Saturday, 20 August 2016

Road safety gear, an untapped route

There is immense marketing opportunity in helmets and other protective accessories

There is little hope for India’s road infrastructure. Numerous discussions, debates and plans have emerged every year and yet the story of battered roads, potholes and lack of roads continues.
As per published statistics, Indian roads are death traps, with nearly 16 deaths every hour. And the crumbling infrastructure, combined with ever increasing vehicles and traffic collisions, makes any kind of journey on Indian roads a hazard. India is one of the countries at the bottom in terms of WHO’s Road Safety Report with 2 lakh-plus reported deaths and who knows how many not reported.
The fact that road conditions have a slim chance of improving in the next few years is a reality. The increasing population of vehicles is another certainty. Take the two-wheeler market in India. Around 16 million two-wheelers are estimated to have been sold during 2014-15 in India, adding to 15 million sold in 2013-14 and another 13.7 million during 2012-13. Two-wheelers continue to be the most popular vehicle category in India and include scooters, motorbikes and mopeds. And no surprises that amongst all vehicles two-wheelers account for the largest number of deaths and injuries.
Safety, a neglected opportunity

With road conditions not improving, the extent of paved surfaces staying the same and with two-wheelers piling up on the roads, one of the most under-leveraged categories in India is the entire two-wheeler safety category.
First, let us start with the good old helmet. In terms of market evolution one would expect the top two-wheeler manufacturers to actually branch out into branded helmets — a Bajaj helmet with a Bajaj scooter and a Hero helmet with a Hero motorbike. However, most of the popular brands are ones such as Studds, Vega and Steelbird. While being a critical part of a two-wheeler, mainline helmet brands do not have the same level of awareness and saliency as the two-wheeler brands or even some of the lubricant brands that have made a huge effort in establishing their brand and its benefits. Surprisingly, for a market potential of 14 million new vehicles and a huge number of second-hand two-wheeler sales, the extent of branding and marketing done by the current helmet brands is way below potential.
Then comes the category-wise evolution. First is a linkage to vehicle type. So, ideally, a helmet designed for a scooter should be different from one designed for a moped. And the helmets designed for motorbikes need to be differentiated on the basis of a basic mobike versus a powerful mobike versus a high-performance biking enthusiasts hog. While accessories including helmets are a huge contributor to the revenues of cult brands such as Harley Davidson and Ducati, there is also room for the mass manufacturers to link this protective gear to their core brands — which lies untapped today.

How about stylish helmets?

Another category evolution opportunity is gender-based. Many bikes, such as Kinetic Honda and TVS Scooty, target youngsters or young women who want a taste of freedom. Specially-designed safety helmets for these type of bikes and their users are another untapped opportunity.
Additionally, while there have been many public awareness campaigns on the safety aspect of helmets and even regulation making helmets mandatory in some cases, there has been little marketing and branding activity to make helmets desirable. Creating helmet designs, colours and styles that reflect the driver’s personality is yet another unexploited opportunity, not to forget helmet forms and styles to endure weather conditions, ranging from summer to heavy rains to winter and snow. Nobody has tried to move this category from a regulation-driven utility to an extension of one’s personality or something with flash value and attitude.
Besides the lack of development in helmets, a bigger issue is the lack of evolution of the entire two-wheeler personal safety equipment category itself. Take India’s favourite passion — the game of cricket. At one time there were only gloves and pads. Then came Sunil Gavaskar with his forearm guard and skull cap. Now players have guards for all sensitive body parts and more to face the 100 km and more per hour swing.
Meanwhile, the entire fast growing category of two-wheelers with millions of first-time users is saddled with just one piece of safety equipment — a helmet. This is where category evolution is seriously required. Imagine a jacket or even an inner vest that provides spine protection, one of the most vulnerable areas during any collision and the cause of so many disabilities, besides death. If well-designed, spine-protecting equipment can become a fashion statement for many riders.
Knees are another highly vulnerable area for two-wheeler riders. Knee-protection devices can range from basic pads to trousers to colourful wraparounds on the knees that can, again, become chic and trendy with colours , designs and customisation.
Now, one comes to the other critical form of urban transport that has had zero evolution in terms of safety measures. The humble, revered and much exported autorickshaw. I know of a dialysis patient whose driver did not turn up one morning. She took an auto to get to the hospital for her dialysis session. Thanks to lack of signals and urban planning, the auto driver tried to take a quick turn into the hospital gate to avoid a speeding car coming at him and the rickshaw overturned. The patient ended up injuring her hand on which the dialysis procedure is done and had to spend a week in hospital. While millions and more passengers prefer to use autos for their urban transportation needs in our traffic-choked cities, there is not a single passenger-safety instrument that has been created for safe travelling in autos.
When you get on a ride in an amusement park, especially on roller-coasters, they have a safety harness that is affixed to the seat and wraps around one’s shoulders as protection to prevent you from getting hurled around or falling out. The same concept can be adapted for autos so the three people sitting do not get hurled around when the auto tries to speed, do not get back problems when the auto navigates massive potholes and do not get badly injured and thrown out when an auto overturns.

Seat belts, the clincher

And finally we come to our good old hatchbacks, the staple of most Indians as a means of transport. As affordability, ambition and accessible credit drive the growth of cars, one of the biggest safety issues stands out. Unlike sophisticated, high-end Mercedes cars, the affordable hatchbacks do not come with air bags that self-activate in the event of a collision. So, the only safety mechanism that exists is the humble seat belt. And while steering wheels have evolved into power steering and brakes have become more sensitive, the seat belt continues to be archaic and perhaps the most difficult mechanism to operate in a car.
There can be so many ways to manage the whole ‘belting up’ experience in a car than the current entangled belts that can cause a backache just by trying to pull them from wherever they are hidden. Moreover, they are are extremely difficult to adjust for rapidly expanding Indian bellies and are a task to strap on. A car with simple, easy-to-put-on seat belts can, by itself, become a phenomenon due to its exceptional safety features. Let us leave that to the kaizen masters at Suzuki to figure out. Perhaps auto activation and de-activation with sensor-based self-adjusting straps is the solution waiting to emerge.
Poor road infrastructure and potholes will continue to be a reality. Cars, two-wheelers and autos as a segment will continue to grow and crowd these creaky and broken-down roads. But the evolution of the mobility safety category, which is a huge opportunity for marketers, can actually help bring down significantly India’s mortality, disability and injury rate during collisions. Let’s doff our stylish helmets in anticipation of that.

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