The battle of agility: Automotive branding in the modern age

They were the icons of their times and everyone wanted to own one.

They were preferred by the military and the elite—only dreamt of by commoners.

They belonged to the golden age of British motoring and began their brand battle against one another in the late 1950s in India.

RE_Vir Nakai
Image courtesy of Flickr user Vir Nakai.

Their aficionados still have enormous respect for the brands and the experiences they provide.

And yet, Royal Enfield emerged triumphant and produces motorcycles even today, while the Ambassador, a car produced by Hindustan Motors, lost the brand battle and was eventually retired.

Image courtesy of Flickr user John Hoey.

As participants in a race to resonate with modern consumers, why did one brand succeed while the other failed?

Consumers expect agility

Today, customers know what they want. Information is shared in a spilt second with a single click or a tap. Some brands have leveraged this drastic shift in communication to help them thrive, while others have tried to do so, but to no avail.

Landor has been keeping tabs on this trend by talking to millennials and analyzing businesses to understand which brand actions result in business gains. As noted in our Global Agile Brand Study, we found that the most successful companies are those that take advantage of the “agility paradox,” balancing multiple seemingly contradictory behaviors to fulfill complex consumer expectations. These brands are able to clearly define and be true to their purpose, while at the same time look for ways to innovate and reinvent themselves. There are six key behaviors that agile brands must manage: being principled, adaptive, global, open, multichannel, and responsible.1

As we think about brand agility, let’s consider the example of Royal Enfield versus the Ambassador. The six behaviors of agile brands highlight why Royal Enfield survived the test of time while the Ambassador disappeared from the streets of India and was ultimately left behind.

India Street_Ryan
Image courtesy of Flickr user Ryan.


A principled brand stands for something that its customers can relate to, offering a reason for consumers to buy that particular brand.

Royal Enfield took advantage of this: It created an identity around passion for riding and adventure. The brand stays true to this core belief and efficiently communicates its message across consumer touchpoints. Everything the brand says or does links back to its identity and belief system.

The Ambassador, meanwhile, couldn’t find its sense of self. As one of only a few cars being manufactured in India until the 1980s, Indians used to feel a sense of pride from owning an Ambassador.2 But the brand couldn’t translate this legacy forward in a competitive modern market, leading to its eventual demise.

Royal Enfield_Vincent Paul
Image courtesy of Flickr user Vincent Paul.


Change is the only constant, and to survive in today’s world brands need to adapt to current times.

Knowing that efficiency and technology were imperative for its success, Royal Enfield adapted its manufacturing plant to be completely automated. As a nod to its history, it preserved one unique product feature: continuing to hand-draw the stripes on the fuel tank of the Royal Enfield Bullet. By implementing state-of-the-art technology, Royal Enfield was able to create innovative bike designs that meet modern customer demands.

RE Tank_Abhimanyu
Image courtesy of Flickr user Abhimanyu.

From the days of the Landmaster in the 1950s to those of the Encore in 2013, Hindustan Motors, the maker of the Ambassador, has made only slight changes to its car designs, regardless of model. Its unsuccessful attempt to market a transport vehicle called the Trekker reinforces the reasons for the Ambassador’s failure—the company’s lack of adaptation prevented both cars from being relevant to consumers, irrespective of the brand’s strong cultural ties to India’s history.


A brand does not have to expand to all corners of the world to be global, but it can take inspiration from the world to help it establish strength and relevancy.

Royal Enfield was brought to India from the United Kingdom to serve the needs of the Indian military. It came to believe that it would be able to understand its customers only by getting close to them, so it set up a wide network of stores and dealerships in towns and cities across India and around the world.

Ambassador Taxi_2_Paul Hamilton
Image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Hamilton.

The Ambassador, meanwhile, was based on the Morris Oxford. Although Hindustan Motors ceased its production in May 2014, the Ambassador was truly an Indian car with a global influence at its pinnacle in the 1970s. In 2013, Top Gear even ranked the Ambassador the best taxi in the world.3 However, relying on its prior status as a global icon could not protect it. As the world became a more interconnected place and new models such as SUVs gained prominence in India, Hindustan Motors saw sales for the Ambassador plummet from 24,000 cars per year in the 1980s to less than 6,000 per year in the 2000s.4 The Ambassador’s lack of distinction and decreased top-of-mind awareness for consumers made its retirement inevitable.


