Kerala Unfolds an Umbrella Revolution
The annual south-west monsoon hits the Kerala coast with unfailing regularity in the early days of June. And as the rain crashes down, the emerald green landscape is transformed into a kaleidoscope of colours, courtesy the absolutely swanky, hi-tech umbrellas that Keralites have come to adore. From the traditional black, curved handle umbrella to five-fold umbrellas with whistles, compass and water guns – the vibrant, thriving umbrella industry in Kerala has displayed a spirit of enterprise and innovation that could teach management gurus and brand experts a lesson or two.
From a Commodity to a Brand: The months preceding the arrival of monsoons see an advertising onslaught triggered by competing umbrella companies. The ads, as innovative as the umbrellas that are rolled out every year, are aimed at school going kids. Kerala’s umbrella industry had the marketing savvy to recognise that children are the key demand drivers. So successful has been this manoeuvre, that buying umbrellas before schools re-open in June has become a family tradition in most homes.
The high decibel advertising, exclusive showrooms and extensive market penetration has resulted in branding the commodity. Consumers no longer ask for an umbrella. They want Popy, Johns, Colombo, Stag, Lunar or one of the other major names in the market. There are nearly 10 popular brands and each of them has managed to carve a distinct identity in the intensely competitive market. While brands like Popy and Johns are noted for their innovations, others bank on durability. Ironically enough, low priced disposable umbrellas have also become an USP with brands talking about ‘one umbrella for one season’. Today, the Rs 150 crore Kerala market sells around 1.5 crore umbrellas a year, with the leading brands having more than 5000 retailers each.
Innovation – The Success Mantra: Umbrellas are no longer a utility product. In Kerala, an umbrella is a fashion statement, a hi-tech gadget, a walking stick, a toy and much more. This image transformation is the result of intense innovation undertaken by the industry.
The innovations are not whimsical but are done after careful consumer observation and studies. Most umbrella companies have segregated their market and studied their demographics carefully. For example, carrying an umbrella and scrambling onto a crowded KSRTC bus was a difficult feat for most women. Sensing the opportunity, umbrella manufacturers developed the autoclick umbrella, which made it easy for women to unfoldtheir umbrella before getting into a bus. Companies have also developed waterproof umbrellas with teflon coating which allows customers to store perpetually dry umbrellas in their bags and briefcases. And in a State where the sun shines fiercely after a downpour, the UV-shield umbrella has found a lot of takers.
The Kerala umbrella industry has also worked hard to remove the element of seasonality in the demand for their products. They have climbed the beauty bandwagon with the message that sun exposure can damage skin. Today, Kerala women rarely venture out without an umbrella. Umbrellas doubling up as walking sticks are popular among the older section of the population, irrespective of the arrival of the monsoons.
The Beginning: Alappuzha, famous for its placid backwaters, is the nerve centre of the umbrella industry in Kerala. The two big brands, Johns and Popy, plan their annual umbrella campaigns from their headquarters in the town’s Chungam area. Industry watchers agree that it is the competition between these two brands that was instrumental in unfolding the umbrella revolution in the state.
Despite the product innovations, the industry depends on raw materials from Taiwan and China. The imported tubes and cloth are assembled in factories in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The final product, with its local innovations and novelties, then hits the wide retailer network built up by the brands.
The industry is an example of Kerala’s entrepreneurial spirit. Given their ability to recharge the market annually with smart product innovations and marketing, it’s perpetually sunny days for the state’s umbrella manufacturers.