The rains are here. Last week, I looked out of my window in Mumbai and saw dense monsoon clouds moving in from the Arabian Sea. Almost immediately, I opened a storage cupboard and brought out one of my most trusted belongings – my old umbrella. This one is large, green in colour, has a nice curved wooden handle. It has protected me well from sudden showers and gusts of wind. It is an umbrella that I am very possessive about.
Many years ago, as a school student in Kollam, Kerala, one of my favourite pastimes, as I waited for my school bus, was to count the number of people carrying umbrellas on the road. I discovered that virtually everyone in that backwater town carried umbrellas, every month of the year – and not only during the monsoons. There were all kinds of umbrellas – large black ones with big handles which were clearly macho male, medium-sized ones with plastic handles which were of neutral gender, and small foldable coloured umbrellas which I always thought were somewhat feminine in character. I often wondered whether one could separate a Keralite and his or her umbrella. I concluded, after many months of observation, that one could not.
No wonder some of the biggest umbrella brands of India belong to Kerala. Popy’s and John, which claim to sell lakhs of umbrellas each year, are household names in God’s own country, and are now also widely available nationwide. Other well known brands of umbrellas in India, from which you can choose one for this rainy season, include Stag, Avon and Sun. And then, of course, there are the ubiquitous Chinese umbrellas - small, dainty and flimsy - that are now sold at prices lower than a mug of beer.
Most of us buy an umbrella merely to shield ourselves from the rain, and after the rains are gone, the umbrella too goes away from our minds. We don’t think about all the other needs that this wonderful accessory can serve. But, in fact, the umbrella serves many consumer needs, and, with a marketer’s imagination, can fulfil many more. Read on to explore several human needs that an umbrella can cater to – some of these are commonplace, others may sound rather far-fetched, but all these “umbrella needs” exist.
Come rain or shine Protection from rain: This is, of course, the most common need served by the umbrella, so we will speak no more about it here. Suffice it to say that only the most foolhardy people leave their homes without an umbrella, in the rainy season.
Protection from sunshine: In many regions, umbrellas are also specifically used to protect yourself from the sun, and, in many cases, to ensure that fair skin does not get darkened by exposure to the sun. Whenever I have visited China, I have been amazed to see the number of women who carry umbrellas there all the time, presumably for these reasons. Seen in this context, umbrellas serve the same needs as sunscreen lotions and fairness creams combined.
Protection from ultra-violet rays: As people get increasingly conscious about environmental factors, they seek everyday solutions to some of these hazards. One such hazard is ultra-violet rays, which are harmful, but which now constantly enter our atmosphere because of unfortunate factors such as the depletion of the ozone layer. Umbrellas have promptly risen to this occasion. Brands such as Popys and John’s have launched umbrellas which have in-built UV protection, and which cut out 100 per cent of all rays of light.
Walking stick: A large umbrella serves the need that some of us have for a fairly good, inexpensive walking stick. I can say from personal experience that it serves as a beautiful walking stick, even if it does not have all the functional properties associated with a cane stick that can assist with specific walking problems. When used well, an umbrella in your hand can stop you from stumbling on a wet road.
Self-defence weapon: An umbrella with a sharp, pointed metal tip at its base makes for a good, basic weapon for use in many types of self-defence. For some of us who are scared of stray dogs and other beasts that roam our streets, it can serve the need of a nice, first port of temporary defence, until reinforcements arrive to help. I have even read of women who have stabbed sundry pickpockets with their umbrellas, leading to the thief quickly running away.
Fashion accessory Like a handbag or a wrist watch, an umbrella can be an excellent fashion accessory. Umbrellas can carry snazzy designs and bright colours. Many people may love carrying umbrellas that feature images of Angelina Jolie or Virat Kohli. We could soon have umbrellas printed with famous Picasso or Ravi Varma paintings. The mind boggles at the vast possibilities in this space. Fashion accessories are always a need, particularly amongst today’s consumers. I can see an enthusiastic market developing here.
Luxury and status: For women who carry Louis Vuitton handbags or wear Gucci shoes, these luxury brands are markers of status. I think many of these consumers would surely also welcome luxury umbrellas, to serve the same status need – these could be handcrafted with the finest material, and shaped by the very same designers who create these excellent handbags and shoes.
The large surface area of the umbrella provides adequate scope for interesting luxury branding, which can be as subtle as watermarks, or as loud as bold logos. The shape of the umbrella handle offers interesting branding possibilities too.
Technology device: Recently, a couple of major Indian brands have announced umbrellas that come equipped with a Bluetooth attachment. Priced at around ₹2,000 per piece, these “technology” umbrellas ensure that you do not have to take out your mobile phone from your pocket or handbag, if you wish to talk in the midst of the pouring rain, where the phone may get wet and spoilt.
This is a digital new-age consumer need that the age-old umbrella can serve. Statement of ideology: Many of us like to put out our ideologies on our T-shirts or caps, which regularly feature slogans such as “Make peace, not war” or “I love Goa”. We believe these expressions make a statement, and often they do. Now, umbrellas can serve this ideological need too, and I can see similar slogans being printed on the umbrellas that we carry with us. Online portals can offer customisation options in this space, providing us umbrellas printed with the exact mission statements that we desire.
Brand promotion: For consumer brands, umbrellas serve the need of one more powerful promotional vehicle. Many FMCG brands already provide their customers branded umbrellas, which prominently carry the colour, logo or picture of their brands. These are often offered as promotional schemes to trade and consumers, just prior to the onset of the monsoon season. In fact, given the various needs discussed in this article, they can be offered to customers throughout the year.
Home decor, golf course and beach: Umbrellas can also serve the need of decoration pieces at home. A colourful umbrella, painted with a pleasing or intriguing pattern, can be simply hung upside down from the ceiling, and in this position it can surprisingly liven up the living room. Then, of course, there are also golf umbrellas and beach umbrellas, favourites with many of us.
All the needs discussed in this article may not be relevant to all consumers, because different consumer segments have varying sets of needs. Yet what this exploration shows us is that every category can fulfil multiple existing, emerging and latent human needs. As marketers, our job is to think up these needs and leverage them to create strong consumer demand for our products.
Darling, can we go walking out in the rain this evening inside our nice romantic purple umbrella, big enough to hold hands in?
Harish Bhat is Member, Group Executive Council, Tata Sons. He is also author of ‘Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless institution”. These are his personal views. The author acknowledges valuable inputs from Sria Majumdar and Aishwarya Ramakrishnan in the writing of this article. firstname.lastname@example.org