All that marketers need to do is deliver value in the form of access to an equal lifestyle at a reasonable cost to divyangs and they would find huge numbers of loyal and proud customers
It is often said that marketing is the link between (a segment of) society’s needs and its economic response patterns. However, one major group of customers that has largely been ignored by marketers is persons with disabilities (PwDs) or divyangs.
When the corporate strategy guru CK Prahalad exhorted companies in the late 20th century to alleviate poverty and profit from the “Bottom of the Pyramid”, the targetting horizon for corporates widened significantly. Thus was opened a new frontier which corporates had not thought of till then. On similar lines, today it might be worth looking at special needs groups like PwDs as profitable target segments in a focussed manner.
According to the World Bank, the size of this market is in the range of approximately 15 per cent of the global population. That is to say, approximately one billion people on the planet are in dire need of products that can help solve their problems of fitting in, holding down jobs, or simply surviving with dignity. In India, the number of divyangs is nearly 2.7 crore. Add to this another 150 million senior citizens who also face varying degrees of disabilities and impairments as they age. A further impetus comes from the knowledge that as lifespans increase due to better healthcare facilities, the proportion of senior citizens will only increase in the future. It might, therefore, be safe to surmise that it is a lucrative-enough market to pursue with earnestness. Are marketers scanning the demographic and divyang data well enough to aggressively chase this segment? Could it be a new frontier for early starters in this domain?
Intervention experts who work with PwDs have time and again exhorted industry doyens to design and develop assistive devices that will help an individual to do something that they otherwise might be incapable of doing. It often helps people overcome a handicap.
Some examples of assistive technologies are: Aids to help mobility like wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, crutches, prosthetic devices, and orthotic devices. Devices that help hearing-impaired individuals hear/hear more clearly. Aids to assist cognitive functions in people with memory, attention or information processing challenges. Computer hardware and software that enable individuals with mobility and sensory impairments use computers and mobile devices. Tools to help learners with disabilities participate in educational activities with the help of automatic page turners, book holders and adapted pencil grips. Also, closed captioning via apps to help people with hearing problems watch visual content.
It can also include physical modifications in the built environment, including ramps, grab bars, wider doorways to enable access to buildings, businesses/workplaces and yellow strips to outline safe walking areas. Plus, high-performance mobility devices made with lightweight materials that enable divyangs to play sports and be generally active physically. Also, adaptive switches and utensils to allow those with limited motor skills to prepare food, consume it and accomplish other related activities, are the need of the hour.
PwDs have the same range of aspirations, preferences and attitude towards brands and products as people without. And yet this niche market is underserved. While the big companies focus on the vast majority of the market, smaller firms and entrepreneurs will do well to engage with this niche segment.
People like to buy from people who look like them. So divyangs may be engaged in advertisements to PwDs. Marketers should test-market products on PwDs and their family members or care givers to obtain precise feedback. Some researchers contend that when companies marketing to PwDs have divyang employees in their organisation, it helps in connecting with the target group as having a varied customer base appears to be more acceptable to PwD customers. Marketers must also exhibit genuine interest and concern for the PwD segment by engaging with disability-oriented organisations and non-profits in their activities. Marketing to PwDs needs appreciation of the fact that disabilities are varied and a one-size-fits-all approach will be counterproductive. For instance, a visually-challenged person’s needs would be quite different from that of a mobility-impaired one.
Marketers would also do well to bear in mind that instead of trying to bring new products, tweaking existing ones to improve accessibility could be quicker. For instance, a braille smartphone for the visually- impaired; Artificial Intelligence- based software that converts speech into text for the hearing-impaired; cars designed to allow wheelchair- bound people to enter the vehicle directly with the wheelchair and then drive sitting in the wheelchair itself; voice/gesture-activated home appliances for the mobility-impaired; medicine boxes with light/sound signals to help elderly and memory loss individuals remember to take/keep track of prescribed drug schedules; spectacles-mounted laser pointers for computer keyboards for cerebral palsy patients and so on.
There is an acute need for “assistive technology products”, much more than what marketers have cared to explore. With Government policies like Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan (Accessible India Campaign) in motion since 2015, marketers could deliver a better quality of life for PwDs because there is now a structured approach and framework available. Importantly, such marketing must not be pursued as a charity or philanthropic activity.
Divyangs value their self-esteem and personal dignity just as much as any other person. All that marketers need to do is deliver value in the form of access to an equal lifestyle at a reasonable cost and there could be found an ocean of loyal and proud customers among the PwDs.
(The writer is Professor, Marketing, Great Lakes Institute of Management)