10 Feb 2020 19:28 IST

Popy and John’s: Unfurling offbeat umbrellas alongside the favourites

From auto-close devices to parasols that double as walking sticks, the brands have something for all

Popy and John’s, leaders and fierce competitors on the Kerala umbrella scene, are companies that were started by descendants of the same family. The story goes that two men, Kasim Karim Settu and Thayyil Abraham Varghese, were running an umbrella unit in Alleppey (now Alappuzha), Kerala, in British India. The former reportedly left for the newly-formed Pakistan after Independence. Before leaving, he is said to have sold his stock to Abraham Varghese and a textile unit owner, Kumara Swamy Reddiar.

Reddiar and Varghese entered into a partnership to start the ‘Radhakrishna Umbrella Mart’. After some years together, the latter left to start his own venture ‘St George Umbrella Mart’ in 1954.

The quality of the umbrellas he produced was u ndeniable and he earned the sobriquet Kuda Vavachan, which acknowledged his mastery of the art of umbrella-making. The manufacturing unit grew in strength and he was soon joined by his son Baby, also known as ‘St George Baby’ because of his association with the company.

When the founder passed away in 1968, the company was split between his sons Baby and Abraham, later the owners of what were to become Popy Umbrella Mart and John’s Umbrella Mart, respectively, in 1995. Today, Davis Thayyil heads the former and Joseph Thayyil, the latter.

Why the name Popy?

Baby became a member of the Quality Control Committee of ISI in 1979. In 1986, he became Chairman of the Committee. He was elected President of the All India Umbrella Federation in 2005. Under his stewardship, Popy became the first umbrella manufacturer in India to receive the ISO 9001 certification.

 

 

Why was the name ‘Popy’ chosen? According to Davis, his younger brother started speaking only when he was eight years old! And one of the few words he uttered was ‘Popy’ (for Poppins!). It was easy to remember and pronounce, and the company went with it as the brand name.

With fundamental features like material quality, handle grip, rib strength, opening mechanism, weight, colour and compactness already addressed, it was time for the competing cousins to go in for added features that would make their products stand out and attain top place. But first, each company wooed the public with ads.

Going the jingle way

Popy released an ad with the soon-to-become-popular jingle ‘Mazha mazha kuda kuda’ in 1996. Its advertising arm kept churning out hit jingles such as ‘Ayyappanta Amma’ and ‘Ente Mazhaykku ente Popy’ (My Popy for my rain). Popy believed that children were the real influencers in certain family purchases and focussed all its efforts towards attracting their attention and keeping them hooked, creating a Popy Kids Club (now defunct) to keep the product name uppermost in children’s minds even when the monsoon was over. The response was tremendous, with about eight lakh children signing up and speaking to persons roped in to act as ‘Popy Uncles’ and answer queries.

John’s ad used a new term kunjanja for rains; the jingle kunjanja vanne (the rains have come) became well-known. It opted for product-based advertising, highlighting special features like its H2O Shake’s fibre-reinforced plastic ribs with the ad Odiyilla Ashane (It won’t break, Master). John’s has also gone in for Delcam (automobile) software for precision and error-free production. It claims to be the first umbrella manufacturer to retail from airports, with stores at international airports such as Hyderabad, Mangalore, Goa and Trivandrum, where it is present in the domestic terminal as well.

 

Offbeat offerings

Apart from the ad blitz, both manufacturers enticed consumers with new features. Customer requirements were kept in mind while going in for new models by both brands such as auto-close feature for women entering crowded buses, umbrellas built for heavy wind resistance, and umbrellas that can also function as walking sticks for the elders.

Children, of course, were the real targets — and beneficiaries. Popy, whose company headquarters has an umbrella-shaped door handle, started the innovation war with umbrellas that sprayed water, emitted light, played music and even popped out table-tennis sized balls — all at the press of a button. Its Mayavi Kuda changed colours on contact with water.

Both Popy and John’s tied up with Walt Disney, Marvel, Green Gold Animation (creators of Chhota Bheem), DC and Star Wars to reproduce children’s favourite characters on the umbrellas.

Spate of awards

John’s ‘Maca Mia’ model attracted kids with its make-and-break-bubbles lure. For adults, it introduced a 5-fold, pocket-sized umbrella. This led Popy to launch the cheaper, 3-fold ‘Nano’, which goaded John’s to produce the ‘Atom’ at the same price.

The two brands kept competing with each other to produce newer and fancier models of umbrellas: AC umbrella, waterproof umbrella, the 7-wonder with torch, compass, lens, mirror, whistle and thermometer, 007, Chota, Bombi, Gravity and Twister. The latest offerings are the I-Track (GPS-enabled) and selfie stick from Popy and I-Auto (the world’s first fully electric umbrella) and Carbon Lite (world’s lightest umbrella) from John’s.

The prices range anywhere between ₹100 to ₹6,000. Both brands export to the US, Europe and other parts of India, even as they corner about 80 per cent of the Kerala umbrella market.

Popy and John’s have won the Rajiv Gandhi National Quality Award, the latter thrice. Popy has won the IMM civil award thrice, the Bharath Udyog Jyothi Award 1993, the Bharath Vikas Gold Award 1996-97 and the Kerala Consumer Protection Council Award 2000. John’s has won the IMMA Award, the Jamnalal Bajaj Award and the Kerala State Award in 2007.

Popy has a reputation for taking good care of its employees, evident in the absence of a worker’s union. And the skill of its employees is evident in the fact that it has a no-seconds-sale policy.

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