Advertising, Branding, Marketing

Power of context

It’s the beginning of summer. The mercury is beginning to inch closer to the 40s. Huddled around the kerosene lamp, Ramcharan’s children beats the heat from the lamp and mud oven that cooks their dinner, to prepare for school the next day. The noxious kerosene fumes and the oppressive heat takes a toll on the children everyday. But they don’t have an option. Ramcharan spent a fortune buying the cheap Chinese LED lights.But they let him down within months. No service, no spares available. Worse it took eight hours to charge. In this remote village, eight hours of electricity is a pipe dream. The kerosene lamp was a far safer bet, the heat and fumes not withstanding. At least the children get uninterrupted light to put in four hours of study.The re-chargeable Chinese lantern provided less than 2 hours of light.

Vijaykumar took his team to the villages to experience what  these hapless  children went  through everyday. We don’t realize how bad the power situation is  in rural India. We don’t  appreciate the human suffering because we have the  money for alternatives. We don’t  understand their needs from their life context.

People in rural areas need light for two things: to cook and for  children to study.  Not unlike  urban people.They manage the  cooking part. But try studying under a  kerosene lamp or a  hurricane in hot summer next to a home fire. The fumes and  heat are oppressive. No  amount of presentations, research  findings or  opinionated observations are any match for  the  telling experience that the team  got living with the villagers.

The emergency light business in semi urban and rural India is completely commoditized. From Indian brands to cheap Chinese imports. The market is completely driven by price. (What’s new). The technology and capability required to make one of these is democratic. Yet the market is humongous.

Vijay figured that technological and manufacturing ability was not the problem. Since the time he took over BTVL, the BPL division that manufactures the portable lighting solutions, he had streamlined the organization, enhanced the manufacturing and marketing capability. The real problem was the mind-set of the BPL team. They are trained to look ‘inside-out’. As we had done with the Studylite project, he started outside-in. Assumed nothing, started with exploring the context, understood the needs within the context and then determined the possible solutions.

The team travelled across villages meeting villagers, living with them and experiencing their life without power. They saw who gets affected and how. Began to understand their pain, needs and priorities. It was interesting to see the impact it had on Vijay and his team. They were beginning to realize that they could do something that could change lives!

There was a powerful context. Education is their way out of poverty and they are willing to invest whatever they can. So parents spend money buying emergency lights for children so that they can study.

Beyond the priorities of their jobs, Vijay and the team wanted to do something that would ease the human suffering that the children endure every day. They were on a mission.

We call it the ‘Inspirational Dream’. To make studying easier for children in villages. This is the context for the brand.

No emergency light available in these markets can be fully charged in less than 8 hours. None of these can provide adequate light for studying. More importantly they don’t hold charge beyond 3 hours after two or three months of use. And they all cost nearly a thousand bucks. The cheaper ones are worse.

This was the non-negotiable product specification: it must charge in 4 hours and give 5 hours of light. 

The search for the batteries started. R&D scoured all global sources: charging time, charge holding and charging cycles had to be met. We found a fantastic battery manufactured in China. Fe-lithium-ion. It is good for almost 2000 charging cycles. Fully charges in 4 hours and holds effective charge for 5 hours.

Since life after dusk is centered around the lamp, the dispersion of light has to be 360 degrees. It also has to be portable. That determined the form factor. Interestingly villagers believe that naked light is more powerful than fancy shrouded ones with internal reflectors for uniform light dispersion. They have grown up with naked lights. This was a must have. So any protective cover had to be transparent. A revelation for BPL engineers! To improve dispersion the LEDs are arranged in vertical geometric arrays.

It was decided to use the same LEDs we had used in Studylite. BPL had got them certified by Shankar Nethralaya as safe for eyes.

Vijay got a top design team to work with the group. They were part of the ‘exploration’ too. It is just amazing to see how people work when they know that they have the opportunity to contribute a bit that makes someone’s life better. You can see spiritual energy at work. Nothing seems impossible. So after months of development, rigorous testing, accelerated charging and discharging the proto-type was ready. It had to go back to the villages. Ramcharan had to be convinced. So too the distributors and retailers. Would  they pay Rs 849?  Vijay made a presentation to the villagers, the distributors and retailers. Even the  skeptics could not  hide their smile.

