Monsoon Marketing

How an Indian umbrella maker survived low-cost competition.

Monsoon season in Mumbai, India, is three months of near nonstop rain. For 147 years, most Mumbaikars protected themselves with a Stag umbrella from venerable Ebrahim Currim & Sons. Like Ford's Model T, the basic Stag was sturdy, affordable, and of any color, as long as it was black.

By the end of the 20th century, though, the Stag was threatened by cheaper products from China. The cost of a typical umbrella dropped from about 100 rupees ($2.27) to 70 rupees ($1.59). Indians snapped up the imports, and old-timers mourned the demise of a great Indian brand.

But Stag didn't go away. It dropped prices, scrimped on quality, and, for the first time since the 1940s, began losing money. Finally, it came to its senses. "Quality had been our mainstay all along, and customer dissatisfaction pained us," says 46-year-old Aziz Currim, partner and a great-grandson of Ebrahim himself. The company abandoned the price war, vowing to improve quality. At a higher price, sales of the improved Stag umbrellas actually increased.

Then Currims started innovating. It had tried diversifying from the standard black model before, with limited success. But now, India was caught up in consumerist frenzy. Stag offered up its umbrellas as branding media--and makers of cell phones, automobiles, and alcoholic beverages all paid happily for the chance to slap logos where everyone would see them for three months a year. In monsoon season, "umbrellas became an obvious choice," says Sunil Lulla, executive vice president at Sony Entertainment Television.

Noting the new fashion consciousness of Indian men, the Currims relaunched designer umbrellas that had failed to catch on a generation before. This time, teenagers and young adults lapped up the funky designs and cool colors. Suddenly, the Currims' solution seemed simple: Identify customer types and their needs, and satisfy them with specialized, high-quality products.

So Stag launched umbrellas with a built-in high-power flashlight for those who walk unlit roads at night, and models with prerecorded tunes for music lovers. For women who walk secluded streets after dark, there's Stag's Bodyguard model, armed with glare lights, emergency blinkers, and an alarm. Aziz says customers pay up to a 100% premium for the new products.

"In hindsight, it looks like a great strategy. Actually, we were just trying to survive," he admits. The company says it has halted market-share losses and returned to profitability. And come the monsoon in June, the grand old black Stags still reappear on the streets of Mumbai--but now, priced 15% higher than the imports.

Data Dump


Price of Stag's biggest umbrella, 32 feet in diameter: 100,000 rupees ($2,274)

 

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