Bata, India’s best loved and biggest shoe brand since the 1930s, has been busy dusting its fuddy-duddy image in recent times under Group Managing Director Rajeev Gopalakrishnan, who has been at the helm since 2011. It has been working hard to win customers, particularly among the trendy youth, with its fashionable yet affordable new lines. Bata is also in the process of relaunching two of its most iconic sub-brands from the 1980s and 90s, targeted at the youth — Power and North Star. Gopalakrishnan spoke to MW about this and his other plans for the company in a recent interview.
You have been the Managing Director of Bata India for nearly four years now. How has the company changed since you took over?
I joined Bata India in 1990 and have been associated with the organisation ever since. I became the Managing Director in February 2011, and have endeavoured to keep the company on a consistent growth trajectory. My vision has been to make Bata the most admired name in the branded footwear and accessories industry in the country. Besides focussing on retail operations and re-engineering business processes, my key focus has been to diversify product offerings as well as customer relationships.
Bata’s roots as a pioneer in the organised shoe business in India go back to the time when footwear was looked upon more as a utility than fashion. But like in other markets worldwide, with the middle class in India prospering, they have started looking upon shoes as a fashion accessory. How does this fit into the new Bata strategy?
The effort has been to keep Bata a constantly evolving brand. The sensibilities of the Indian consumer have evolved rapidly over the last five years. In a market that is slowly saturating with fantastic global and local brands, consumers are more aware of things around them. To meet their growing demands, Bata has expanded its product portfolio to offer its customers the best, most stylish footwear, along with an eclectic mix of accessories, ranging from bags, belts and sunglasses to scarves, socks and mobile wallets. The plan is to further expand the business in times to come. The Buying and Merchandising team at Bata is a group of stylish, trendy and up-to-date employees. A 360-degree trend forecast is done before placing orders. The team is regularly sent for fashion weeks and global conferences to get an in depth understanding of trends.
Your retail network of 1,400 stores and massive brand recognition would be the envy of any brand anywhere in the world. Do you think Bata India has leveraged these two fundamental strengths to the fullest extent possible, or does more need to be done?
It is a matter of great pride to be recognised worldwide and within India as the best footwear brand in the country. Every award and acknowledgment gives us the motivation to perform better and live up to the expectations of our stakeholders. Bata India has great brand recall. While our retail network and recognition are our biggest strengths, they are, at the same time, also our goals and objectives. We always continue to explore, invent and add to our product portfolio with respect to shoes and accessories. We keep introducing new technologies and categories to the existing catalogue to offer our consumers the best that’s available in the market. Our biggest victory is to retain our old customers and invite the newer and younger generation to our stores. We collectively work towards it with the help of marketing, operations, supply chain and the newly introduced Loyalty Club.
You are in the process of revamping and re-launching both Power and North Star, two sub-brands which were probably a bit too ahead of their time when launched originally. Why did these brands lose significance after their initial popularity? What is your strategy to make sure that they are a success this time?
Power and North Star never lost their eminence. We were the only players in the sportswear category in the country a few decades back. However, with time, many players entered the market, thus giving consumers more options in the category. North Star has always had a youth connect. Its positioning as an iconic jogger style has worked very well for Bata and will remain the same. The revamp will essentially include introducing new styles to meet the growing demands of consumers with a growing level of awareness. The key focus of the revamp for North Star is contemporary interpretations of existing styles — fashionable styles that are younger and more vibrant. Power has been a legendary brand for Bata since 1971 and has been the choice of consumers worldwide, who demand uncompromising quality and comfort. Its positioning as a sports brand will continue, since we are confident of achieving market leadership in the sportswear category with the new, colourful, trendy and stylish Power collection. It will be a mid-segment running brand in the country. The new Power collection will be an eclectic mix of sportswear collections, including running, football, tennis, cross-training and cricket shoes. The new format will also see the addition of an apparel range to the catalogue, with T-shirts, tracksuits and accessories like sippers etc. The range will be durable, affordable, trendy and high in quality. Both the brands are amongst the oldest and most trusted from Bata’s brand portfolio and we know they can be market leaders for us.
North Star, at one point, was into apparel as well. Is this part of your new strategy?
We will explore the addition of a sportswear apparel range into the Power category. However, there are no plans to introduce the same with North Star.
You are part of the world’s largest shoemaking company. In terms of original design and technology, how much is done in India, and how much of it comes from your parent organisation?
Much of our production and designing is done in India. Our design team forms the core of the business, as they are the masterminds behind every shoe that Bata manufactures. We have also lately conceptualised and opened a Bata design and development centre to bring about new styles and be trendsetters in the footwear market. Design forms a vital part in the construction of a product as it is the core feature that catches the eye of a consumer. A lot of research and forecasting is done by the design team before presenting the paper collection, highlighting the key trends and styles for the season. The team makes sure to integrate the current market trends with our customers’ preferences.
Do all the new designs that are launched by Bata in Europe and America get launched in India as well?
Trends are different in different countries. An Indian footwear consumer will have different requirements and tastes than a European or American consumer. Fashion sensibility, design and colour preferences, weather, geography etc are also deciding factors in which product gets released in which market. In India, we make products best suited to the needs of our customers by specialised manufacturing. The same is done by customising the styles, trends and materials followed globally. While the catalogue may not be completely different, the majority of products are made looking at the demand of each country.
You have been selling online much before the e-commerce boom in India. How has online selling worked out for Bata vis-à-vis your retail store network?
The key to successful e-commerce is a strong product portfolio, good presentation, speedy delivery and ease of payment. At Bata, we are conscious of these aspects and have worked to ensure that our e-commerce website offers the customer the highest quality on all these counts. Also, we will soon move into a customised, exclusive catalogue for the website. The contribution of online sales has been decent so far. We have just launched the mobile application for the Bata website, which will make the shopping experience even more comfortable for our users.
You also sell Bata shoes through third party online retailers like Amazon, Flipkart and Jabong. Has this affected sales from your own website?
No, our associations with online retailers haven’t affected sales on our website. Rather, they have helped reach out to millions of additional users.
There is feeling among brick- and-mortar retailers that e-commerce will kill them in the long run, especially in large cities. But you are in the process of revamping your retail stores to make them look more appealing. What is your take on this challenge?
A percentage of consumers always enjoy the rich experience of touching and feeling the product before making the final purchase. Alongside revamping our stores, we are also creating an omni-channel presence in the country by partnering with online retailers and building our own website and mobile application.
Where would you like to see Bata India, five years from now?
Five years down the line, I would like Bata India to have the best team in South Asia at manufacturing, retail and store levels. We are working towards building the best customer service team in the industry. From a product perspective, we will be achieving product enhancement in the outdoor category alongside the Ballerina, Comfort and Sportswear categories. A lot of focus will be put on modernising the existing Bata manufacturing factories in the country to produce the best quality footwear. I would also like to see Bata stores reach many more towns in the next five years.