Chirag is  designed to help children  study. It  addresses the  reality of power  availability:  charges in 4  hours.It  delivers  against the need: 5 hours of  light. The specifications and  quality standards are  world class.The battery will last for 4  years.

With such a sharply focused strategy, communication was easy. The real challenge was to  deliver it in  an engaging way, minimalistic and simple.

Does it work? The launch order  was 10,000. Next month production is being ramped to  40,000 units.

We are doing more to own the context of education. Chirag is offering scholarships to  children in the  villages. 100 scholarships of Rs 1000/- to meritorious children to start  with. To qualify they also have  to write an essay about their dreams. We are trying to  convince some publications to publish these  ‘Dreams’ as a regular column. Let the country  read about the dreams of our children in villages.

We Learnt. Seemingly ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they are given an  inspirational dream to chase, led by someone like Vijay and completely focused on  delivering a single benefit in a powerful context.

 We call this brand purposing.


About Subhabrata 'SG' Ghosh

Untrapping business from the tyranny of similarity. Engineering new context for business and brands.


15 thoughts on “Power of context

  1. Fabulous story SG & very well told. Agree about the “spiritual energy” when we believe there is a higher purpose to the work than revenue & profits.

    Posted by Maps | June 10, 2011, 11:05 am
  2. Nice one SG. As I grow older the more I return to my old socialist roots. I think that companies that actually make an effort to integrate a social purpose with the pure capitalist raison d’etre of making money will be the ones to succeed in the next century. I think capitalism with a conscience is what’s going to change the world – communism (Mamta is only the latest proof) is a dead principle, but capitalism won’t succeed until it starts caring about the people it sells to.

    Posted by G. Pandrang Row | June 10, 2011, 11:41 am
  3. The best way to bust parity in brands and businesses today is not with ‘points of difference’ but with ‘points of view’.
    CHIRAG has an inspirational point of view as a brand that goes beyond just making a product.
    Great example of how the human context is so essential for any business.

    Posted by Anand Narasimha | June 10, 2011, 12:50 pm
  4. Inspiring case study. Goes to show technology needs a deeper human context to make a sustainable difference in people’s lives. Too often ‘innovative’ products come into market without a clear notion as to who is it meant for, what is the insight for the product idea and how technology can be used to make life better. The Chirag is a fine example of getting the basics right in a brand. Now it will depend on how well the market engineering is done to evangelise the inspriting dream.

    Posted by Arijit Ghosh | June 10, 2011, 1:18 pm
  5. Good work SG ver well written few of us really know how hard life is in rural India and how some effort and time spent there could change lives there like Arvind says Human context is so essential for business
    Conrad Saldanha

    Posted by conrad saldanha | June 10, 2011, 5:53 pm
  6. SG, I am amazed to see how a simple business case can be a succesful social business, Business ethics is not an oxymoron afterall. Exactly what results when one starts looking through ones heart. Nothing can be better than lighting the life (literally) of an underprivileged child in rural India. Kudos, Well scripted.

    Posted by Umashankar | June 13, 2011, 1:14 pm
  7. Thanks SG , its beautifully written. During the study I happen to meet a young girl , aged 12 she has no expereince of light during evenings, She wants to study and has lot of beleive in her self. For me thats the new India and we all should do our best to contribute towards the growth of this real India. I dedicate this product offering to her and her bright fututre. Thanks Vijay (kvk).

    Posted by vijaya Kumar (kvk) | June 13, 2011, 1:49 pm
  8. Sg this is just brilliasnt . Simple clear. Hugely deep.

    Posted by rama bijapurkar | June 17, 2011, 11:32 am
  9. A wonderfully rich account. As you say SG, the advertising could have stopped at the strong points of differentiation – charging in 4 hours to give 5 hours of light, lasting for 4 years. But I’d much rather buy a dream-realization device that can support a child for at least half his or her’s secondary education. Hats of to Vijaykumar and his team.

    Posted by Melanie Cook | June 18, 2011, 2:36 pm
  10. A wonderful story SG…but it is not just that. There is nothing more enriching and rewarding than to be able to make a difference to someone’s life. Not all get a chance to do that.

    My grandmother used to say, “Change just one life and your purpose is fulfilled…”.This is so much more…I call it Life Purposing.

    Posted by Nandita Kathuria | June 21, 2011, 11:39 am

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