Collaboration and co-creation is the norm in today’s world. Companies no longer create and control brands in isolation—customers themselves are brand advocates who weigh in and offer advice on brands, products, and ideas for companies.

Royal Enfield pushed forward with its brand belief of catering to passionate riders and adventure seekers by organizing meets and rides at different locations across India. It also organizes Rider Mania, an annual bike festival that attracts Royal Enfield riders the world over. Its website gives the brand’s cult followers a platform of their own where they can create communities and meet people with similar interests.

Rider Mania_Jaskirat Singh Bawa
Image courtesy of Flickr user Jaskirat Singh Bawa.

The Ambassador was an old-school company that focused on creating products, not building a brand. Its lack of openness prevented it from adapting and did not allow it to establish a strong, lasting connection with consumers.


Customers today have the power to make or break a brand. Brands need to be where their customers are, in the right places at the right times.

From factory tours and brand stores to social media, fan communities, and major events, Royal Enfield believes that every channel provides an opportunity to tell its story. Consumers are invited to share brand experiences, discuss problems and solutions, and provide feedback. All Royal Enfield’s endeavors seamlessly route back to its brand promise—the passion for riding and adventure—delivering it across numerous platforms. These activities form only a small percentage of Royal Enfield’s sales, but they go a long way in building esteem and respect for the brand.

With the Ambassador, attempts at a multichannel approach were abandoned long ago. During its heyday, the Ambassador succeeded in establishing a strong network of dealerships across the country, allowing consumers to access the brand in many locations. Over time the brand fell behind, however. It did not look to interact with customers through new channels, thereby limiting its growth. Ambassador enthusiasts have kept the spirit of the car alive through social media, but it unfortunately amounts to too little too late.

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For modern consumers, brands have to focus on more than just monetary gains for their company. Giving back to the community, mitigating environmental impact, and conducting business in a responsible manner have all become elements that consumers consider before making purchase decisions.

Royal Enfield was proud to announce that it was the first to comply with mandatory government regulations for emission control. Its manufacturing plant has also received certifications for its product quality and health and safety measures.5

Interestingly, Hindustan Motors also performs well in this category. It introduced cars that run off compressed natural gas, offering consumers an ecofriendly alternate to petrol and diesel cars. The Ambassador was also known to be a fuel-efficient, long-lasting automobile that rarely needed repairs. Unfortunately for the brand, maintaining just one agile behavior wasn’t enough—agile brands must strive to manage multiple agile attributes in order to succeed.

India Traffic_Y'amal
Image courtesy of Flickr user Y’amal.

Although Royal Enfield has proven to be an agile brand, its story has not always been an easy one. Turmoil, trial, and triumph are part and parcel for any brand that has existed a long time. From financial losses and faulty motorbikes to a dwindling fan base, Royal Enfield has had to create new strategies to help it thrive. It has succeeded because it understands its brand and its customers’ changing needs, using agile behaviors to continually push the brand forward.

Today’s marketplace is more competitive than ever before. It is a battleground, with brands constantly struggling to make their mark in consumers’ minds. To be victorious, brands must be armed with the right artillery, requiring a change in mindset for brand managers. Victorious brands need to continuously innovate and evolve while being true to what they stand for. This is the core of the agility paradox and what ultimately decides if brands thrive or fail. As the Ambassador demonstrated, brands that are unprepared to face the onslaught of change will be eliminated in time.

  1.  “The Agility Paradox,” Landor, 4 November 2015.
  2.  40 years ago…And now: From 32,000 cars a year to 2.5 million,” Business Standard, 25 January 2015.
  3.  “Ambassador ranked the best taxi in the world by Top Gear,” The Times of India, 21 July 2013.
  4.  Hindustan Motors suspends production of iconic Ambassador car,” The Economic Times, 25 May 2015.
  5.  “Royal Enfield History,” Ride Now Euro, 2016.

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