At one point in time footwear purchases used to be a strictly annual affair without compromise. School shoes were compulsory and as per the school’s specifications. No choice. Alongwith that, we used to get a ‘hawaii chappal’ which was actually easiest on the budget. And the slight element of choice during this purchase happened only when the strap had some shade other than blue. Else it was white coloured with a blue strap and a highly affordable purchase that had no choice nor delight factor. Just routine.
I am recalling this ‘hawaii chappal’ experience because in this age there is a lot of content and news focused on ecommerce unicorns which are worth 1 billion dollars in valuation. Within all of this a brand of these basic ‘hawaii chappals’ was actually sold for a staggering 1.1 billion dollars making this category soar and go ‘Hawa Hawaii’. That is the Brazilian brand ‘Havaianas’.
Havaianas managed to convert what was a standard sandal largely sold for USD 5 into a global fashion accessory. Available in a range of colours, Havaianas emerged as the brand to wear during beach holidays which have been riding a wave of unprecedented popularity across the world. Its colours, campaigns and retailing approach allowed the brand to be associated with the values associated with its country of origin Brazil --joy, fun, relaxed and irreverent. They managed to convert a working class sandal into a high priced accessory that eventually became a billion dollar brand.
And the conversion to a premium brand for the humble flip-flops has not ended with Havaianas. Recently on a visit to Bali, we came across another flip-flop brand that is making its mark- Fipper.
Besides just vibrant colours and attitude, Fipper is adding a number of attributes of functionality and eco friendliness to the conventional flip-flop. At one end all of Fipper's products are focused on the wearer's well being and are slip resistant, with shock absorbent soles and ensure that this footwear does not cause any bacterial infections. And at the other end their flip-flops are made from all natural rubber which is recyclable and washable.
And while the core design of the hawaii chappal is retained, there have been major sub-segments created to suit different needs of each wearer at one level. Besides the Classic design, Fipper comes in the Fitt variant designed for comfortable walking. There is the Fipper Urbanite which is ultra light weight and cushioned. There is the Trekker which is a flip flop converted into a sandal with a strap for trekking. Then, there are the design variants like the Fipper Black flip flop which not only looks great but also glows in the dark.
With Havaianas having converted the poor man's sandal into a billion dollar brand and Fipper doing its own unique take in the flip-flop category to grow it further, one cannot help but think about the million and billion dollar potential of some of India's unique footwear categories.
First of all circle back to 1979 and to a Manmohan Desai blockbuster, Suhaag. Amitabh Bachchan's weapon here is not a knife or a gun but a Kolhapuri chappal with a famous dialogue about what number or size is this chappal before the chappal is used to bash up baddies.
While these are globally available, the category has still stayed in the realm of a generic category like hawaii chappals or flip-flops. From branding to positioning it to a defined target segment to creating different variants that expand usage occasions and allow for multiple purchases are all untapped potential. A new age version with celebrity endorsement can take this Indian offering global with a million and billion dollar valuation. The likes of Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez have been spotted in their Havaianas. Amitabh Bachchan has already endorsed the Kolhapuri chappal category perhaps in a now forgotten hit and such associations can also be revived on a grander and more relevant scale.
Another global brand waiting to be created is in the uniquely Indian category of mojris or juttis. Colourful with a unique shape and look, at present, one of the connotations of mojris is one of discomfort and shoe bites. I remember getting one from a friend when he travelled to Punjab and then spending hours applying oil in the hope of reducing some very painful shoe bites. Finally, I gave up trying to wear it. It looked great but was simply not wearable.
There are choices of mojris available today on websites but a reliable brand that exemplifies comfort at one end and adds unique attributes giving it ‘new age zing’ at the other end is waiting to be created. Well designed, comfortable mojris can actually evolve into a uniquely Indian version of slip-on loafers which can redefine casual footwear.
In terms of global brand creation, after flip-flops my bet is on sandals as the next frontier. Look up something called Tarahumara to know why.
(The author is a senior consumer marketing and financial services professional who has lived and worked in India, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. At present he is the director of the cards and payments business at VP Bank- FE Credit, based in Vietnam.)