New Delhi: Consumer goods companies in India—from makers of cellphones to cars to paints—are increasingly underlining the safety features in their products as an integral part of their marketing campaigns.
From a Nerolac paints advertisement that shows actor Shah Rukh Khan playing an expectant father promising his unborn child that the paint in their house will be free of toxic chemicals, to Alcatel ICE3, a mobile phone that claims its instruments emit substantially lower radiation.
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The emphasis on safety, experts say, results mainly from the emergence of a richer demography that is more health conscious.
An increase in the number of products and services available to consumers will mean that the companies will brandish every available attribute from quality, variety and even safety as a competitive strategy, they said.
Airbags, once considered a premium safety accessory in sedans, are increasingly available even in smaller hatchbacks, said Gagan Kohli, a senior executive at Hyundai India’s product development division.
“It’s a mix of both demand as well as the company’s initiative,” he said. “Our experience suggests that if made aware of a safety product, people pay as much as possible to acquire it.”
Kohli didn’t reveal the prices but said that a recent feature in the Verna sedan from the Hyundai stable has a feature that filters ambient air in the car. “It’s cleaner air and we introduced it based on consumer feedback.”
Nerolac officials didn’t comment on what prompted them to extol the absence of specific metals in their products on par with traditional selling points such as a kaleidoscopic choice of colours, quick drying and durability, but a statement on the firm’s website said the company was committed to eliminating the use of lead, chromium, mercury and arsenic, and all of its paint canisters brandished a specially designed logo that declared the paint free of noxious chemicals.
The demand for consumer safety was an imminent “natural progression”, said Sudhir Jain, director, Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.
A rise in a country’s prosperity means some people demand better health and cleaner air. “All safety essentially boils down to improving or at least preserving health. So when consumers demand safer products, it’s a natural progression,” Jain said, “from just being happy that they got goods and services at all, to being able to choose those with additional value, such as safety, ease of use and better design.”
Government legislation and intervention are also among the key drivers of safety that encourage demand for safer products.
Indian laws such as the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, have over time evolved to protect consumers from hazardous products as well as seek redressal through various consumer protection groups.
“The intent there was mainly to punish errant manufacturers, but over time this has begun to change and there is reward for being safer, energy-efficient, more environmentally conscious, etc.,” said Sapna Jain, professor, Indian Institute of Public Administration. “Consequently, the bar on what constitutes safe is being set higher. It’s but natural that companies brag about their investments (in increasing safety).”
The Obama administration in the US last year slapped Toyota Motor Corp. with civil penalties of $32.425 million, the maximum allowed by law, for failing to properly disclose what it knew about safety defects linked to recalls of millions of vehicles in 2009.
In India, a Supreme Court directive in the 1990s forced public transport vehicles in some cities to adopt compressed natural gas as fuel as well as compelling auto companies to comply with tightening emission norms. This also drove car companies to provide more fuel-efficient cars as well as advertise it as a product.
Ice Mobile Network Systems Pvt. Ltd, a Noida-based company, has tied up with French company Alcatel to introduce a range of phones that it claims emit only 25% of the radiation typically emitted from mobile handsets.
M.S. Malik, managing director of Ice Mobile, said that increasing concerns about the possible health impact of phone-emitted radiation as well as overtures by the government to introduce legislation specifying the maximum permissible radiation levels by phones, prompted it to offer such phones.
“As of now only high-end phones emit lower radiation and they come at a price, but we are offering our phone with an SAR level of 0.67 for about Rs 3,500. Most phones are nearly 2 SAR.” said Malik. “We have guidelines, but no law yet, to regulate phone-emitted radiation. When that comes, a huge number of people will need to be protected.”
SAR, or specific absorption rate, refers to the amount of radiation absorbed by the body in the presence of an electromagnetic field. Phones that utilize their battery more efficiently and at reduced power usually have lower SAR levels.
Malik expects at least 300,000 phones that offer enhanced radiation-protection features to be sold within the next six months.
To be sure, some experts say that companies sometimes exaggerate the safety of their products and, on the ground, people were easily satisfied with even minimal levels of product safety.
A consumer study conducted by Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), a US-based not-for-profit organization that tests and rates the safety of consumer products, and which has offices in Bangalore, showed that safety while operating a product was considered to be part of the perceived overall quality and that the promise of replacement and easy repair was considered “good enough” by half the respondents.
“In recent years, we have seen some product categories obtaining approvals from specific professional bodies and advertising them widely, water purifiers being an example,” said R.A. Venkitachalam, vice-president and managing director, UL Emerging Markets. “Even the membership of a professional body is advertised as a differentiator in consumer communication, underlining the desperate need for a mechanism that differentiates between brands effectively.”
“The whole notion of what constitutes safe is distorted,” said Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and a former head of the Royal Institution, England’s oldest science communication body. “What’s the difference between someone who refuses to eat genetically modified food unless proven safe and another who will continue to use a mobile phone until proven harmful?”
According to her, safety will always play second fiddle to utility and, consequently, the value of a product.
“People employ pesticides, smoke and drink in spite of being aware of the risks, but they are also easily paranoid about radiation, even though the background radiation from the soil and sun is far more than that from mobile phones,” said Valmik Dhar, a sociologist at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio. “Product companies will always exploit this inherent irrationality in consumers.”