset the band wagon. But one also gets the sense that in many ways, Rudy was in the right place at the right time, and then in the wrong place at the wrong time. His impact on the brand seems frankly overstated. Maybe the real Achilles heel of the company was a far more fundamental relationship failure with its own stakeholders? Did the company get caught up in the dizzying momentum of the growth they were witnessing? Or perhaps some degree of hubris set in? For e.g. the writer mentions the popular Sturgis style event, “Rider Mania”, more than once in the book. But he does not seem to have figured out that at some stage, things got so bad that the company and the RE clubs would host separate Rider Mania events, with the company sometimes completely absent from the community event, or at best a grudging sponsor. Nor has much attention been paid to the changing competitive environment and how RE reacted to the same. Over time, other biking brands caught up with the idea of leveraging the “biking spirit”. Product gaps were narrowing and the RE clubs were no longer defending the brand fiercely, riding proudly through the countryside with flags fluttering and creating free content on social media that came straight from the heart. When the brands known weakness around quality issues kept getting amplified on social media, there was no longer a die hard set of influencers batting it back saying “it’s all part of the experience of being an RE owner and the rites of passage for belonging to the community” ….
Perhaps Rudy was someone who came from the FMCG world and did not understand what it meant for a brand to be like religion. But the book doesn’t ask the logical question that follows. What was rest of the organization and its leadership doing while all this was happening. Did no one notice that the “glue that binds” was coming unstuck? Or did no one care? Was there a corporate culture of using people and groups and dropping them when they were no longer useful? Even worse, did someone make the mistake of taking the Indian consumer and community base for granted as the brand readied itself for global aspirations? These are investigative questions that deserve to be asked.
The book could have been so much more complex, layered and engaging, if it had incorporated these aspects. But on its own, it is still an interesting slice of automotive history, captured in an easy reading fashion.
About the reviewer: Sandeep Menon is a Chevening Fellow from the London School of Economics, a board member of the specialized marketing school, MICA and a seasoned corporate leader. His alter ego rides motorcycles and works passionately for wildlife conservation. You can find him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandeepm/